Okay, another blast from the past. And what a blast! I saw this in 1977 when I was eleven, and went to a drive-in. No, Uncle Deggsy wasn’t a pre-teen Fonzie, taking chicks on dates on his Big Wheel. No, the parents took my sister and I there, where we played in the playground for a while, got queasy from eating hot dogs and popcorn, and then were expected to camp out in the back of the station wagon while Mum and Dad sat in the front and watched.
Or at least, that was the plan. Me, I knew that we were going to see THE CAR, had seen the posters and commercials on TV, and I was intrigued. Who wouldn’t be? THE CAR is… it’s ridiculous. Seriously ridiculous. Made more so by the fact that everyone plays it seriously.
You know what? I don’t care. In case you haven’t guessed by my previous reviews, I write like I dance: as if no one’s watching.
The movie opens with a quote from former Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey (who had been given a technical advisor credit on THE CAR, as well as previously on the 1975 cult classic THE DEVIL’S RAIN): “Oh great brothers of the night who rideth upon the hot winds of hell, who dwelleth in the Devil’s Lair; move and appear”. This came from the Invocation of Destruction in The Satanic Bible (it was also used during my Confirmation, which explains so very, very much). We then watch a distant vehicle moving alone across the Utah landscape.
We then focus on two teenage cyclists, majoring in Victimology at college, as they bike along a deserted road, in and out of tunnels and along empty bridges. Oh, did I say empty? A vehicle, barely glimpsed by us but its sinister, truck-like horn is certainly heard, laughing as it kills first the girl and then the guy, after tormenting him by tailgating him and forcing him to pedal literally for his life before forcing him over the side of an impossibly-high bridge. Ouch.
We then get to meet our hero: local town Deputy Wade Parent (Jame Brolin, WESTWORLD) and his secret lover, teacher Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd, HILL STREET BLUES). Well, not so secret: his young daughters Lynn and Debbie (Kim and Kyle Richards, who got notoriously shot through her ice cream cone in the original ASSAULT ON PRECEINCT 13) listen in at the bedroom door. Oh, kids…
Back to the carnage, as the Car claims another victim, a young hitchhiker who flips it off, and for his troubles gets himself run over, back and forth. Four times. Road rage, indeed. This time, however, there is a witness: local drunk and wife beater Amos Clemens (RG Armstrong, later to play the general in PREDATOR). Town Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley, who played the guy who woke up with a horse’s head in his bed in THE GODFATHER) hates him, but takes the details on The Car and orders a police cordon. But later that night, The Car seemingly goes after Amos – but at the last second kills Everett.
Now the Sheriff, Wade tells his deputy Luke Johnson (Ronny Cox, from ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL, both the original, good ones) to cancel the upcoming school parade rehearsal for the town festival. But Luke is an alcoholic, and after having one too many in the garage forgets to do this. And of course, The Car appears, killing cowboys and band members, and chasing after the children, including Wade’s daughters. Lauren leads the children into a nearby cemetery, seemingly offering no protection – but still, it won’t follow them inside. It remains out there, watching, until Lauren, trying to goad it into leaving, taunts and insults it, all but whipping it out and pissing on its hood. The Car is clearly pissed, and goes off to take it out on someone else. Actually, a few other someone elses.
After cutting through the rest of Wade’s men like me at a buffet table, The Car finds Wade himself, slowing down, stopping, and letting Wade try to shoot at him. The bullets bounce off (and, in one of the tinted POV shots from inside The Car, the bullets are barely heard, and that’s certainly a future I would push when I sell a demonic car). Confused, Wade only then notes that the windows are tinted, there’s no licence plates or door handles. But the driver’s door opens, just a little. He draws in closer, trying to peer inside… and gets knocked tens of feet away, left alive… this time…
THE CAR owes a lot to movies like JAWS (the threat barely glimpsed until halfway through the movie, the small town cop, the music setting the mood) and more directly from films like Steven Spielberg’s DUEL, and is the forerunner of similar films like CHRISTINE and MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. No explanation is given for why The Car appears or even if it’s self-driven or just a muscle car that got away from its Satanic Mechanic. No “expert” appears to exposit what’s happening, but there are clues (the local Native Americans are heading for the mountains, and good luck, White Man, and a hot wind rises just before it appears – sometimes).
The movie, directed by Eliot Silverstein, is sold on a number of fronts. For one thing, we have a solid cast. Brolin, despite his thick 70s porn moustache, seems like a decent guy in over his head with all the supernatural shenanigans, and Kathleen Lloyd is a perky romantic lead (she also adds layers to her performance, for instance when confronting The Car, she shows she’s clearly frightened to death, but still willing to try and drive it off).
There’s also the script, which allows characters to be three-dimensional. In a later, lesser film, Amos the bigot and abuser would have been killed off, given no sympathy and would have been shown to be completely incompetent. Here, however, following the Sheriff’s death, he too becomes outraged, and is called upon for his expertise in demolition when Wade plans an explosive trap for The Car worthy of Wile E. Coyote. Also, Luke’s alcoholism and forgetfulness, which results in the deaths of several townspeople, doesn’t have Movie Karma kill him off, but give him a chance to redeem himself.
But the real highlight of the movie is the titular character, a customised 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III worked on by famed automotive designer George Barris, who had built many special vehicles for the film and TV industry, most famously the Batmobile from the Adam West series, and the Munsters’ various cars. The Car was painted in steel, pearl and charcoal, the windows laminated in two different shades, smoked on the inside and amber on the outside so one could see out but no one could see in. Barris also made the roof three inches lower than usual and altered its side fenders to make it look more sinister. Four versions of The Car were made, three of them destroyed during the course of the movie, with many hidden safety harness and other devices installed inside for the drivers.
And the movie makes the most of The Car, killing people in various creative ways both noisy and subtle (my favourite being when it does a barrel roll over two police cars playing Chicken with it, killing those inside before righting itself and moving on). And there’s one death halfway through that I refuse to spoil. But it all leads to a tense, fiery, satisfying climax (unfortunately, it’s short on blood and gore, but watch the flames at the end to see something… sinister…).
(And I promise to find something more new to review next time…)
Director: Eliot Silverstein
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 3 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Edna’s Rating: 5 out of 5 sausages
Reviewed by Deggsy. And Edna. Woof.