The Car

What drives its evil?
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1977
Director: 
Elliott Silverstein
Starring: 
James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, RG Armstrong, Kim Richards
The Setup: 
Giant killer car stalks a desert town. For no reason.
Discussion: 

I don't know how I ended up eager to see this, I think I just saw it in my queue, it sounded ridiculous, had James Brolin and was from 1977 and, let's face it, that's enough for me. Then I looked on IMDb and saw that it was actually somewhat acclaimed by users for being a sort of existentialist thing, since we never find out where the car came from or what it wants, and of course I'm all about existentialist killer cars, so there we go. To add insult to injury, the disc arrived cracked from Netflix, meaning I had to re-assert my desire to see it, and ratchet up my anticipation, since I couldn't get it precisely when I wanted, and then I finally got it--and it turned out to be a piece of junk.

As the credits play we realize that we are to experience the work of a cast of several, including Kim Richards, of Witch Mountain and Devil Dog fame, and this time she's brought her little sister Kyle. There are these two victims on bicycles traveling through the desert, having lighthearted races, while the car creeps along the highways to Jaws-type music. I forgot to mention that the opening music from The Shining makes an appearance several times. Anyway, the car finally attacks the couple, grinding her against a wall and throwing him over a bridge but, frankly, I don't think this film could afford stunt people. So essentially, now and throughout the film, you just see the car approach, then someone fall on the ground, i.e. no actual contact. So that is quite lame and diminishes the enjoyment one can get from this significantly. If I rent a movie about a car that mows people down, I want to see said car MOW PEOPLE DOWN.

This is the desert town of Santa Ynez, where a man can't get any peace and quiet in which to beat his wife because of those french horn-playin' hitchhikers right outside! The domestic abuser is Amos, and the French Horn player, who soon reveals himself to be an annoyance of the first order, and is, of course, from New York. Amos tells horn boy to shove off, he's got some wife-beating to do, and the guy spots THE CAR in the distance, so he thinks he'll stick out his thumb to hitch hike--but in an unconventional, half-ironic way, since he's from New York. The car mows him down! Which was awesome, since I had come to hate him in just his four minutes of annoyance on screen, but again, like I said, I want to see this guy get HIT, not a car drive by and then him jump off an off-screen trampoline.

Meanwhile, James Brolin as Wade is rocking the stache, even in his sleep. He is awoken by Lauren, schoolteacher to his adorable daughters [the Richards'], who have trouble accepting her because his wife died or he divorced her or something. We hear about this difficulty, but never see it, as the kids seem to be totally adjusted and to like Lauren fine. Wade is a desert mustache-sportin', motorcycle-ridin' cop and as such I'd like to invite him to marry me. He joins his fellow cops as they tsk-tsk over the dead horn dude, wonder who would do such a thing, then go back to the station in time to hear about the corpses of the couple from the beginning. Along the way we learn that Wade's partner, Luke, has been off the booze for two years today. He is also dating a schoolteacher [the town has an active cops-and-teachers dating program] that works with Lauren, named Margie, who has creepy too-blue eyes and looks a bit like Taylor Dayne. I need hardly tell you that the big parade is coming up. For Christ's sake, they couldn't think of anything with more urgency than a PARADE? I'm not sure it's even tied in to any holiday or event. It's just a parade. Maybe that's part of the existential appeal of this movie--it is just a PARADE. It exists IN ITSELF. But jeez folks, not even a Rhubarb Festival or something? Nothing more urgent? Maybe Ernest Borgnine is visiting the town or something? Some sort of actual EVENT?

SPOILERS > > >
Anyway Margie must, why, simply MUST practice the parade that very day--seeing as the whole town turns on it and everything--and Wade has told Luke to tell her not to do it, but Wade doesn't because he's HITTIN' THE BOOZE! So there they are, getting equestrian advice from Lauren, when--wait a minute, a genuinely good element is coming up here--we see a policeman watching, and catch a glint of light in the distance. It is THE CAR. The wind whips up, causing a dust storm and causing those kids below to make those faces, when suddenly the car comes blaring along and all the kids run for the hills. Now you, me, everyone wants to see the car just plow through the children, creating a wave of kiddie limbs and leaving a nasty red bloodstain in the dry desert sands, but no, the stupid car just drives around the edges of the parade grounds, honking its stupid horn all the while. Then the teachers crowd all the kids into this little desert cemetery, and the car stops before going in there. It seems to be prevented! Then Lauren gets up and taunts the car, even cursing in front of the children[!], while the car whips around in frenzy like a bull, and finally drives off. At this moment, at 50:49, the fat, uptight old maid teacher raises her fist after the car and shouts: "CAT POO!"

Now the cops are out in force, and we have sped-up footage of the car and the pursuing police cars. And as I'm sure you know, whenever you have sped-up footage of anything, you are removed from the movie, far enough to just stare at it and think "This is IDIOTIC." I think I forgot to mention that the car previously killed the older sheriff dude who used to date the abused wife who won't press charges against her husband. Now it kills one cop, then flips and rolls over two police cars at once, handily killing four cops at one. Then Brolin faces it one on one, and fires right at its tires to no avail. The door opens, he's about to have a harsh word with its driver [its windows are all golden foil], but the door opens quickly and biffs him. So Wade gets thrown back by the door, and as he looks at the car the screen slowly fades to white, which in common film parlance either means that a) Jesus is appearing, b) Wade is going to heaven, or c) Wade is beginning to hallucinate, but no, Wade is just passing out. That’s supposed to be a fade to BLACK, fellas. There is an established language here. Anyway, everyone’s all broken up over the fact that so much of the police force has been killed, then one of the other cops drives Lauren home.

She’s standing in the middle of the road when the wind comes up suddenly—as it did just before the prior car attack that she was present at—causing her to think “My! The wind has come up! Just like before the last car attack! Maybe I should just stand here in the middle of the road for a minute or two and stand around looking dazed in an idiotic way!” Then she goes inside [you’ll notice she is working on a portrait—an AWFUL portrait—of Wade] and calls Wade in the hospital, as she stands perpendicular to her giant panoramic front window. The car’s headlights appear in the distance, coming closer, as she tells Wade that she can hear the car’s engine, while you at home are like “Yeah, you giant moron, and if you were to move your eyes one eighth of a millimeter to the left, you would SEE the car coming at you!” Then—you saw we’re in the SPOILERS, right?—you’re sitting there muttering “Jesus Christ this movie is so fucking dumb, a child—” when the words are taken right out of your mouth by the car SHOOTING STRAIGHT THROUGH THE HOUSE AND OUT THE BACK! THAT was totally unforeseen, and I was left there, mouth gaping, like “Wait a second, was that, like, AWESOME?!?!?” I’m afraid it was. But you’d better hold onto it, because it will be the last of its kind. I’m happy to report that Wade’s portrait survived intact. There is NOT, sadly, a big red smear through the house or any entrails hanging from the gaping hole in the house, but this thing is so tame it could be shown uncut on fucking Nickelodeon.

Finally, 15 minutes to the end, they start speculating that the car is supernatural. There has been talk that there is no driver inside [visibly contradicted by the fact that you can’t see in the windows], and that it wouldn’t go in the graveyard, because it’s hallowed ground. By now we’ve noticed that Brolin spends a lot of time making tortured faces, which I can’t say really suits him in his whole leonine look. He’s in Margie’s garage, with his two kids upstairs, when Margie comes out to chat. But Wade sees—the car is in the garage with him! He tells Margie, repeatedly, “Go upstairs,” but she keeps coming toward him, asking “Why? What’s going on? Wade? Wade? What’s wrong? What’s going on?” Oh my God, I SO know people like that. It’s points like that where you need to turn away from the menacing Satan-car to go beat YOUR FRIEND. Blah, blah, car menacing, but by now it’s obvious that little more interesting is going to happen in this film.

The last ten minutes, I have to say, were about the longest ten minutes of any film I have ever seen in my life—and I was fast-forwarding. They have some sort of plan that involves getting wife-beater Amos to bring out all his explosives, there is an interminable chase, then the car goes over a cliff, and they blow up—something, it’s impossible to see. I read in IMDb trivia that they created three cars just to blow up at the end, but you do not see any of them blow up at all, just a general, poorly-edited explosion. Anyway, right at the end, there’s this kind of black cloud thing within the fiery cloud thing which the cops all gape at with idiotic faces [below], and then something that vaguely looks like a face for a second, and I think we’re supposed to think it was Satan or something. WHICH. IS. DUMB. And also not really any kind of explanation at all. And that’s it!
< < < SPOILERS END

Well, it was kind of fun, but also pretty darn awful. I went back and read the positive IMDb reviews, and mainly what they responded to is that because we never find out what the car is or why it’s attacking, it is therefore kind of existential. Some others respond to the fact that we find out about all this interpersonal drama amongst the characters, which they feel makes this what might result “if Ingmar Bergman made a horror film…”

Suffice to say, I disagree. One of the things I was particularly confused on was why we have all this interpersonal drama that just goes NOWHERE. The kids having trouble accepting Lauren? Just goes away. The abused wife? Nothing to do with anything. Luke’s hitting the booze again? I guess it somewhat affected the parade rehearsal, but… You pay attention to it thinking these things are going to matter somehow, yet they just don’t, making you feel like a chump. As far as never finding out the whys and wherefores of the car, that didn’t bother me so much—I mean would it really make that much sense if we got the cursory “ghost killed on the highway” or “ancient Indian curse” explanations thrown on?—but even those lame endings do help give you the illusion that there was some REASON that you watched this film, and that there’s some REASON this story was told… but in absence of that, heh, maybe this film IS existential.

Usually these kind of movies have subtexts that explain why the attacks, like here I thought for a while maybe the car was the spirit of Wade’s former wife, or we spend so much time with the abusive husband, maybe it’s something to do with him… but ultimately the film resists all these explanations. No, it’s really just quite, quite lame, except for that one shining moment. And maybe the old lady yelling “Cat poo!” And you know, if I’m going to watch a horror movie this silly, I want more violent bang for my buck. It doesn’t have to be gory, just more fun and exciting and more of a sense of danger. Or just way more silliness. Anything, really. Anything.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn’t, but if you did I’d be sure you had friends on hand to mock it with you.

Comments

I saw this the first time in 1983 while at the hospital while my mother was in labor with my brother... I was 13 and it was the best thing that happened to me that day... I THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS AWESOME!