THE CAR (1977)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on December 30, 2015, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Having given the Collector’s Edition treatment to Universal Pictures classics from John Carpenter and Wes Craven, Shout! Factory has been digging deeper into the studio’s vaults in recent months, coming up with oddities like this 1977 screen vehicle for…a vehicle.

Critically derided and a box-office flop when it first opened—two weeks before Star WarsThe Car is a pretty baldfaced attempt by Universal to knock off two previous Steven Spielberg successes, Jaws and the TV movie Duel (which Uni released theatrically overseas). In one of three interview featurettes on the Scream Factory Blu-ray, director Elliot Silverstein acknowledges right up front that he was expected to deliver “Jaws on land,” and that maintaining a sense of mystery about a predator driving the sunny Southwest instead of lurking in the deep was no easy feat. In that, at least, he was relatively successful.

The eponymous star of The Car is a big black Lincoln Continental (customized by George Barris, who was also responsible for TV’s Batmobile, The Dukes of Hazzard’s General Lee and many others) with no license plates or door handles—or driver. “Is it a phantom, a demon, or the devil himself?” asks the tagline, and the movie doesn’t provide an answer, even with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey serving as a technical advisor and tapped for an opening quotation. All this machine does is drive and honk and make short work of several hapless victims, starting with a young bicycling couple on a twisty Utah canyon road before taking its business to a nearby small town. Silverstein builds an effective air of menace around the killer car, and an ominous mood into several moments hinting at its impending arrival.

That mood is shattered, unfortunately, as soon as the movie’s people start talking. The Car sports some eye-rollingly awful dialogue, delivered with too-straight faces by a cast who have all been seen to better advantage elsewhere. James Brolin is stalwart Chief Deputy Wade Parent, who will become the hero of the piece; Kathleen Lloyd, seen around the same time in Larry Cohen’s It Lives Again, gives a brittle, hysterical performance as his schoolteacher girlfriend (who calls the car a “psycho idiot horse’s ass” at one point); John Marley, so good in movies ranging from The Godfather to Deathdream, tries way too hard as the sheriff; Ronny Cox makes the strongest impression as another deputy, a recovering alcoholic whose encounters with the car push him off the wagon; Kim and Kyle Richards, in between Carpenter films, play onscreen sisters for the only time in their careers as Wade’s daughters; and reliably ornery R.G. Armstrong turns up in a role proving that if a character’s explosives business is seen in the first act, it will come in handy in the third.

The material is ridiculous, though the professional veneer applied to The Car counts for quite a bit: Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography is gorgeous (and given a spiffy 2.35:1 transfer on the Blu-ray), while Leonard Rosenman contributes a full-blooded score shot through with the oft-quoted Gregorian hymn “Dies Irae.” Some of the tensest scenes, however, play largely in silence, as when the car corners a pursuing lawman atop a cliff or makes a surprise appearance in Wade’s garage—though ultimately, the movie works better as an actioner than a horror film. Barely a drop of onscreen blood is spilled, and Silverstein and stunt coordinator Everett Creach instead deliver impressive automotive mayhem, involving some of the most easily exploded police cruisers in film history.

One of these setpieces has the satanic sedan barrel-rolling over a couple of cop cars, a gag that Silverstein suggests in his featurette didn’t live up to his ambitions, but comes off pretty well nonetheless. In general, Silverstein candidly discusses The Car as a job rather than a passion project, one on which he did the best with what he had (including a visual FX department distracted by bigger projects). Two actresses with small roles also sit down for on-camera interviews: Navajo Geraldine Keams, who reveals an issue that arose due to differences in Native American languages, and Melody Thomas Scott, who plays the first casualty and has the best anecdotes, involving Silverstein’s impatience with her bike riding and scaring tourists while wearing her bloody aftermath makeup. Also included: the trailer, TV and radio spots and a pleasingly varied collection of stills and international promo art, with a neat little surprise for memorabilia collectors at the very end.

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