The Car Review

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Is it a phantom, a demon, or the Devil, himself?

by Chris McEneany Jul 5, 2013 at 1:08 AM

  • Movies review

    The Car Review
    Is it a phantom, a demon, or the Devil, himself?

    Well, you're going to have to indulge me here, folks. Even after wallowing in the B-movie bliss of Spider Baby (also from Arrow Video) and Scream Factory’s US release of Lifeforce, this revved-up genre hokum from 1977 is a real guilty pleasure of mine. For a long time the property of ITV's late-night slot (even once the dubious beneficiary of that channel's woefully misguided theme of The Widescreen Experience - a process that presented films at anything but their genuine aspect), Elliot Silverstein's Duel-alike actually has a lot more in common with that other film director's most famous movie, Jaws. Both feature beleaguered and isolated communities under the terrible and unpredictable threat from a roving predator. Both feature frontier lawmen confounded, perplexed and ultimately terrorised by a virtually implacable, and certainly unreasonable, force that has picked on their towns seemingly without any motive. And both contain fabulously realised monsters that defy logic, morality or conscience. Universal even pitched the idea as being Jaws on Wheels, so determined were they to ride on the tail-fin of Spielberg’s box office juggernaut.

    Although derided by critics upon its original theatrical release, and hardly well known beyond genre-buffs today, I think it is high time that The Car was given its due, and with this fantastic release on Blu-ray from Arrow, it emerges from its corner of niche cultdom suitably souped-up and sporting a brand new paint-job.

    “Well, she said ... there was no driver in the car ...”

    Typifying America's first major fear, that of something nasty from the outside threatening its homeland - the second one, of course, being the actual fear of its homeland - the movie sees a truly demonic black car arrive out of the blue to stake a claim upon the denizens of sleepy Santa Ynez nestling in the hot, quiet dust of scenic Utah. Almost immediately, the cops under the command of heroic Sheriff Wade Parent (the always redoubtable James Brolin) find themselves scraping mangled bodies off the deck. The death toll rises and shocked witnesses, like the town bully or the superstitious local Indians, pile on the unease with vague descriptions of a monstrous black sedan out prowling the badlands. Road blocks and a state-wide hunt prove fruitless and then when veteran cop-with-a-heart Everett (John Marley looking cool with his shades on) gets himself smeared all over the town's main road, it gets personal for Wade and his posse. Ostensibly your typical monster-movie, The Car transcends that tag by virtue of its wholly unconventional enemy. Whereas in Duel, we knew that the truck actually had a driver, albeit one who is psychotically obsessed, here, the Car, itself, is quite simply the Beast. With no number-plate, no known make, no door-handles and blackened windows, the Car is just the embodiment of death on the roads. Seemingly indestructible and possessing a truly unnerving ability to sneak about the environment - lurking in darkened side-streets like a rapist or quietly materialising within a garage in a marvellously taut Mexican stand-off with Wade - the Car is the stuff of nightmare. Again, like the shark in Jaws, it cannot be bargained with, cannot be tamed. All this machine does is drive and kill, and make little pancakes out of the people it meets. I'm reminded of the savage, almost evangelical taunts made by the Nightrider in the first Mad Max film about his being sent out on a Hell-spawned mission to strike down the un-roadworthy. The sheer joy it exhibits when slaying its victims, or outwitting the ill-fated cops pursuing it gives this volatile vehicle a terrifying tangibility. It plays with its prey like a mad dog with a cornered cat. The scene where it launches itself into the midst of a parade rehearsal, spinning and cavorting in the dust, literally showing off before the screaming kids is akin to a psychopath brandishing his blades before a trussed-up captive, or a Rottweiler gnashing at a circle of panicking pigeons.

    Fuelled with brimstone, this four-wheeled personification of road-rage both surrounds the film with surrealism and fills it with a ferociously stark reminder that Man’s obsession with cars is very often his undoing.

    “Come on, stay in close. He'll have to stop. He can't take us both ... he'll turn off and we've got him!”

    Famous last words, Deputy.

    James Brolin is one of my heroes. He never really made the big time, but he certainly made an impression on me with this, the likes of Capricorn One, The Amityville Horror and the rarely seen and incredibly taut and visceral urban thriller, Night Of The Juggler, in which he carves through the seedy underbelly of the Big Apple to save his daughter from the clutches of a psychopath. But, in a weird kind of way, he has found a greater fame, at least with me - because I think he is an absolute deadringer for Christian Bale, the greatest Bat of all. No? You just check the two of them out. Okay, Brolin may sport a 70's porn-star moustache in many of his films, but the two actors share incredibly similar features. And both portray men on the edge with an almost scary authenticity. On a slight tangent, have a gander at the portrait of him in his schoolteacher girlfriend Lauren's place. Oops ... this is a pretty naff visual aside on the left of the screen that really should've remained unseen like it was in that cropped TV version from yesteryear. As Lauren, Kathleen Lloyd has a distinct tendency to overact, but when the tension gets to her she still manages to exhibit a convincing vulnerability. Wade has two young daughters played by Kim and Kyle Richards. Kim Richards is the more recognisable though, folks, as she was one of the most annoying child stars of the 70's. Luckily, in The Car she isn't given much opportunity to do other than scream ... but if she does irritate you, just watch the scene in John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 when she gets blown away for taking her ice-cream back to the bullet-riddled vendor. Twice daily - Doctor's orders. It works for me.

    Small town. Big problems.

    There is a version of this tale that could have been told entirely from Everett’s perspective, with him as the over-the-hill, John Wayne-like hero. And it would have worked just as well. He’s certainly a more believable character than Wade, who is, I will concede, a fairly one-dimensional product of the 70’s reflection of dysfunctional family units. Wade is just one monster-car away from appearing in Kramer versus Kramer. But Everett is much more than a bundle of ragged conscience with a badge. His conflicted moral standpoint is borne out by the napalm-like disdain he has for the poison of Amos Clements (R.G. Armstrong), the town bully, and domestic terror tactics, and the plaintiff, agonised feelings he has for Bertha (Amos’ wife played by Doris Dowling), a former romantic attachment from high school days that he still carries a torch for. This is a wonderfully nuanced character, and Marley gives him the gritty nobility of Burgess Meredith. He’s at the end of the line – and he knows it – but he is still determined to make a difference. There are little things he says to Wade on his final night that seem to matter … and yet he fritters them away like dust in the wind. The cynic in you, the part of you that knows the format and understands the language of genre films, gleans immediately that there is vulture perched upon his shoulder – but I think Marley really sells the moment. I often come away from this wishing that he’d lasted longer.

    “It looked like he smashed through our cars like he was stamping bugs. I didn't even see a scratch on him.”

    The Car, itself, is a rare beast, indeed. A huge black 2-door sedan built from a Lincoln Continental but customised by the Devil, himself, this snarling behemoth is terrifying to behold. Whether prowling down the dusty roads, lying in wait in darkened lay-bys or thundering through swirling dust clouds to claim and maim more victims, it is an imposing vision straight from Hades’ machine-shop. The vehicle actually possesses a character and a physical menace that leaves you totally uncaring as to who or what is actually behind the wheel. And the script doesn't much care, either. Which is, again, to the film's credit. Following the abstract illogicality of a nightmare, writers Dennis Shryack, Michael Butler and Lane Slate’s screenplay has the Car arriving without warning or reason, and just seeming to exist to kill and to threaten. Remember when the Dark Knight commanded his Tumbler Batmobile to INTIMIDATE in the second of Nolan’s Bat trilogy? Well, this thing is permanently switched to that mode. Such narrative ambivalence and thematic simplicity may well have been what turned those critics off when the film first came out. Nothing is neatly signposted or explained ... and nor should it be. I like the fact that the film just goes for broke with the mystery and murder, never bogging itself down with convoluted, or contrived explanations. The story even makes it clear that survival may depend upon stymieing the moral stance, and standing alongside those weak in character and those bolstered by their own corruption. But we never get any closer to revealing just who or what is behind the wheel of the Car. We hear the protagonists voice their opinions and fears and we witness the sheer malevolence of the beast. That's enough for me. The rhyme or reason behind its murderous antics is utterly irrelevant to a film that depends on mood, atmosphere and adrenaline to get by. The Car’s true powers, as made evident when it performs that jaw-dropping barrel-roll right over two speeding police cruisers, or supernaturally blasts its way, four feet off the ground, through a house, are never in question. We know this thing is a demon on wheels, manufactured in the Pit and rolled off Satan's own assembly line to blaze a path of death and destruction along Route 666. Its utterly diabolical nature is further evidenced when, even in the middle of a high-speed chase and with cop cars converging upon it from all directions, it still swerves across a highway just to swipe brutally at an innocent passer-by coming the other way. This is road-rage from Hell and it is delivered gleefully savage aplomb.

    Class, folks ... just class.

    “I know why he didn't go into the cemetery. The ground ... it was hallowed.”

    There are a couple of dodgy bits along the way, which is only to be expected in a production that was designed primarily for thrills and spills. Our introduction to Wade and his girlfriend is an interminably boring pre-breakfast boudoir scene that features some incredibly cringe-worthy impersonations from Kathleen Lloyd. The scene just goes on and on at a snail's pace and runs the risk of losing many a casual viewer right there. In fact, this scene and Lloyd’s performance in it are responsible for the loss of a mark in the film’s overall score. Believe me, it’s that bad. But, quite obviously, once you've seen it ... you can skip past it the next time. Another scene, set in the hospital after a day of complete death-dealing mayhem, is curiously slow and faltering, plagued by odd silences and a severe lack of editing. I am tempted to think that this is a deliberate and calculated change in pace after the frantic excitement of a long and spectacular action set-piece, but it still seems to strike a few bum notes. And, despite some of the great vehicular action sequences and stunts, there are still a couple of times when Silverstein opts to use speeded-up film to convey the haste with which Wade's deputies race into pursuit and he, himself, zips along on his motorbike - and they do look pretty awful, to be honest. Curiously he denies such a practice in his commentary ... but the evidence is right there before him. Another scene that has previously come under flack from critics is when Lauren challenges the Car as it revs up outside the crumbled gates of the old cemetery inside of which she and her school kids are cowering. Whilst I agree that it does feel a little contrived to have her be the one that plucks up the courage to taunt the beast - she still thinks it may just be a rogue driver with feelings of sexual inadequacy - I believe that the fear she is trying to mask with her bravado is still edgily apparent, making her courageous stand just that bit more suspenseful. After all, she is trying to defend the children, when all said and done.

    “See Utah ... and die!”

    The presence of reliable genre stalwart R.G. Armstrong (Race With The Devil, The Beast Within, Evilspeak and even Predator under his belt) guarantees some grizzled venom to spike up the dialogue. Playing a gruff, hard-drinking, wife-beating racist redneck, Armstrong establishes his powerful screen persona in a terrific early scene that sees him threatening to shove a doomed hitchhiker's French Horn so far up a certain orifice that he'll be “farting music for a year!” That he comes to play a pivotal role in the unfolding drama only makes the film stronger. Witness the frenzied ranting contest between himself and Wade after another road slaying has struck much closer to home – the two really go for it with spittle flying - and check out the lusty grin that transforms his face when he realises that the cops might actually come to depend upon him. “Sit um down,” commands Chas (Henry O’Brian), the Native American cop that he was racially abusing, but it is Amos who has the upper hand in this increasingly bleak situation. Elsewhere, we have Paul Verhoeven regular Ronny Cox as recovering alcoholic cop Luke. With all the events taking place around Santa Ynez lately, the old line from Airplane rings true - “I guess I picked the wrong week to quit drinking!” Quite understated in this, Cox, nevertheless, is the one that seems to suss out the real identity of the Car's driver, and struggles to have the others believe him. This is a fine touch. The Car is clearly not of this world, yet Wade and most of the men refuse to entertain such terrifying thoughts. Yet another cool little touch is seeing Wade chance a desperate glance into the Bible just before finalising plans for the ensuing battle.

    Like a Western, the film focuses upon the efforts of the dwindling band of deputies to battle the big bad guy. And when compared to Amity’s similarly tasked Brody and Hendricks (and Polly, the aged secretary), they do start off with quite a large complement. Although Jaws and Grizzly upped the empathy we have with the authorities, actually going against the grain of many seventies horror films, The Car is at pains to foster the bond between these people with an even greater sense of camaraderie and a deeper respect for their elder statesmen – Everett, obviously, but we also see Wade look a couple of times at the picture of his father, who patrolled the same county before him. Although there really isn’t a great deal of effort made to present much else of those residing in the hamlet, except for the marching parade shenanigans, a shell-shocked doctor grieving over the loss of his daughter, and the bullying antics of Amos, this does engender a feeling that something sacred is at stake. Silverstein wants us to feel each loss … and, to a degree, we do.

    “Oh, Wade ... I think I can hear the engine of that damn car. Wade, I'm so sacred ...”

    In the wake of Jaws, Hollywood was tripping over itself to fill cinema screens with eco-thrillers about nature wreaking revenge upon environment-polluting humans – Frogs, Squirm, Grizzly, Piranha, Prophecy et al – so The Car is actually quite a refreshing slant on the theme. Although hardly overt, there is a way of looking at this film as being a statement against the greed of the big car companies and the effect of the gas guzzling excesses that modern society has upon the environment. As such, the nature of the beast becomes a metaphor for the destruction of small towns by the faceless, all-consuming corporations.
    Silverstein had previously helmed the knockabout Western Cat Ballou, with Lee Marvin, and the more dramatic frontiers-piece A Man Called Horse, with Richard Harris. His direction here is workmanlike for some of the time, characteristic of an era when genre fodder was uncomplicated and mostly of a straight A to B format. He maintains that he was merely a hired-hand on the production.

    However, there are many inspired moments that raise the game and set the pulse pounding. The afore-mentioned action scenes are terrifically exciting - as is Wade's screeching motorbike halt directly in front of the Car, the pure menace of the auto-beast spinning and hooting and revving in frustration when it can't enter the graveyard and the balls-out, do-or-die apocalyptic finale - but he reveals a great flair for the surreal, too. There's a wonderfully eerie shot of the Car prowling over the rocks and sand-dunes just before embarking upon another killing spree where it resembles some huge satanic scorpion. And the sequence when the hellish wind that seems to accompany the Car picks up and, all alone, Lauren makes a frantic call to Wade ... the encroaching danger seen through the window behind her is gloriously thrilling.

    Silverstein stages some of the more sinister moments with style. The Car genuinely lies in wait for certain people. Again, like a predatory shark, it knows precisely who it wants – swerving to avoid one potential victim so as to get at the intended one, and even mimicking the unnerving sight of the dorsal fin when we see its roof speeding along behind a row of tents, huts and seats. But its aggression is also aided by wacky sense of pride. It actively breaks its own modus operandi in order to obliterate someone who personally stood up against it, and it plays an irresistible game of cat-and-mouse with Wade. This last point is obviously because Wade is the story’s hero, but given the way that the Car operates it can just as easily be assumed that it likes toying with him as a worthy adversary. An evocative opening shot has the sun slowly revealing the desert landscape as the titles blaze across the screen …and gradually, in the distance, we see a plume of dust kicked-up by something moving very fast through it, very reminiscent of the arrival of Robby the Robot on the strange world of Altair-IV in Forbidden Planet. Whilst often reported as being set in New Mexico,

    Silverstein and his DOP, Gerald Hirschfield, use their extensive Utah locations to simply mesmerizing effect. (We can even see Utah in small writing on some of the signs in the cop-shop.) When John Rubinstein’s musical hitcher spies in the distance what he hopes will be his next ride, when the camera looks up at Wade from a corpse’s perspective as he stands beneath the yawning Hurricane Bridge, and when a shotgun-wielding deputy makes a stand against the Car, the film’s photography is breathtaking to behold. The skies were so blue and endless that the celebrated matte-artist Albert Whitlock had to paint some clouds into them. He was also responsible for a truly hellish vision of demonic fury as well, the film a visually ravishing surprise.

    Some of the stunt-work is extraordinary too. Specialist A.J. Bakunas performs an amazing high rise fall from a bridge that will have your heart in your mouth. The precision driving of all the vehicles is second to none, with astonishingly tight 360-degree spins and close-shaves, especially when it pursues Wade on his motorcycle across treacherous terrain. Look out for the stunning and somewhat throwaway moment when a rodeo rider distracts the Car from flattening Amos’ long-suffering wife and son during the parade rehearsal, the bruising vehicle only narrowly missing the boy who has stumbled to the dirt. An awful lot of ingenuity and creativity went into this half-forgotten movie.

    “Wouldn’t that be great? If you could fart music?”

    Running alongside the breakneck visuals and compellingly destructive theme, Leonard Rosenman's score is a knock-out, too. His main motif for the Car, itself, is a simple, bass-heavy and purely demonic rendition of the grimly fateful Dies Irae that is so ominous it makes the skin prickle. He has utilised this classic piece of treacherous trepidation a number of times, even in the not entirely unrelated Race With The Devil. The many action set-pieces are accompanied by his typically clangourous, percussively jangling and raucously brassy musical barrage. He also scored Ralph Bakshi's misbegotten animated version of The Lord Of The Rings to very similar effect, combining the use of unusual instruments and harsh, frightening compositions with catchy, memorable - if simplistic - cues to work wonders with atmosphere and thematic build-up. Although the Car blasts its horn in maddening-enough crescendos many times throughout the film, hooting like some deranged elephant and literally delivering the letter X in barbaric Morse Code, Rosenman actually fashions a soundscape that often seems mechanical, or similarly engineered to aggressively ride shotgun alongside it. Score-fans still await its official release.

    Well, folks, I love this movie. It may be B-movie schlock ... but it's viciously exciting B-movie schlock, just the same. It also predates Deep Blue Sea (look, sharks again!) in the “nobody-is-safe department” with a seriously surprising slaying two thirds of the way in. But there is real panache to what is a patently silly story, and terrific verve to how it all roars along. Some say it’s hokey, but I say that the Car, itself, is one of the great movie monsters ... and it would demolish the truck from Duel in the roar of an engine.
    The Car is totally recommended for lovers of 70's genre cross-overs. Horror, road-movie, action, thriller, modern Western ... and James Brolin acting mean and tough, wearing a sheriff's badge and pulling some stupendously super-shocked expressions. It's got the lot.

    And it's hotter than hell's hubcaps!

    The Rundown

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