The Car Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    The Car Review
    Well, you're going to have to indulge me here, folks. This B-movie 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 Wide-screen 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. 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.

    “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 dust of New Mexico. Almost immediately, the cops under the command of heroic Sheriff Wade Parent (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. 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. 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, here, the Car, itself, is 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 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.

    “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 Night Of The Juggler. 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. 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 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. Works for me.

    “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 designed 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 hell. 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 and Michael Butler's screenplay has the Car arriving without warning or reason, and just seeming to exist to kill and threaten. This narrative ambivalence 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. 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. Its true powers, as made evident when it performs that jaw-dropping barrel-roll over two speeding police cruisers, or supernaturally blasts 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. Road-rage from Hell. 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. 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. But, quite obviously, once you've seen it ... you can skip it the next time. Another scene, set in the hospital after a day of complete mayhem, is curiously slow and faltering, plagued by odd silences and a severe lack of editing. 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 they do look pretty awful. Another scene that has previously come under flack from reviewers is when Lauren challenges the Car as it revs up outside the crumbled gates of the old cemetery in 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 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 called Amos, 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 much closer to home, and check out the lusty grin that transforms his face when he realises that the cops might actually depend upon him. 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. A cool little touch is seeing Wade chance a desperate glance into the Bible just before finalising plans for the ensuing battle.

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

    Leonard Rosenman's score is a knock-out, though. His main theme for the Car, itself, is a simple bass-heavy demonic piece that is so ominous it makes the skin prickle. The many action set-pieces are accompanied by his typically clangourous musical barrage. He also scored Ralph Bakshi's half-forgotten 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, Rosenman actually fashions a soundscape that often seems mechanical, or similarly engineered to aggressively ride shotgun alongside it. Silverstein's direction is workmanlike for some of the time, characteristic of an era when genre fodder was uncomplicated and of a straight A to B format. However, there are also 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, cat-and-mouse 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 picks and, all alone, Lauren makes a frantic call to Wade ... the encroaching danger seen through the window behind is gloriously thrilling.

    Well, folks, I love this movie. It may be schlock ... but it's viciously exciting 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. I'd waited a long, long time for this to come out on DVD. Oh, there was a R1 edition that was released a little while back, but I'd heard some bad reports about its quality. And this R2 version caught me completely unawares, literally popping out at me from the shelf of Liverpool's HMV whilst I was idly browsing with that irresistible urge to buy. With the Car leering malevolently out at me from the cover, I just couldn't resist. And mighty pleased I am with it, too. Totally recommended for lovers of 70's genre cross-overs. Horror, road-movie, action, thriller ... and James Brolin acting mean and tough and wearing a sheriff's badge. It's got the lot.

    It's hotter than hell's hubcaps!

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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