The Changing Home Video Market Makes Room for Some Sublime '70s Exploitation Movies

"Action-packed double feature," the keep-case screams over two tiny reproductions of movie posters fit for the cinder-block wall of a drive-in snack bar circa 1975: Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Race With the Devil. The ostensible hook here, one supposes, is that both films star '60s icon/inert man-of-action Peter Fonda. But as the packaging indicates, the real hook is two trashy movies in one package for $13.98 SRP. None of which means that this new Shout Factory DVD release isn't a good deal, or a sign of something positive.

While big studios continue to attempt to tempt viewers into theaters with 3-D and computer-animation eye candy, the home video market is stampeding toward on-demand viewing on cable and web-based downloading and streaming. Strangely enough, the devaluing of the DVD as a retail product has meant that exploitation titles that would have once been considered home-video barrel-scrapings are finding their way to legitimate, if sometimes low-ball, release. Shout Factory, in particular, has been hustling out entertaining low-budget crap almost weekly for a while now. Certain much-loved films get the deluxe treatment, even Blu-ray editions; other flicks get bundled into low-budget two- and three-title reissues.

The Fonda titles get the latter treatment, for good and for ill. Race With the Devil is mostly the ill. Fonda stars as a motorcycle racer who goes on a motorhome vacation with his best bud/business partner (Warren Oates—like Fonda, barely trying) and their wives (Lara Parker and M.A.S.H.'s Loretta Swit, respectively). After they stumble across a Satanist sacrifice one night in the remote Texas countryside, however, the trip turns into one long, if often logy chase, with good ol' boy Satanists besieging the motorhome, frequently while it's traveling at a high rate of speed down narrow back roads.

Indeed, a big part of the appeal of this particular era of exploitation films is its devotion to the epic car chase: tons of pre-airbag Detroit iron hurtling down the highway at top speed and colliding with same, with the requisite screeching tires, boiling dust, and billowing fireballs. And in the hands of British journeyman director John Hough, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry makes the most of rubber and road. An altogether nastier and more sardonic affair than Race, it finds Fonda working an idiot cackle as ne'er-do-well racing driver Larry. Larry plans a kidnapping/robbery combo with his stoic mechanic (Adam Roarke); the fact that Larry's pre-spree conquest, a small-town slag named Mary (Susan George), tags along is but the first thing to go wrong with the plan. They spend the rest of the movie fleeing down two-lane blacktops with a maverick lawman (Vic Morrow) in hot pursuit.

The level of idiotic bickering between the feebly acted characters is truly, well, idiotic. But Hough makes it all worth watching by shooting the dreadful dialogue scenes in cars clearly doing 100-plus mph and animating even the most static scenarios with a panoply of restless pans and zooms and compositions that make the most of screen space in a way directors with far bigger reps still don't get. And the chases are not only thrilling, they're downright terrifying, as speeding vehicles (including helicopters!) play grab-ass with each other at a distance of mere inches—the laws of physics somehow seem more deadly in Hough's hands. Yes, DMCL is cheap trash, but it's sublime trash, and a steal too.

The success of the Warner Archive DVD/download-on-demand program has provided a model for big studios to start releasing cult titles from their vaults, leading to the Universal Vault Collection and the MGM Limited Edition Collection, both available via Amazon. Both contain worthy obscurities aplenty, but while we're on the subject of '70s exploitation films, a word about Rolling Thunder, one of the more coveted such titles never to have received a legitimate DVD release before now.

Air Force Maj. Charles Rane (William Devane) returns home to San Antonio after an extended stay in a Vietnamese POW camp. His POW BFF (a baby Tommy Lee Jones) is clearly shaken by being back in the world, but Rane keeps his reptilian cool even as clueless civilians make hoopla over his return, even as his wife informs him that she's moved on and wants a divorce, even as he struggles to connect with his young son. He has been so sealed over by his experience, in fact, that even when over-the-top redneck thugs (including James Best and Lew Askew) rob him, kill his family, and jam his hand in a garbage disposal, he hardly reacts. But as the Paul Schrader story/script and John Flynn's deft direction have already revealed, Devane's creepy calm fronts a hard and determined man. With his new hooked prosthetic hand, sawed-off shotgun, and red Caddy convertible, Rane goes on the hunt for revenge. Devane's film-long slow burn is like rising white noise—an understated presence that gradually becomes the loudest thing in the room—and by the time Rane finally takes action, Rolling Thunder is as good a gritty B action flick as you'll see from any era. Quentin Tarantino named his production company after it, and you'll see why.