“THE CAR” (Blu-ray Review, Arrow Films)
Released amidst a slew of JAWS knock offs, THE CAR was completely dismissed in 1977, and not without reason. It is a pretty dumb movie. However, it’s also a gloriously dumb movie and that’s the sort of thing that cults are built on. The movie may not have achieved the revival status of Steven Spielberg’s similar motor-monster-movie DUEL or even 70s car chase relic VANISHING POINT, but it’s certainly developed a base of followers. Guillermo del Toro even had a perfect replica of the titular evil vehicle built to drive around Los Angeles as a one man movie homage and he’s far from the only one with fond memories of discovering the flick in drive ins, on worn down VHS tapes, or late night cable screenings. There’s an undeniable charm to Elliot Silverstein’s ridiculous exploitation movie. While it’s not the most obvious choice for a pristine new Arrow Blu-ray, THE CAR is a fun addition to their ever-growing line up of oddball genre releases and one in need of a wider audience of those special folks with a sweet tooth for cheese.
The film opens with an Anton LaVey quote suggesting a meditation on evil to follow that never arrives. Instead, an evil car possessed by some form of Satanic influence pops up in a small desert town with only a ragtag group of corn fed cops—led by a young n’ spectacularly mustached James Brolin*— to stop it. The film works on two levels. On one, there are some pretty fantastic car kills executed years before Stephen King dreamed up CHRISTINE or MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. Armed with a decent budget and a 70s stunt team seemingly unconcerned with their physical safety, Silverstein stages remarkable chases, crashes, and explosions that are genuinely thrilling. The ominous car driving through the desert trailed by atmospheric clouds of dust is also quite an evocative image, playing as a sort of redneck gothic horror flick.
Whenever characters open their mouths, the film’s second level of charm appears. No one involved in THE CAR may have been going for comedic effect, but the film is absolutely hilarious. The cast of up-and-comers earnestly act their hearts out to the best of their limited ability, delivering big laughs along the way. Sample exchange:
“I’ll jam that horn so far up your ass, you’ll be farting music for a year!”
“Geez, wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
The film offers non-stop entertainment, mixing competency and incompetency into that special cocktail which made Roger Corman’s New World Pictures legendary, and created a subgenre of self-conscious homage following the grand GRINDHOUSE folly (THE CAR is definitely one of the many influences on DEATH PROOF). In fact, the movie works so well as a horror-comedy that you might start to think Elliot Silverstein played the proceedings with tongue jammed firmly in cheek. Certainly the director’s track record (CAT BALLOU and a handful of TWILIGHT ZONE and TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes) would suggest he knew how to craft scares and camp. However, one of the most awkward audio commentaries in the history of the medium should knock that opinion right out of your skull.
This being an Arrow release, the disc is stacked with special features, all of them quite amusing on a variety of levels. The highlight for cringe lovers is a commentary between Arrow producer Calum Waddell and Silverstein. The director clearly hasn’t seen or thought about the movie since 1977, and even though he’s clearly flattered to be interviewed, he awkwardly stumbles through the proceedings. He denies any JAWS influence and drops pearls of wisdom like “it is what it is” while Waddell struggles to keep the conversation alive. Thanks to prodding, everything you’d want to know is covered and surely Silverstein’s mixture of dismissive remarks and occasional insights is probably more entertaining than any straight interview would have been.
Next up is an interview with FX artist William Alridge, who genuinely remembers every stunt and describes the creative, renegade ways they were pulled off with great enthusiasm. Hearing him delve into the behind the scenes tales of a mind bogglingly dangerous bridge jump and the climatic demonic fireball are worth the price of the disc alone. On top of that is an amusing talk with John Rubinstein (who played a goofy hitchhiking victim), a Trailers From Hell entry for the movie hosted by John Landis and a booklet featuring an informative essay, as well as another surly interview with the screenwriter.
Pile it all together and you’ve got a stacked package above and beyond what anyone could expect. The carefully restored transfer makes the drive-in movie look better than it probably did in theaters, and you’ve really got to applaud Arrow for lavishing this level of effort on an oddity like THE CAR. Movies this weird and obscure deserve this type of treatment, if only because the stories behind making them are often more enthralling than the well-worn tales behind more revered classics. If you’ve never seen THE CAR, the mix of well crafted suspense and bonehead writing/acting is pretty special. There’s certainly no other movie quite like it.
* Who looks so eerily similar to his son Josh in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN that you’ve got to wonder if that was one of the Coen’s cineliterate in-jokes.