Readers of this site will know that I’m kinda obsessed with JAWS rip-offs. I love all the crazy variations they come up with to milk the tried and true money making formula. I've already written about a JAWS with a giant land mammal (GRIZZLY) and one with fish monsters (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). It seems obvious to take it to the next logical step: JAWS with a devil car in the desert. Strange as it is,1977’s THE CAR is actually a clever combination of our fear of creatures that may kill us and our fascination with a thing that, far more often, really does kill us.
The sleepy town of Santa Ynez, Utah is rocked (in the bad way) when a mysterious, demonic black car shows up out of nowhere and starts mowing down innocent pedestrians. The cops seem powerless to stop the car, except momentarily, while it backs up over their bodies. It’s up to an extremely young James Brolin to put an end to the supernatural death machine before everyone in town becomes a red stain on the road.
The Car is unquestionably the most evil looking vehicle ever. CHRISTINE could be sinister with the right lighting, but it was just a 1958 Plymouth Fury. The truck from DUEL was extremely menacing, but again, it was just an existing vehicle. The green goblin truck from MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE was… sorry, can’t stop laughing enough to finish that thought. The Car is its own beast. The 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III at its base is almost unrecognizable underneath all the extensive modification. The headlights are wide, hungry eyes. There are fangs on its huge, reinforced bumper. It is unnaturally low and muscular. It is not a crazy apocalypse car like from one of the MAD MAX films or DEATH RACE 2000. The Car is something you could conceivably see on the road, especially if you are Guillermo del Toro, who actually had a replica build for himself. I can guarantee he does not have a problem with tailgaters. Not for long, anyway.
Since the movie follows the JAWS model, the mayhem starts right off the bat. In the first scene, The Car appears out of nowhere to run down a couple of carefree ten-speed riding teens. As it rips through the desert dust in beautiful, extended long shots, The Car appears as a swimming predator. While the shark from JAWS was an indiscriminate killer, The Car seems to have a very calculating, malicious intent. It specifically goes after the innocent and the protectors. The racist wife abuser Amos, played by crusty old coot character actor R.G. Armstrong, is ignored multiple times by The Car in favor of more sympathetic victims. Whenever it takes someone out, it rapidly honks its horrible sounding horn like it’s laughing. It’s so much of a jerk that it goes after an entire middle school marching band.
Like GRIZZLY, THE CAR is an example of the kind of shit you could get away with in a PG movie in the ‘70’s. It’s not quite as, um, grizzly as GRIZZLY. No children are killed or maimed, though plenty are endangered. The bloodiest bit is when one of the ten-speeder victims gets dragged against a wall and her mangled body is found afterwards. Nothing else it that rough, but The Car pulps a lot of people. The sound effects add to the viciousness of the attacks. The impacts are very resounding and visceral. Even without all the blood and body parts flying across the screen, THE CAR could be even more traumatic to young viewers than GRIZZLY, or JAWS. A fearful, impressionable kid could stay clear of the woods or the ocean, but cars are everywhere. In fact, the only place you could totally avoid cars would be the woods or the ocean. You’re screwed, kids of the ‘70’s.
This is definitely a stuntman’s (and stuntwoman’s) movie. People are thrown off bridges, driven over cliffs, and smacked around like pinatas (except with cars instead of sticks). There is one absolutely crazy stunt where The Car is racing towards two police cars driving side by side. The Car swerves at high speed and rolls on its side, smashing into the windshields of both cop cars at once. It's like a trick a kid would do with Matchbox cars, except they did it for real.
James Brolin, younger here than his son Josh is currently, plays the increasingly desperate Sheriff Wade. He actually starts off as a Deputy Sheriff, but is promoted by attrition pretty damn quickly. With his handlebar mustache and often bare barrel chest, he’s the definition of macho. The best thing about the movie, though, is how it subverts Brolin’s character. Despite his rugged tough guy appearance, his sensitivity is established right away by his loving interactions with his girlfriend Lauren and his two daughters. Even though he is a smart lawman who comes up with sound strategies against the vehicular menace, nothing works. The Car is impervious to bullets, explosions, or damage of any kind, it seems. Wade is powerless to protect the citizens of his town or even his loved ones. As the movie goes on, you see him get increasingly desperate and anguished. The Car, being the jerk that it is, even messes with Wade. It could have killed him numerous times, but it keeps him alive to torment him.
One of the best scenes in the movie (there are two absolutely fantastic ones) is in Wade’s garage. He and the remaining cops have devised a trap that might take out The Car. Wade is just about to head out to the climax on his dirt bike when he remembers something and pops back into his garage. And guess who’s waiting for him? What makes the scene great is that there is no build up to it. The camera smoothly follows Wade across the garage. He passes The Car parked in the back without noticing. There is no ominous music, close-ups, or lingering shots, nothing to cause tension or indicate anything is wrong. It goes by so casually it made me doubt what I saw. It couldn’t have been The Car; it must have just been Wade’s regular car or something. Then Wade suddenly has the same realization, turns around, and oh shit, it is The Car. There is no explanation of how it got there, it just is. And Wade is in a shitload of trouble.
The other amazing scene involves Wade’s outspoken school teacher girlfriend, Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd). During the marching band attack, Lauren directs the kids into a tiny, fence enclosed graveyard. The Car can’t go in, presumably because it is hallowed ground, or maybe The Car just has a strong respect for the dead. Probably the hallowed ground thing. Whatever the reason, it is clearly pissed, revving its engine and honking at the gate. While another teacher gets ready to make a run for help, Lauren distracts The Car by taunting and laughing at it. She basically says it has a little dick. The Car gets progressively angrier, doing donuts in a fury. Lauren is terrified, since there is no physical barrier between her and the infernal machine, but she keeps on sneering and making fun of it until her plan works. Lauren survives that encounter, but now the petulant metal bully is holding a grudge. [Spoiler coming] That night, she’s at her house packing to leave town. As she’s talking to Wade on the phone, two headlights appear in the distance through the picture window. In one unbroken shot, we watch the headlights get closer and closer while Lauren is looking away. She only notices when it is too late. The Car plows straight through the house and drives away without ever slowing down.
It’s a great scene because it shows that all bets are off. Nowhere is safe from this thing.
It’s a great scene because it shows that all bets are off. Nowhere is safe from this thing.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I love when a movie leaves a little mystery to the story. THE CAR has a trunk load of mystery (a ‘70’s style trunk, so it’s very roomy). There is never an explanation of exactly where The Car came from or what it is. It is clearly supernatural, and Ronnie Cox’s church going deputy character figures it must be from hell, but there is never an established link between it and the Christian devil (other than the Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey's quote at the beginning). The Navajo characters talk about it more like an evil spirit. That might be a better explanation, since The Car never hurts any of the Native Americans. Wouldn’t it be great if it was an Indian spirit taking vengeance on the white man by adopting the form of one of the white man’s favorite obsessions? Squashed by irony.
In the end, Wade and his crew seem to have stopped the metal beast. They blow up a canyon and bury it under hundreds of tons of rock. A demonic shape forms in the ensuing fireball before dissipating completely. It’s not a victorious moment. Everyone is too exhausted and numb to celebrate. Faced with something so far out of their understanding, they are lucky just to have survived. The credits play over a low angle shot fixed on one of The Car’s tires as it wheels around a new city, so maybe that wasn’t the end of it after all.
Director Elliot Silverstein was mainly known for TV work and westerns before this, and went back to TV afterwards. It's a pity. He brought a sense of depth and seriousness to what could have been a very silly movie. I would have liked to see him continue in this vein. Director of Photography Gerald Hirschfeld has not done much that I’m familiar with, but he pulled off some very beautiful widescreen desert shots for this movie. Kathleen Lloyd went on to do the killer baby movie, IT LIVES AGAIN, plus a ton of TV. Star James Brolin would continue his successful acting career, culminating in his most famous role, of course, as the Hollywood version of Pee-Wee Herman in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. The Car allegedly still roams the L.A. hills, doing weekend motor tours of the area. The price is your soul. And $85 per passenger.