Back in its heyday, the drive-in circuit had its own self-sustaining infrastructure fed by production and distribution companies that specialized in churning out exploitation fare tailor-made for the easily distracted attention spans of audiences otherwise occupied with their own backseat antics. But the proliferation of home-video technologies over the last 30 years has put the kibosh on the entire ecosystem, with the few remaining stragglers often reduced to peddling second-run mainstream pabulum. Nowadays audiences are more likely to binge on the modern-day equivalent of drive-in fodder at late-night, booze-fueled congregations around somebody’s home-theater setup. The drive-in, in other words, has been effectively domesticated.
But the movies remain as rough-and-tumble and unpredictable as ever. Witness Shout! Factory’s “action-packed” twofer Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Race with the Devil, where “double your Fonda, double your fun” proves to be the organizing principle. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is one of the quintessential ’70s car-chase flicks, arguably on par with the more existentially rarefied likes of Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, a raucous and anarchic rollick that’s filled with enough laid rubber, vehicular dust-ups, and last-second hairpin turns to satiate even the most ravenous fanboy.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’s story is simplicity itself: In a bid to fund their dreams of glory, aspiring NASCAR driver Larry (Peter Fonda) and his mechanic sidekick, Deke (Adam Roarke), rob a rural supermarket by holding hostage the family of its manager (an uncredited Roddy McDowall), then spend the rest of the film fleeing from law enforcement—personified by Vic Morrow as nonconformist Capt. Franklin, who refuses to wear a badge or carry a gun—in the company of stowaway slattern Mary (Susan George). Mary’s “dirty,” you see, because apparently she’s been around the block a time or two. (So much for a little thing we like to call the Sexual Revolution…) The characters may remain mere thumbnail sketches, fitfully fleshed out in the occasional lull between chases, but there’s the sense that this only helps reinforce their essentially archetypal nature.
Amid all the squealing tires and whizzing bullets, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry boasts its fair share of quotable dialogue ranging between wistful philosophizing (“Any town’s a ’nice little town’ when you nail a broad”), off-the-cuff calumny (“This ain’t no dirt track, roundy-rounder”), and cornball caricature (“I’m gonna eat your lunch, you long-haired faggot”). Complicating the film’s reputation as a repository for back-roads Americana is the fact that it was the work of British director John Hough. Fresh from helming a dyad of horror classics, Hammer’s Twins of Evil and the Richard Matheson-scripted Legend of Hell House, Hough switches gears entirely here (in more than one sense). Drawing on his background as second-unit supervisor on action series like The Avengers, Hough lends an aura of jagged authenticity to the film’s numerous collisions and car crashes. Hough may not be thematically consistent enough to warrant the auteurist epithet (not to mention, he was quickly scooped up by Disney and put out to pasture on their Witch Mountain films), but he brings his vibrant visual sensibility to bear on Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and it’s a far more enjoyable prospect for it.
But our loveable (anti)heroes aren’t out of the woods yet. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’s incendiary conclusion lacks the grinning nihilism of Vanishing Point, let alone the unspooling meta-inscrutability of Two-Lane Blacktop. Instead, the film’s overly abrupt ending comes across as a rather transparent bid to drop another downer on audiences akin to the finale from an earlier Fonda vehicle you might remember: a little number called Easy Rider. Ironic, too, that just when the recently dismantled Production Code no longer required the invariable (and unyielding) punishment of criminals for their misdeeds, Hough and his screenwriters felt the need to impose one of an especially condign variety upon their protagonists. Where Easy Rider’s double-barreled finale places the period after Fonda’s anthemic declaration “We blew it,” Dirty Mary Crazy Larry’s rendezvous with mortality carries no other internal impetus than the need to end the film—somehow or other.
Compared with Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Race with the Devil is indisputably the slighter film. Still, I like to think of it (and not entirely in an ironic manner) as “the Citizen Kane of redneck Satanist movies.” On one level, Race with the Devil is little more than an excuse for leads Fonda and Warren Oates to get together again after starring in Fonda’s follow-up to Easy Rider, a doper western (not to be confused with its lysergic cousin, the acid western) called The Hired Hand. But that’s not to say that this is merely paint-by-numbers filmmaking from actor turned director Jack Starrett, who turns up here as a gas station attendant, and the screenwriters behind the maligned mutant horror offering The Thing with Two Heads.
To its credit, Race with the Devil takes the time to establish the relationships between its central characters: Laidback dirt bike enthusiast Roger (Fonda) and his wife, Kelly (Lara Parker), are accompanied on their excursion from central Texas to Colorado by Roger’s business partner, Frank (Oates), and wife, Alice (Loretta Swit). Granted, these delineations aren’t exactly Shakespearean in scope: Mostly they comprise scenes where Roger and Frank compete over a dirt bike race, or when Frank enthuses about the deluxe advantages of their late-model RV (“We are self-contained, baby!”), but they do serve to add shades and contours to the characters that almost approximate three-dimensionality. So when the foursome eventually runs afoul of masked Satanists performing a human sacrifice out in the middle of nowhere, there’s at least the potential for audience investment in these folks and their fate.
Race with the Devil benefits from several effective set pieces (apart from the eerie fireside sacrifice, there’s a memorable sequence in a public pool), as well as a pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty, paranoia, and dread. Race with the Devil also contains elements of the home invasion thriller, along the lines of Straw Dogs, although the home under siege here happens to be mobile. These scenes are handled with a lightness of touch, a tinge of absurdist humor that just about constitutes comic relief. How else can you explain the sight of Fonda whacking a stunned rattlesnake repeatedly against the furniture? Fonda and Oates blast away at cultists trying to climb aboard their mobile home, and Fonda even gets into some hand-to-hand combat topside. All told, Race with the Devil definitely saves the best for last: The twist ending pays off as a perfectly perverted punchline.