Tuesday, December 7, 2010

When likable tough-guy *adults* used to star in horror films (or, Not just another RACE WITH THE DEVIL review)

In this staged publicity photo, Frank (a fortysomething Warren Oates) and Roger (a thirtysomething Peter Fonda) demonstrate they’re not helpless against the Satanic cult that is pursuing them across the state of Texas. Kelly (Lara Parker) looks on from a more protected spot.

As much as I dig 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (and to a lesser extent HALLOWEEN and BLACK CHRISTMAS from that same decade), I begrudge these 1970s proto-slasher films for their legacy: “Teens in peril” as the norm for horror protagonists.

From the early 1980s right up to the time of this writing, we’ve had teenagers and twentysomethings almost exclusively as fright-film heroes, heroines and/or victims. Just look at the youth orientation indicated by titles from the first wave of slasher films: PROM NIGHT (1980), GRADUATION DAY(1981), THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982), THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1982), SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986), SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE (1986). And student characters were also the rule for the slasher revival of the 1990s: SCREAM (1996, high school), I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997, college), URBAN LEGEND (1998, college), CHERRY FALLS (2000, high school). And in this new millennium, young characters are still standard in horror cinema, in movies like CABIN FEVER (2003), WRONG TURN (2003), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), the FINAL DESTINATION series (2000-2009) and HOSTEL (2006). Hell, there’s even a term — “final girl” — to describe the archetypal lone heroine that survives to the end of these horror movies.

But why isn’t it “final woman” — or final man? Why aren’t more adults cast as the leads of fright films? Perhaps there is no greater argument for overturning horror cinema’s ageism than 1975’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL, a film starring forty- and thirtysomething actors. There’s no final girl here. RACE makes it two final men (Warren Oates and Peter Fonda) and their two final wives (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker). And why does the age of the protagonists matter to the film’s ability to terrify?

Let’s put it this way: Why should we bite our nails for the safety of dumb, self-interested, irresponsible, squabbling teens if we don’t even like these kids in the first place? Isn’t it infinitely more tense to root for mature, likeable characters who are struggling together to battle a horror villain (be it man, monster or somewhere in between) so they can return to the meaningful lives they’re building for themselves? Don’t older and more responsible characters generally have the most invested in life — and therefore have the most to lose?

Whether or not it was the movie’s intention, the likeability of its adult protagonists is what makes RACE WITH THE DEVIL so effectively tense. The film follows Texans Frank (Oates) and Roger (Fonda) as they head for a much-needed skiing vacation in Colorado. Their wives are with them on Frank’s 32-foot RV, and all four (plus one canine traveling companion) trek across the Lone Star state towards their snowy destination.

We learn that this vacation is well-deserved. For the past five years, Frank and Roger have been putting in long hours to build up their motorcycle design/sales business, and it seems they have finally hit upon hard-earned success (“You know what we have done in five years? We have put it together, baby!”). According to Roger’s wife, the vacation is “the first time they’ve really relaxed in such a long time.” Compare this to the young, Goodtime Charlie protagonists of 2006’s HOSTEL — college students who are celebrating four years of partying with a trip full of, well, more partying.

(One wonders if movies like HOSTEL, or any ‘80s slasher flick that follows the “rules” spelled out by Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, are really just punish-the-wicked morality plays. But then again, we aren’t rooting for the knife-wielding villain to win either, so where does that leave us? With a sense of justice borrowed from a revenge film, and with few, if any, characters deserving to live to the end? What good is that? I’m so confused...)

No, the characters in RACE are good people, and we spend the first 17 minutes of the movie getting to know and like this foursome. By minute 18, the action (and the horror) is underway, as Roger and Frank accidentally witness a Satanic ritual — one that ends in human sacrifice — during their first night on the road. The Satanic cult (truly a great movie villain; they don’t need motivations for their evils—they’re Satanists!) chase the two couples, who narrowly escape in their RV. The incident is reported, but the nearby lawman, Sheriff Taylor (perhaps a reference to Andy Griffith?), tries to discredit Frank and Roger’s account of the fatal devil-worshipping ceremony. A paranoia is created in the viewer at this point, as we wonder if all the locals—even the constabulary — are members of the cult.

Frank and Roger take the local law enforcement (R.G. Armstrong

and Wes Bishop) to the site of the sacrificial murder.

But do these local lawmen have their own agenda,

or is it just the viewer's paranoia acting up?

Likeable protagonists are all well and good, but they must be imperiled before we’ll commit to watching them for a feature-length horror romp. And RACE WITH THE DEVIL smartly creates a sense of danger by building on the paranoia established during the Sheriff Taylor scene. As Frank, Roger and the gals head toward Colorado, each roadside person they meet — a filling station attendant, an RV park guest, a country musician — seems as if he could be part of the Satanic conspiracy. To the viewer especially, it sure feels as if the RV is being followed and watched as it traverses the state. The camera lingers on the faces of all the people encountered along the side of the road — perhaps harmless, perhaps not — casting each and every one under suspicion.

It’s not only these minor characters that create paranoia, but occurrences too. Are the phones really inoperative at a petrol station, or were they intentionally disabled to prevent Roger from reporting the human sacrifice to a big-city police department? Is that really a school-bus accident on the deserted back road, or is it an ambush set by the Satanists? Why does that same red pickup truck keep driving by? (We’ll discover the answer to this last question in one of the great reveal shots in all of cinema.)

For all the tension, there is surprisingly little outright malice towards our heroic quartet in the first 58 minutes. After the initial incident on the first night, a rune (or written witch’s curse) is attached to the RV. Later, the pet dog is killed. But for nearly an hour, that’s all. It’s mostly just pending—and possibly paranoid—threats of danger. Today’s horror films (SAW II and the HILLS HAVE EYES remake spring to mind) generally feel the need, in a desperate attempt to be constantly eventful, to fill in any such early lulls with infighting and bickering amongst the protagonists. That way, the film can be unrelentingly noisy, strident, uncomfortable and, yes, tense. But the negative side effect is — (how many times must I say it?) — characters we just don’t give a damn about.

Back inside Frank’s RV, it’s a loving atmosphere before the action begins (“Here’s to friends I don’t deserve”) and a cooperative spirit after the trip takes its Satanic wrong turn. However, these characters aren’t unrealistically mellow or even-keeled. They do quarrel on occasion — about having to bring the dog, about whether to abandon the skiing vacation — but the arguments are always organic to the story. There is no squabbling for the sake of pumping in artificial tension.

Just as the characters aren’t overly quarrelsome, neither are they helpless — and that goes a long way towards fostering likeability. When events start getting too hairy, Frank pulls the RV over and buys a pump shotgun from a general store. Later, Roger climbs onto the back of the motorhome and un-straps the bikes, causing them to become ingenious road hazards for the closely following baddies. The only hysterical screamer in the bunch is Roger’s wife (Parker, apparently cast because of screaming abilities demonstrated on DARK SHADOWS), but she never acts so foolishly as to jeopardize the group.

The last half-hour is a real corker, and it’s full of some of the greatest vehicle-to-vehicle combat ever driven and filmed. This is all the more impressive considering that helmer Jack Starrett was brought in as a replacement director (during production!) and had no preparation. (To fill the director’s chair, Starrett was hired and Lee Frost was fired, although the film is still very much a project moulded by the filmmaking team of Frost and Wes Bishop. Between the two, they receive four credits in the film, including Wes Bishop’s acting credit as “Deputy Dave.” Frost and Bishop also made low-budget blaxploitation, hixploitation and biker movies, but Twentieth Century Fox’s RACE WITH THE DEVIL was their shot at making a studio film.)

At the time of this writing, a RACE WITH THE DEVIL remake has been in development for several years, and one can only hope a new version will not star twentysomething party kids. Of course, no matter their age, the new cast will be unable to duplicate the natural chemistry between Oates and Fonda — surely due to the pair’s off-screen friendship. RACE was the second of three films made together by the acting buddies, who were also neighbors in Montana. On several occasions in RACE, Fonda hints at their friendship by addressing Oates’ character as “Bubba Bear” (if Fonda’s autobiography is any indication, that’s the actor’s real-life nickname for his co-star and friend).

But don’t get me wrong. Despite all my complaints, I do understand the practicalities of why teen and college-aged characters are used as horror protagonists. Young kids can be good looking, and their raging hormones can be an easy pretext for flashing some nudity. Further, their immaturity is a good excuse for a lot of sneak-up-behind-you pranks in a film’s first act, which, in turn, are good for fake-em-out early scares for the viewer. And besides these more practical considerations, some reviewers (especially those given to overanalyzing) will say that boobs-and-blood teen horror films can effectively tap into younger viewers’ anxieties regarding sex.

What I don’t understand is why these young characters have a virtual monopoly on horror protagonism. And don’t give me that bunk that it’s done out of necessity to target the younger demographic of ticket buyers. Where is it written that moviegoers only want to watch their exact peer group on screen?

No, give me responsible grown-ups like Frank and Roger, and let me root for them as I watch their struggle against some form of nefarious evil. Oh sure, I may sit through some modern horror films with annoying kid heroes, but when they get sliced and diced, see if I care — or scare.

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