Car, The (1977)

The Car (1977)

There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no way to stop… The Car

In the desert highways of New Mexico, a black Sedan is sadistically running down unsuspecting victims ranging from cyclists to hitchhikers. When the car claims the life of the local sheriff of Santa Ynez and makes it presence known at the school parade, police officer Wade Parent rallies the remaining deputies to take action. However, the vehicle apparently has no driver and is more agile and damage-proof than a normal car, leading to some to believe that it has been possessed by the Devil.

 

Though The Car would fit in right at home with the ‘mechanical monsters’ sub-genre with the likes of Christine, Duel and Killdozer, it’s more comfortable in the company of Jaws. Whilst other studios were trawling the seas looking for aquatic monsters to turn into the next summer blockbuster, Universal realised that they had a winning formula and look to have just swapped monsters around. I can just the pitch now to the studio – “It’s just like Jaws but with a killer car instead of a shark!” This is all kind of amusing because Jaws shares many similarities with Steven Spielberg’s earlier hit Duel, the one about the killer tanker truck which stalks a motorist along a remote and lonely road. The links between Duel and The Car shouldn’t need setting out so what you get is a nice little circle featuring all three films. Obviously The Car is the one stealing the best material from the other two!

The Car couldn’t be anymore Jaws if it tried. There’s the quiet American town suddenly beset by a rampaging monster. The town has an event coming up (in this case a town parade) which the monster will gate-crash. The main character is an ‘everyman’ hero and a police officer with two kids no less (just like Roy Scheider in Jaws, though this guy is a single parent. The mechanical monstrosity itself has a signature theme tune very similar to John Williams’ infamous classic. It’s got its own POV shots when it’s hunting down its victims. There are some shots of it driving towards its victims like a shark’s fin gliding through the water. And it’s not fully revealed until nearly halfway through, relying on close-ups of its wheels and other parts of the chassis to indicate its presence. Plus there’s no explanation for its decision to target this town – it just appears, gets a taste for killing and decides to stay. With some minor tweaks to supporting characters (Ronny Cox’s young alcoholic deputy no doubt doubling for Richard Dreyfuss’ youth appeal) and a couple of other smaller similarities, it doesn’t take a lot to work out where the main inspiration for The Car lies.

The Car got a theatrical run so it’s not like this was pushed out onto release in the quiet but it was met with critical and commercial failure and has been relegated to virtual unknown status since. This is a pity because after the first ten minutes or so, you’ll think that this is actually very good. The opening kill scene builds tension nicely with some great camerawork, the car shows no mercy to its pair of cyclist victims and a whole bunch of questions are asked which you will be wanting answers to sooner rather than later. However after this opening, it’s strictly mediocrity for the duration as the overriding story – that of the police trying to track down and stop the car – is just too repetitive to stretch out for the full running time. Santa Ynez must have been a lawless town too because there are more deputies than residents it seems. It does provide the film with a steady range of characters to kill off – this is not a good week to be a police officer in this town. The rest of the characters that are introduced serve little purpose but to provide a lot of interpersonal drama. This is a town with so much going on between the residents that it should have been given its own soap opera. The drama serves no purpose and has little impact on the plot with the killer car so the only reason I can see for its inclusion is to pad out the running time in between car attacks.

You’d think that there are so many ways for a car to kill someone but The Car does a good job of providing variety, in particular an excellent scene involving one of its victims inside a house which does a fantastic job of building up the suspense in the moments before the car strikes. Never before have headlights been as terrifying! Like Jaws used a couple of ways to signal the presence of the shark without actually showing the audience, The Car does the same thing. If it’s not the sound of the horn growing louder and louder, it’s the whirlwind that arrives a few minutes before or, in a really neat method, seeing glimmers of sunlight reflecting off its windows as it approaches from far away. Funnily enough, due to the way the car is presented throughout the film, you get a sense of ‘personality’ with it. Like the shark in Jaws showed its intelligence by toying with the three men in the boat in the final third, the car here begins to show emotions, taunting its victims, playing with them or expressing anger at things it dislikes. It goes to increasingly-weird lengths to get its victims but I guess the script ran out of ways to have the car actually kill someone.

Sadly a lot of this personality and ambition is wasted on a second-rate script which doesn’t really have the car do much except for rev its engine a lot and drive very quickly. The chase scenes have been sped up to make them appear faster and more exciting than they really are. Instead of keeping the car a mystery, the final third of the film begins to develop it as some sort of supernatural monster, the Devil incarnate if you were. This all leads to a finale and ending which is well over-the-top, borderline silly, considering that the rest of the film had played everything so seriously. It’s meant to be a dour affair, and Josh Brolin’s sombre performance adds significantly to the emotional impact of what is happening on-screen, but at times the seriousness of everything threatens to totally overshadow everything else – we are dealing with a killer car after all, not a nuclear fallout.

 

The Car runs out of fuel long before it’s got to its destination. The premise is milked for all that it is worth and there’s a lot of positives to take home from it but the script does the idea of a killer car few favours and the overly-dramatic and totally pointless nature of the human elements distract from the mechanised killing that happens.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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