Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday'a Overlooked Films: Race With the Devil (1975)

One of the most popular tropes of 1970s action cinema was the fear of  leaving home and venturing into some of the more rural parts of the United States. It seemed that there was trouble just waiting to happen in every part of the country that wasn't lucky enough to be covered in concrete. In DELIVERANCE (1972) the vacationers no sooner get to their destination when they meet up with homicidal inbred hillbillies. In TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) it's homicidal inbred cannibal hillbillies. Jack Starrett's RACE WITH THE DEVIL tries to go them one better: The naive city folk leave town and are pursued by homicidal Satanists. They'll not only take your life but they'll have your soul, too!

Best friends and business partners Roger and Frank (Peter Fonda and Warren Oates) pack into a giant RV with their wives Kelly and Alice (Lara Parker and Loretta Swit) en route to a skiing vacation in Aspen. Of course to get there they need to travel through rural Texas.  As always happens in this type of film, things go south as soon as they turn off the main road in favor of a shortcut.  It's a shortcut, all right....a shortcut to Hell! While parked for the night, Roger and Frank witness a Satanic ritual a short distance away which culminates in a human sacrifice. When they realize that they've been seen, the cultists give chase to the the vacationers in order to silence them.

As is also typical of this genre, the film tries to ratchet up the paranoia level by having everyone the innocent outsiders meet be part of the Satanic conspiracy. As a result everyone in a several hundred mile stretch of rural Texas is tied into a vast Satanic network. Yeah, okay, I can buy that. What I can't quite accept is that the cultists didn't see a huge RV parked right next to their ritual site. I guess chronic myopia is a side effect of selling your soul to Satan. Anyway, the film does a decent enough job of giving the impression that someone is always looking over our heroe's shoulders. Fonda does a surprisingly good job of playing someone who's involved with something that's out of his depth (in a Dustin Hoffman in STRAW DOGS kind of way, except it's still Peter Fonda so lower your expectations a bit) but Warren Oates simply could not portray a wimpy outsider if his life depended on it. That's not a criticism. Oates is always a delight to watch but I still think that if he wanted he could have sent those pesky cultists straight to hell with a flick of his wrist.

RACE WITH THE DEVIL is an entertaining film but kind of a slow burn, with not a lot happening in the first half of the film. However, the second half is loaded with some amazing stunt work, the likes of which would probably all be done with CGI today.  One of the things I really love about movies from this era is trying to figure out how the various gags were achieved in a pre-CGI world.  This film was a staple on TV in the late '70s and early '80s and it's perfect fare for a lazy Sunday afternoon. And the best part is that you can watch it while you're safe at home.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Bonnie's Kids (1973)

One of the better drive-in features of the early 1970s, Arthur Mark's BONNIE'S KIDS shows that a decent script, professional actors and a sure hand behind the camera can result in a film that, while a disposable piece of exploitation at heart, can also be a solid piece of entertainment that holds up very well nearly forty years after it was made.

Ellie (Tiffany Bolling) and Myra (Robin Mattson) are two sisters living in a sleepy little town with their abusive stepfather, Charlie, after the death of their mother two years earlier. When Ellie catches Charlie assaulting Myra she kills him, hides his body and the two sisters head off to the Big City in search of their Uncle Ben, who runs a modeling agency which is really a front for the mob. At this point, the film separates the two sisters, giving them their own distinct storyline. Myra becomes the object of affection for Ben's latent lesbian wife, Diana, while Ben recruits Ellie as an unknowing courier of a suitcase full of mob money. When she realizes what she's carrying she splits with the money, only to be pursued by two enforcers (Alex Rocco and Tim Brown). Needless to say, this is an exploitation film from the 1970s so it's unlikely that either plotline will end happily.

Every step of the way BONNIE'S KIDS feels like it's a cut above the usual grindhouse fare of the period. In fact, it really doesn't feel like a grindhouse film at all. While Marks never passes up an opportunity for gratuitous nudity and bloodshed (including surprising nudity from Mattson, who was 16 when this film was made) the story is strong enough that it never feels like just a string of exploitation set pieces. Marks, who previously had been know mainly as a director for the PERRY MASON  TV series, shows a flair for action. the film is well paced and never drags throughout its 105 minutes. This is helped by its excellent cast which besides B-movie queen Bolling and future soap star Mattson includes solid performances by Rocco (whose connection to the previous years THE GODFATHER is played up in the film's trailer), Max Showalter and Sharon Gless in her film debut.

When people talk about the good old days of the 1970s exploitation film this is the kind of movie their talking about. As much as I love exploitation from that period I'll be the first to admit that more often than not the movies were just not very good. BONNIE'S KIDS is an exception (along with Bolling's other classic from 1973, THE CANDY SNATCHERS). It's a terrific movie for anyone looking for a fast paced crime thriller with just a pinch of sleaze thrown in for good measure. Check it out.

For more overlooked films go to Todd Mason's blog