Rules of the Road: David DeCoteau’s Speed Demon (2003)

Matty takes the cult auteur’s typically poised action/horror hybrid for a retrospective spin.

Though David DeCoteau has continued to make himself available as a gun for hire (most famously for Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment with whom he shares a long association, and most recently for Lifetime where he’s shepherded a wealth of women’s thrillers), his more personal films have always come under his own Rapid Heart Pictures banner. Founded in December 1999, DeCoteau’s Rapid Heart productions have proved a great way for the legendary cult auteur to marry his artistic obsessions with the commercial demands of the ever-evolving home video market. Slashers, creature features, action flicks, and even comedies — since the label’s inception, whatever has proven popular among his key audience of those aged thirty downover, there’s a Rapid Heart equivalent, delivered in DeCoteau’s inimitable way. DeCoteau’s eighth Rapid Heart joint, the brilliant SPEED DEMON is his answer to The Fast & the Furious (2001) and its first sequel (amazingly, in Russia, the film was even released on video and DVD as a legitimate follow-up to 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): ‘Форсаж 3: Демон Скорости’, translation: ‘Fast and Furious 3: The Demon of Speed’). However, with its supernatural overtones, conceptually Speed Demon is closer to the teens n’ light terror milieu of The Wraith (1986), and its drive-in/’grindhouse’ vibe betray stronger influence from the likes of Race with the Devil (1975), Dead End Drive-In (1986), and mentor Band’s Crash! (1977).   

Mining the same ‘nightmare logic’ territory that’s been his preferred mode of genre discourse since Dreamaniac (1986), in Speed Demon DeCoteau presents a futuristic, perma magic hour world where youth runs amok and cars are all they have to latch onto. A brief, flashbacked moment of satanic ritual featuring Robert Donavan aside, there’s not a single adult in sight; instead, Speed Demon’s young, predominantly male cast govern themselves in petrol-headed tribes that fetishise muscle cars almost as much as DeCoteau festishises their sculpted physiques. Alas, their existence is a shallow one, and DeCoteau makes visual their emotional emptiness by using every millimeter of Robert Hayes’ gorgeous cinemascope photography, framing characters against the barren streets of Los Angeles (a stunningly realised technical and logistical achievement considering the film’s tiny budget and eight day shooting schedule) and sparse junkyard backdrops. 

The scrap itself is part of Speed Demon’s narrative fabric. On one hand it’s totemic, exemplified by a striking, quintessentially DeCoteauian sequence that involves the usual black mass; the usual ultra-tight briefs; and bad lad antagonist Otto (Mark Ian Miller — his third and final DeCopus after The Frightening (2002) and Leeches! (2003)) and his droogs pawing and clawing at an engine that’s hung by chains from the roof of their darkened HQ. Their aim is to invoke the eponymous speed demon — or, at least, allow Otto et al to tap into its essence. Think Mad Max (1979) by way of Hellraiser (1987) with the director’s typically twinky twist. On the other, the scrap is symbolic of lead Jesse’s (Collin Stark) reluctant tethering to his past. 

Not enamoured by motors like his family and peers, Jesse’s return to town and, as such, his family’s garage is swiftly followed by the death of his brother, Mikey (Trevor Harris — another alum of The Frightening and Leeches!), who dies in a car accident just as his and Jesse’s dear ol’ pop (Donavan) did a year or so prior. The kicker is that, really, it should have been Jesse meeting a fiery end; Mikey took his place in a drift challenge thrown down by the brooding Otto. Saddled with a mech-strewn property that he doesn’t want and riddled with guilt over Mikey’s demise, Jesse’s response is to summon the speed demon himself — the bulk of the picture being Jesse’s de facto vengeance as the Stig-esque bogeyman dismantles Otto’s gang and tears up the tarmac in a slew of testosterone-fuelled set pieces orchestrated by DeCoteau and stunt coordinator/action director Rudolf Weber. 

Having previously choreographed the stunts in two of DeCoteau’s best — the similarly revenge-themed Prey of the Jaguar (1996) and ace thriller Skeletons (1997) — it’d be tempting to rule Weber a good luck charm of sorts if you were so inclined — a notion particularly appealing when you consider the themes of chance and fate, embodied by the ambiguous inclusion of Candace Moon’s love interest/guardian angel, that DeCoteau go-teau Matthew Jason Walsh weaves into Speed Demon’s sturdy, stylishly stagey screenplay. Whatever the case may be, Weber and his squad are again a vital cog in DeCoteau’s creative machine. Lensed against the aforementioned deserted, steampunk-y cityscape, the power and energy of Weber’s car work sears into the depths of your soul. Indeed, for a generation that’s finally coming to realise how good Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) is — this once thoroughly underwhelmed writer included — to see DeCoteau conjure a near identical amount of gasoline-splashed excitement for the price of Kurt Russell’s fuel costs is a jaw-dropping feat of indie derring-do. And as atmospheric, seductive, and slickly assembled as Speed Demon is, DeCoteau is canny enough to know that before the hunks in trunks and dream-laced weirdness can truly lure you in, you need some A-grade-looking stimulation to get you going.


Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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