Tag Road Terrors

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.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead End (2003)

Dead End (2003)

Read the signs

It’s Christmas Eve and, on the way to the in-laws with his family, Frank Harrington decides to take a short cut for the first time in twenty years. It turns out to the biggest mistake he ever made as, stuck in the middle of nowhere with his family, a horrific chain of events is put into motion.

 

Films like Dead End are why I trawl through hours of absolute rubbish, nonsense and bizarre horror films. There is always one little nugget of gold hiding amongst the mud. A film which has received little fanfare, is little known and is most likely never going to rank on any Top 10 lists. Dead End is such a nugget. Whilst it’s never going to rank up there as one of my favourites, it’s a very solid way to spend ninety minutes.

Feeling like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone with a slight twang of every popular road trip horror movie from the last thirty years thrown in for good measure, Dead End will not impress anyone who goes in looking for something a little meatier. It’s low budget. It’s got a very simple plot. And for seasoned veterans, you’ll be able to figure out exactly where the film is heading right from the start. But that doesn’t mean to say you’re not going to enjoy it. Dead End was a total breath of fresh air for me and it’s certainly one of the better horror films I’ve seen over recent years. Sometimes it pays to keep things straightforward and a little old school and what you have with Dead End is a film with a simple hook that reels you in almost from the outset. Everything is done with a tinge of black humour just simmering underneath the surface.

Focusing on characters and engineering a really creepy vibe instead of relying on gore and cheap schlock devices, Dead End doesn’t feel like your generic American horror (with two French guys at the helm, there’s a good reason for that). Budget constraints probably forced their hand more than they would have wanted but the lack of budget has helped the duo bring out the best of a bad situation. Well-shot, with plenty of tension and lots of lurking menace, Dead End gives off a spooky vibe as soon as the proverbial hits the fan when the family are grounded along the road. It won’t give you sleepless nights but there are some well-placed jumpy moments to go along with the eeriness.

The use of this one location – the long road to nowhere – gives you the impression of no escape. There’s always the sense that something horrible could happen at any minute and you’re kept on your toes throughout. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of things occur during the course of the film that have no explanation. It’s all part of the master plan to keep the story ticking over until the end. Sadly, for genre lovers, this end will come as no surprise to anyone and what’s worse is that there are plenty of threads and ideas left hanging. Dead End undoes all of its good work with a really poor final ten minutes.

With the film confined to one remote location, this means that there’s not going to be too many characters cluttering up the screen. So it was essential to the film’s success that these characters be well-developed: realistic, sympathetic and heroic in equal measure. Plus it was important that they weren’t annoying – it’s the kiss of death for a film when you want to see the characters die. Seeing this family unit break down amidst a nightmare scenario gives the story a central focus. Ray Wise, fresh from battling monsters in Jeepers Creepers 2, stars as Frank Harrington. I don’t want to typecast the guy but he certainly has carved out a little niche for these father-figures and it’s great to see him taking centre stage again. He’s a quality character actor and you can feel his mixed emotions and pain. Alexandra Holden, as the daughter, and Lin Shaye, as Frank’s long-suffering wife, both give quality performances too to really add to the family character. Shaye overdoes it a bit when she loses her sanity but it’s still a great performance.

 

Dead End is a refreshing horror film which proves that in this genre, real talent shines through if you have a budget of $100m or $1. The ending is a bit of a cop-out but the ride there is fun and the company is good.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Black Cadillac (2003)

Black Cadillac (2003)

Revenge in the driver’s seat

Three young men on their way from Minnesota to Wisconsin late one night are terrorised for no apparent reason by someone driving a mysterious black Cadillac. Who is driving the car? What do they want? When the friends stop to pick up a stranded police officer, things seem to be looking positive but the Cadillac is soon back to menace them.

 

After the recent success of Roadkill (aka Joy Ride), it was inevitable that other films would come along and try and do a similar thing and here we have one with Black Cadillac. Steven Spielberg’s Duel pretty much cornered the market for this type of road rage film back in the 70s and covered all of the bases so these recent films have not really been laden with originality. I mean there’s only so much you can do with a car trying to run another car off the road for an hour and a half. But what they have had to do is keep their films tight, entertaining and fast-paced so that this rehashed material is given a makeover to seem fresh. Roadkill managed to do it and I’m pleased to say that Black Cadillac follows in the same footsteps, though the tepid claims that it is ‘based on a true story’ ring true of a shallow marketing ploy to divert accusations of plagiarism rather than re-enact history.

Black Cadillac is hard to describe as a horror – it’s more of a thriller and a fast-paced one at that. It moves along pretty briskly and after the opening scene inside the bar where we’re introduced to the three characters, the audience is given plenty of motives as to why the Cadillac is after the teenagers. Unfortunately the trio of leads aren’t particularly captivating and you could easily interchange them with similar characters from other teen horror films. You’ve got the motor-mouth one, the big violent brother and the annoying little brother. At least Shane Johnson, Josh Hammond and Jason Dohring all make the most of their clichéd roles, even if the script lets them down a lot of the time with some flat, truly woeful dialogue that guys like them would never say to each other.

The Cadillac is first seen about fifteen minutes into the film so the story wastes little time in getting down to the meat of it and then the cat-and-mouse interaction between the two cars takes it into more familiar Duel territory. Copious low angle close-ups of the Cadillac, rapid editing to signal how fast the cars are both travelling and plenty of tyre-burning mayhem ensues. The focus is not so much on who is driving it but as if the car has taken on a life of its own.

The introduction of Randy Quaid’s cop adds a new dynamic to the mix as you’d assume that the three friends are now safe in the presence of law enforcement. But the car returns and Quaid’s character becomes more essential to the story that you’d have assumed. Quaid might be annoying in a lot of his films, playing brash, loudmouth characters and generally getting in-your-face. But this time he plays the character just right, allowing a darker side to emerge and giving the film and unsettling feeling. You know there’s something that he’s hiding from the rest of the characters and he’s got this sinister look throughout. It is arguably the case that this foreshadows some of the plot twists later and ruins potential surprises well ahead of the game which is a bit of a shame.

The film does lose itself quite a bit towards the end when the teenagers decide to make a stand and fight back against the Cadillac. There are also plenty of plot holes, usually to do with the physics, space and time. One minute it’s driving behind the characters and the next it’s parked up in the road ahead in some form of ‘Dastardly and Muttley getting way ahead of their rivals in Wacky Races and then stopping to cheat and ending up way behind everyone but then in the next scene they’re in front of everyone again’ kind of way.

 

There is a lot to enjoy about Black Cadillac and it is well worth the price of a rental if you can find a copy. By going full speed ahead for as long as it can, it eventually runs out of gas and comes to a virtual standstill in the final third but overall it is a solid thriller.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆