I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nearly six years and in that entire time I’ve been a pedestrian. Yes, as hard as it is to believe, I walk or take public transportation most places, despite the fact that most everybody in the city drives. So all-encompassing is the automobile culture here that drivers tend not to even notice when people are crossing the street on foot. Every day, I feel like a car could come out of nowhere and kill me. For some reason, this has reminded me of the 1977 movie The Car, about a car that comes out of nowhere and kills people. This is neither the first nor the last movie to depict some kind of evil auto wreaking havoc on people, but this might be the only one to directly imply that the car is possessed by the devil. It also has James Brolin sporting one of the best handlebar mustaches in cinema history. It’s a win-win!
The Car was directed by Elliot Silverstein, who, on top of directing the acclaimed films Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse, also directed several episodes of The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. In cinematic terms, this film sits right between Steven Spielberg’s Duel and John Carpenter’s Christine, both in themes and in years. Whilst Duel always purported the evil truck was driven by someone, Christine tells you right up front that the car is alive. The Car splits the difference, somewhat, by making the identity of the car’s driver (or lack of driver at all) a mystery to the characters. It is, however, almost completely given away to the audience from the beginning by opening with a quote from noted Satanist Anton LaVey.
The story of The Car, such as it is, concerns a small desert town in the Southwest, somewhere near mountains, that seems to be made up entirely of school children, school teachers, drunks, and cops. Mostly cops. Our main character is James Brolin as Capt. Wade Parent, a single father of two girls who is having a relationship with one of the local school teachers, Lauren, played by Kathleen Lloyd. He’s worried about revealing their relationship to his daughters lest they not like her, though they clearly already know about it. Also in town is Deputy Luke Johnson (Ronny Cox), who’s a recovering alcoholic, and Amos Clemens (R.G. Armstrong), who is a dynamite expert and unabashed wife beater. Charming.
As the movie starts, we see the eponymous villain, a custom black sedan with tinted windows, driving on a highway as incredibly overwrought and melodramatic music plays. Think if the scores for The Omen and Jaws had a loud, obvious baby. It begins to stalk a pair of young lovers riding bicycles and eventually mows them down. Later, it kills a young hitchhiker who plays the French Horn. Apparently, this car can only kill people with interesting hobbies. The hitchhiker’s death is witnessed by Clemens as he’s in the middle of socking his spouse and then calls the police to report it. When the car then kills the town sheriff (John Marley), Wade and the other cops have to figure out a way to stop the unstoppable.
Now, most of this movie is dumb with a capital “DUH.” For instance, there is a scene in which the car somehow finds its way into James Brolin’s locked garage and instead of exiting the side door, the way he came in, he decides he needs to exit through the front by picking the lock, which results in a tense moment between man and car. At various points during the film, the cops fire guns at the car and not only does it not damage it, the bullets don’t even hit it. At one point, Brolin walks up to the driver’s door, which opens, smacking him in the face. It’s never explained what the car is and a few times it seems like there MIGHT be a reason or rhyme to its vehicular homicides, but that never happens. We see a lot of POV shots from inside the car through the yellow-tinted windshield, so either we’re seeing what the car sees out its front window, or there’s some kind of demon or devil at the wheel. Either way, it doesn’t matter.
The stuff I did like about this movie, I ended up liking a whole lot, namely, the car itself. It’s such a cool and creepy design, custom built by the famous movie-car maker, George Barris. The way it’s designed, shot, and driven actually does give the illusion that the thing is alive, as it’s able to move very quickly, like a striking animal. It should also be noted that in the Futurama episode, “The Honking,” where Bender turns into a were-car, it’s this car he’s modeled after. It’s cuz it’s scary! There are some genuinely tense and thrilling sequences of the car causing destruction. One great sequence sees the car coming to the school’s outdoor marching band practice and chasing everyone to a nearby hilly cemetery. In order to allow another teacher the opportunity to run to radio for help, Lauren stands at the cemetery entrance and mouths off to it while it basically stares back at her, only making a move when she approaches.
This is followed by one of the best and most unexpected death scenes in horror movies. It seems the car didn’t take too kindly to being called names and so makes its way to Lauren’s small house at night. She talks on the phone to Wade and through her front window we can see the car’s headlights in the dark. It begins to rev its engine and Lauren gets scared. What I assumed would happen is that it would taunt and torment her for an extended period of time, perhaps including her having to climb up on the roof to get away from it. Instead, the car simply speeds toward the house, launches through the window, taking out the main love interest, and exiting through the back of the house. This shock moment ends with a car-sized hole in the small home and a Lauren-sized hole in Wade’s heart.
There’s not a lot special about The Car, but what it does have is great cinematography, excellent stuntwork, and a pretty weird and lofty view of itself. Why was this demonic car in the desert and why attack people in this town? It makes no sense; maybe it doesn’t have to. All it really has to do is remind me to look both ways 12 times before trying to cross Laurel Canyon at lunch time.