Friday, July 27, 2012

The Car (1977)

In terms of sheer 70s nostalgia, "The Car" is sure to bring back memories, especially if you had HBO, which ran "The Car" frequently.  While it's rated PG and features very little blood, the existential nature of the script is pure 70s doom, and there are a few shocking moments that probably burned it into the brains of impressionable kids from a (somewhat) more innocent time.

Nikki Newman from Y&R, about to get creamed by The Car!
The small desert town of Santa Ynez, Utah, is visited by evil in the form of a sinister black sedan that drives out of the desert and starts running people over at every opportunity. As the film opens, two perky bike-riding teens get stalked and then smushed when The Car sends one hurtling down a rocky embankment and the other plummeting over the rail of a bridge that leads into a canyon. It then runs over a skeezy hitchhiker two or three times, leaving a wife-abusing moron behind as a witness.  The Santa Ynez police department, featuring James Brolin, has no idea how to deal with a homicidal vehicle that proves to be virtually indestructible. Furthermore, the characters discover what we as the audience have suspected all along: nobody is driving The Car. (SHRIEK!!)
....Home of the Funky Chicken
The thing I think is most amazing about "The Car" is that as absurd as the premise is, the movie does have several moments of giddy terror. The opening murder scene is creepy, especially the orange-tinted views of the victims from inside The Car, and the heartless way it toys with them before sending them screaming over the side of the road. There's a great sequence where The Car attacks a childrens' parade rehearsal, chases the kids and teachers up into a rocky hillside area, and then traps them in a cemetery, where a tense confrontation plays out. Kathleen Lloyd plays James Brolin's girlfriend, Lauren, a schoolteacher. She confronts The Car, which will not enter the boundaries of the cemetery (Ronny Cox later deduces it's because the ground is hallowed). It circles them furiously, revving its engine while Lauren taunts it and hurls things at it. Finally, one of the teachers escapes and summons help, forcing The Car to speed off, but later the most spectacular set piece occurs when it returns to stalk Lauren at her home, racing down her quiet residential street and hurling itself right through her house to kill her in her own living room.

The pained faces of Santa Ynez.

The number of cast members murdered by The Car is relatively high, and given Kathleen Lloyd's position in the cast, not to mention the appealing qualities of her character, it's a huge shock to see her brutally killed in such an unexpected way. Adding to the downbeat, doomy stuff even further is the fact that the script throws a whole lot of serious issues into the mix alongside the killer car, like spousal abuse, alcoholism, and the staggering number of friends and loved ones the main characters lose. It's heavy stuff for a B horror movie.
Let's face it. This guy is scarier than The Car.
A few things rob "The Car" of its potential greatness, mainly the fact that it's a PG-rated movie and it doesn't go very far with its violence or language. I only mention it because there are a few cases where the script seems to call for it, particularly the scene where Lauren hurls insults and curses at The Car. The worst she can summon up is calling the assumed driver of the car a "chicken shit scum of the earth". At least she's not as mild mannered as the teacher who yells "CAT POO!" at The Car as it drives off.  Even worse, the music has dated badly and sounds like something you'd hear in a made-for-TV movie, defusing some of the tense moments.

Lauren goes all badass on The Car.
"Cat poo!"

Old Navajo woman says, "There was no logic in this script." 

The climax of the film features another iconic moment when the surviving heroes manage to lure The Car into a quarry, where a massive dynamite explosion buries it in tons of rock and sand.  A huge fireball looms skyward, and for a moment a vague demonic form appears and screams at them.

What *really* drives The Car!

What does work in "The Car" is good stuff. The acting is often overwrought, and some of the supporting actors don't carry their scenes all that well, but the director seems to know this and keeps the scenes short.  Brolin is good, as is Kathleen Lloyd. Ronny Cox is memorable as a tormented alcoholic cop. Look for Kim and Kyle Richards (those two Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) as Wade's two young daughters. The driving stunts are pretty amazing, especially a barrell roll that results in unfortunate death for four of Santa Ynez's finest. The Car itself is pretty weird looking, custom built by George Barris, with a severely dropped top and glass tinted a sickly yellowish-orange color. I love the way the director only shows it in fragments until the parade scene, where it bursts through a barrier and lands on the roadway, our first full view of it as it starts causing mayhem among a mob of screaming kids and teachers. The sound design is effective too, with the strange whine of the engine and the inappropriately big-sounding horn creating an atomsphere of panic--how many of you drivers have narrowly avoided an accident because someone blared on their horn at the last second? The Car just does it to taunt you before it runs right over you.

"When we're real housewives, we have to do WHAT?!"

Ding dong, Land Car!

This shot is from the end credits, which are sometimes omitted when the film is shown on TV. It leaves no question that The Car is speeding around some other city, just waiting to run over some new victims.