by Robbyn Grant and Barry K. Grant
Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, p. 20
RACE WITH THE DEVIL is a clumsily directed melodrama based on an illogical script, featuring weak characterization and uninspired editing. Yet it is surprisingly good in creatively employing cultural symbols—so good that the movie becomes a cohesive and revealing document of contemporary United States.
The story concerns two couples who begin a long awaited vacation in a new $36,000 mobile camper. On the first night, camped in an apparently secluded area, they witness a mysterious supernatural rite which culminates in a sacrificial murder. The devil worshippers, realizing that they have been seen, swiftly and viciously pursue the vacationers, who safely make it to the nearest town. Because they are not very satisfied with the local sheriff’s investigation, the vacationers decide to report the matter to the police in Amarillo, the nearest city. The remainder of the film depicts their attempt to reach the interstate highway which leads to Amarillo, and the series of bizarre and irrational attacks upon them and the motor home by the pursuing witches, who seem to be everywhere. As the film ends, and it appears as if they are going to make it to Amarillo, they are abruptly surrounded by the devil worshippers. Through a series of concluding close ups it becomes clear that everyone else in the film is, indeed, a member of this strange cult.
The film’s major metaphor is that of the mobile camper, which is portrayed as having all the luxuries and conveniences of the modern U.S. home, including color TV, microwave oven and a fully equipped bar. The motor home is the physical embodiment of the fundamental yet paradoxical desire of the protagonists. The U.S. conception of vacation implies a basic dissatisfaction with the American way of life. The very notion of “vacation,” as it has developed into a modern national institution, has become more an escape from one’s daily condition, the routine of work, rather than a coming to a new experience with which one might enrich one’s daily life. Today, vacation is virtually synonymous with travel—primarily because modern living for many reasons invariably makes one want to flee, if only temporarily. It is the rare American who spends his or her vacation at home. And if he or she does so, it is more often than not because he or she can't afford to travel.
The travel vacation is a temporary escape valve—perhaps the modern equivalent of Turner’s idea of the frontier as a safety valve—and if tourism has become a major national industry, it is because our society always manages to absorb into itself that which initially was a reaction against it. But the nature of U.S. tourism, despite the fact that it has become institutionalized, remains a (largely unarticulated) expression of dissatisfaction with daily life. One travels to “relax,” that is, to renew one’s energies for another year of work. In RACE WITH THE DEVIL the Warren Oates character emphasizes that he has waited five years for this vacation from the job pressures shown at the film’s start.
Traveling from city to country, the film’s protagonists are in one sense taking flight from the city. Like the U.S. phenomenon of “urban flight,” this “vacation” can be seen to be at least partly motivated by fear—of the city and existence in it. But even as they desire to flee their situation, they take with them, in the form of the motor home and its contents, the cultural baggage which symbolizes that very existence they wish to escape. Luxuries of the home and the home itself can only be obtained and maintained through work. To leave their luxuries behind would be to admit the failure of their middle class values.
If their trip is understood in this context, then the incredibly evil and violent cultists can be interpreted as a projection, an incarnation, of their fears and doubts. In this sense the witches in the film are similar to “the horrors” in Donald Barthelme’s story “The Firemen’s Ball,” who are always lurking just outside, an embodiment of the characters’ own repression. No longer offering security and stability in the (supernatural) confusion of modern times, the home is transformed into a nomadic fortress, always traveling to be safe, always fighting off the terrible demons which threaten to invade it. It is a social response like that which produced the fallout shelter boom of the late 80s. And its antecedents date back at least as far as Tan Hutter’s floating castle, which prevented an invasion by the Indians in Cooper’s The Deerslayer. The Indians were for Cooper in one sense a projection of the id, those desires and feelings repressed by civilization. In RACE WITH THE DEVIL the witches are the very horrible truth that financial wellbeing, middle class comfort, is neither happiness nor security.
Traditionally, the auto has symbolized a sense of traveling free, an escape from the restrictions of society. On the move, you're free. This is the case in films from YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE to BONNIE AND CLYDE, from THE WILD ONE to EASY RIDER; in literature from the raft in Huckleberry Finn to the auto in On the Road (although there have been moments of doubt or ambivalence, as in The Great Gatsby). The automobile was at once the objective correlative for and the means of a rejection of society and its values.
But the meaning of the auto has been reversed in RACE WITH THE DEVIL. The vacation begins with a glorious shot (which, of course, quickly becomes ironic) of the open road winding away into the distance like a golden ribbon. The shot speaks to the notion of the American Dream as it is conceived in terms of space. One thinks immediately of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” the very title having become a metaphor for the American Dream. But the preceding shot reveals in the foreground the hard yellow line which divides the highway. It is a broken line, indicating the broken promise of the Dream and the discord which has resulted from the harsh awakening to U.S. limitations. One may think of the yellow brick road, and indeed that road leads back to Kansas, now the very “vortex” of U.S. violence and paranoia (as Allen Ginsberg describes it in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”).
Within this rich metaphorical framework, RACE WITH THE DEVIL emerges as an anguished statement of contemporary disaffection with American society. Like many other B films—and this movie is surely one of the “new look” B films of the 70s—RACE WITH THE DEVIL handles relevant cultural materials in a visually coded manner that is not very artistically “self-conscious.” Hence, it serves as a relatively reliable barometer of contemporary attitudes. For this reason, RACE WITH THE DEVIL is one of the most unassuming and at the same time most interesting of recent U.S. films.