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They just don’t make car chases like they did in ripe 1970s trash

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Susan George goes for the full slag in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry/Race With the Devil

Directed by John Hough/Jack Starrett

Shout Factory DVD

“action-packed double feature,” the keep-case screams over two tiny repros 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 Peter Fonda, a Hollywood scion who had risen up from the exploitation wing of the new 1960s American cinema to the culture-shifting pinnacle of Easy Rider and was, circa ’75, on his way back down to the movie minors. But as the packaging hints, the real hook is two trashy movies (on two separate discs, no less) for $13.98 SRP. None of which means that this new Shout Factory release, seemingly designed for a lower shelf in the back of a big-box retailer’s dwindling home-video section, isn’t a good deal, or a sign of something positive.

The consensus is that movies as physical items to rent or buy are going the way of the compact disc. While big studios continue to attempt to tempt viewers into multiplexes with 3D and computer-animation eye candy, the home-video market is migrating toward on-demand cable viewing 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 barrel-scrapings are finding their way to legitimate, if sometimes low-ball, home-video release.

Shout Factory, in particular, has been hustling out entertaining low-budget crap almost weekly for a while now. Last year saw the debut of its Roger Corman’s Cult Classics line, a series of titles from the Louis B. Mayer of Z-movies. Certain much-loved Corman-produced films get the deluxe treatment, including copious extras and even Blu-ray editions of titles such as Piranha, Humanoids From the Deep, and Galaxy of Terror. Other flicks get bundled into low-budget multi-title issues, such as the recent redneck-action RCCC triple-feature of Georgia Peaches, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, and Smokey Bites the Dust.

The non-Corman Fonda titles get the latter treatment, for good and for ill. Race With the Devil is mostly the ill, though it boasts some bad-good kicks. The inert Fonda stars as a diffident motorcycle racer who goes on a motorhome vacation with his best bud and 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 cultists 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 past the camera and down the highway at top speed before making a screaming turn or ramming into random fence posts, other vehicles, or the nearest ditch or river, 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 meeting road. An altogether nastier and more sardonic affair than Race, the film finds Fonda undercutting his natural patrician grace with an idiot cackle as ne’er-do-well racing driver Larry (picture Stephen Malkmus pretending to be a thug, badly). Larry plans a kidnapping/robbery combo with his stoic mechanic (Adam Roarke, looking like a lost Baldwin brother); the fact that Larry’s prespree conquest, a small-town slag named Mary (Susan George, braying around her British accent), tags along is but the first thing to go wrong with the plan. They spend the rest of the movie fleeing down back roads, first in a Chevy, then in a neon-green Dodge Charger likely to give streetrodders the vapors, with a maverick lawman (Vic Morrow) in hot pursuit.

The level of idiotic bickering between characters is truly, well, idiotic (though it’s a memorable movie moment when Larry threatens Mary that he’s going to “braid [her] tits”). But Hough’s work makes it all worth issuing on disc, and well worth watching. Indeed, packaging these two films together inadvertently illustrates what a decent director can bring to such junk as Hough shoots dialogue scenes in cars clearly doing 100-plus and animates even the most static scenarios with a panoply of restless pans and zooms, plus 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. Speeding vehicles play grab-ass with each other at a distance of mere inches, and when Morrow’s cop takes to the air in a chopper, it mostly flies nap of the earth, zipping feet above the ground and, eventually, the hood of Larry’s car. Even the old-school car-chase thrills of neo-Euro thrillers like Ronin and the Bourne movies can’t compare—the laws of physics somehow seem more potentially unforgiving in Hough’s hands, perhaps because, in the pre-home-video days, he had no other format in mind but a 40-foot screen. Yes, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is cheap trash, but it’s sublime trash—and thanks to Shout Factory, a steal too.

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