Satanic Panic Hits The Road in ‘Race with the Devil’

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates combat Satan’s dark ritual with their ceremony of American muscle.

Race With The Devil
20th Century Fox

Riding on the release of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, the publication of The Satanic Bible in 1969, and the blockbuster success of The Exorcist in 1973, America lost their damn minds. Lucifer was everywhere, perceived by some as a genuine threat to the decency of our great nation. As with all great moral panics, Hollywood took advantage, and a slew of films swept across the land feeding on a genuine terror bubbling in the heartland. From The Exorcist came The Omen, then The Amityville Horror. Evil was a booming business, but as with most fads, the most enjoyable exploits can be found amongst the B-movie stabs.

You can keep your Exorcists and your Omens; I’ll take The Devil’s Rain, Satan’s School for Girls, and Race with the Devil. That last film, in particular, deserves notice for how it combats the dark arts with the most American of practices: Motocross!! Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as a pair of motorcycle salesman from the great state of Texas. To celebrate their thriving and growing business, they pack their wives (Loretta Swit, Lara Parker) and their dogs into an RV and hit the pedal to the metal. Their destination is the slopes of Aspen, but they’re waylaid when they set up camp across from a cult of devil worshippers in mid-human sacrifice.

At the sight of knife pounding flesh, the four flee from the premises. The Satanists enter hot pursuit. Fonda and Oates attempt to convince a local sheriff (R.G. Armstrong) of the heinous crime they just witnessed, but to their unpleasant surprise, the lawman turns out to be the head devil honcho. Meanwhile, Swit and Parker are doing a little research down at the local library. They discover that the ritual they observed was one designed to grant the killers magical powers. With no one to turn to, the couples must rely on their greatest skill as salesmen and riders of Detroit steel.

The dog dies first. That’s the way it goes. A group of Satanists sneak aboard their RV while they’re parked for the night and snatch the mutt from its bed. Parker is beside herself, but the death sparks the others into a combat-ready mode. They fend off a collection of rattlesnakes tucked within the cupboards of the RV and strap leather, ready to go out the cowboy way. The friends only need to survive to Amarillo. The hope being that a town that large could not possibly be infected with such rampant evil.

Fonda and Oates rev engines, grip steering wheels, and out-maneuver the Satanists at every turn of the bend. Mad skills at the wheel are not enough. The cultists hop from bridges, landing on their RV in an effort to drop more reptiles through their skylight. Fonda takes the shotgun to their dark deeds and blasts the pests from the roof. The freeway chase escalates, more and more trucks pile behind their tail. They’re outnumbered, terrified, and Amarillo proves to be as corrupt as every other small town along the way.

No need to go full-spoilers here, but the hallmark of proper Satanic Panic flicks is the inescapable doom. Once you make evil your neighbor, the hope of a sunny outcome fades. Six years earlier, Peter Fonda made his name on the inevitable tragedy of hero-worship, and Race With the Devil follows the road carved by Easy Rider; dragging the machismo of Warren Oates down with him.

Considering the film was released a week after Jaws owned the world, Race With the Devil‘s $5.3 million gross at the box office is seriously respectable. That’s the power of Satanic Panic. We need to believe in the supernatural presence of evil. We need the satisfaction that the awful crimes we witness on the news are orchestrated, plotted, and carried out by a dark force hungry for our annihilation. Waking up each morning and surviving the day is a victory in the face of constant paranormal attack. And, dammit, we need our tiny victories wherever we can make them up.

In 1975, the demonic paranoia was only growing. Many, many, many more entries in Satanic Panic cinema were on the horizon. News outlets stoked the same fires as Race with the Devil, and the anxiety around sinful invasion would lead to deeply troubling current events like the McMartin Preschool Trial in 1984 and the wrongful conviction of the West Memphis Three in 1994. We’re always on the hunt for someone to blame, and there is no more obvious a target than the cloven-hoofed cat who sits on the throne of fire below.

Race with the Devil is cheap, trashy fun with a stellar pair of charismatic leads, and I’d like to keep it that way. Fonda and Oates are the coming together of the pre- and post-hippie movement, discovering righteous equality in taking on pure, villainous hate. The film absolutely prays on a fear that took deep root in the public consciousness for nearly 30 years, and it achieves uncomfortable scares. Drawing real-world parallels to its tactics increases its danger, and only makes it more perversely desirable.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.