(1977) Directed by Elliot Silverstein; Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Lane Slate; Starring: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley and Ronny Cox; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.
Rating: ** ½
April showers bring May flowers and… another semi-regular feature! Enter Cinematic Dregs, an ongoing exploration of questionable films from decades past. What will I find when I subject myself to this continuing barrage of box office bombs and movie misfires? Will I discover that history has been unkind, or suitably just? Will these misunderstood films take on a new level of profundity? Today, let’s take a closer look at a rusty artifact from the glorious 70s…
The Car was reviled by critics upon its initial 1977 release. Released the same year as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Annie Hall, there was little love from the film-going public for this bizarre little supernatural flick, and it sank, seemingly without a trace. Despite its less than stellar reputation, The Car steadily gained a cult following over the years, likely due to its inherently goofy plot. The small Utah town of Santa Ynez is terrorized by a mysterious black, hulking sedan, controlled by an unseen driver. No explanation is provided about its origin, but it’s clearly implied that The Car is an embodiment of evil. Why did it choose this particular town? What does it want? Who sent it? The Car is conspicuously short on answers. Maybe the best answer comes from the movie Rubber, which is simply, “No reason.” A little ambiguity can heighten the mood and increase the tension. If a film can deliver on the terror and suspense without an explanation (consider another errant vehicle flick, Duel), so be it. Does The Car ultimately deliver as a horror film? Nope, not really.
Borrowing its cues from Jaws, The Car takes the mindless killing machine motif and transplants it from the ocean to the desert. Sheriff Parent (James Brolin) stands in as the poor man’s Sheriff Brody, trading in Amity Island for Santa Ynez. Instead of chasing Independence Day revelers off the beach, however, he’s canceling a junior high marching band rehearsal (maybe they should have practiced in the school’s gymnasium instead). No one stops to think that it might be a good idea to get out of the road, and move to higher ground. I suppose if the menace had been a demonic helicopter, you’d have fewer options.
The Car itself is easily the most interesting character. George Barris, responsible for a number of iconic vehicles (including the original 1960s Batmobile), created the title machine, which was based on a 1971 Lincoln Mark III. Four of the cars were constructed for the film. The Car’s appearance is the epitome of American automotive design from the 1970s, as an exaggeration of the bloated land yachts that roamed the highways of the day. A low roofline, oversized chrome bumpers, and menacing eyelike headlamps help define its sinister visage. Unlike many of the humans featured in the movie, The Car has a distinct personality, revving its engine and honking as it closes in on the kill. It’s an unstoppable force that yields to no one, and never seems to run out of gas. Neither bullets nor roadblocks can stop The Car. In one especially logic-bending scene, The Car spontaneously flips over, wrecking two police cruisers that are in hot pursuit. While the movie it originated from is less than memorable, The Car left a lasting impression on subsequent generations of filmgoers and filmmakers. In fact, the titular vehicle inspired writer/director Guillermo Del Toro enough to have a replica of The Car built for his personal transportation.
Perhaps realizing that their idea was pretty thin for a feature-length film, screenwriters Butler, Shryack and Slate padded out the film with unnecessary subplots. While we’re counting off the minutes before another unprovoked car attack, we’re treated to pointless scenes involving an alcoholic cop (Ronny Cox), abusive Amos (R.G. Armstrong) and his battered wife, and recently divorced Sheriff Wade and his family. Will his daughters accept his new girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd)? Does anyone care? It’s not surprising that The Car never resolves most of these loose threads. The most frustrating subplot concerns Amos, who becomes a reluctant hero by the end of the film. Everything seems to lead up to some sort of karmic retribution for his character, but he sadly never gets the comeuppance he so richly deserves.
It’s hard to imagine that the filmmakers were unaware of how silly the material was. The performances are completely deadpan, without a trace of irony. If it had been released today, it would probably be viewed as a “meta” film, a brilliant deconstruction of the horror genre. Those looking for such self-awareness should probably look elsewhere, however. So, is The Car worth your time? It depends on your tolerance for ridiculous stories and unintentional comedy. It’s a horror film that’s never truly scary, but its whacked-out premise and unbelievable situations demonstrate how general ineptitude can also be entertaining.