Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Car (1977)

Country: USA


In the 1970’s the flip side to the primal ‘revolt of nature’ film heralded in by the blockbuster success of Jaws (1975) was a series of films that sought to interrogate questions of technology and the machines created by capitalist and industrial endeavour. Although these ‘revolt of technology’ films functioned within the parameters of the horror and science-fiction genres they also owed a great deal to the paranoid thrillers that arose in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In this respect they can be seen as the fantastical flip side to such thrillers as The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). In those films and many others of that form an emphasis was placed on a shadowy and terrifying superpower manipulating events in order to maintain the status quo and whilst films of the ‘revolt of technology’ form reduced the emphasis on these qualities there was still the sense that they possessed a subtext which depicted the government and the scientific institutions in an unsavoury light. The automobile is so central to conceptions of the American dream that it only seems natural in an uncertain 1970’s that saw fundamental challenges to freedom and democracy that it too would become a device of subversion and fear. The screenplay of The Car by Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack opts to relieve itself of much of the baggage of paranoid thrillers in favour of the supernatural, but the symbolic resonance of an automobile as a weapon of death feeds strongly into the fears of the day. Despite this The Car was a commercial (somewhat surprising) and critical (no surprise at all) failure. The spectacle this film offered simply paled in a year that saw Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo begin their adventures in a war torn galaxy far far away!

The narrative of this film is thin and insubstantial and simply charts the efforts of a mysterious black Sedan to terrorise, maim and kill the inhabitants of a small desert community. The car itself has no back story (a strength or a weakness?) and simply just appears out of thin air on a bright and beautiful summers day. Its first victims are a couple of loved up cyclists who meet their maker in a striking sequence on a bridge. Later that same day an annoying musical hitchiker is crushed under the unforgiving wheels of the evil car. However from this point onwards things get personal as the car responds to the obligatory police investigation by targeting the nearest and dearest of the perplexed peacemakers. A hint of the cars origins and purpose is provided by a key scene in which it is unable to enter the hallowed grounds of a churchyard. The subsequent frustration and annoyance of the car gives it a personality lacking in some of the human characters it is there to destroy. The ironically named Wade Parent (James Brolin) a single father of two kids is the small town cop that the car appears to be there to test. He is supported by the weak and incompotent alcoholic Luke (the ever reliable Ronny Cox). Both actors bring enthusiasm to their thankless roles - though Brolin would put his moody and brooding physicality to better use in the otherwise awful The Amityville Horror (1979). The remainder of the cast are typically forgettable as the car takes centre stage.

The director Elliot Silverstein neither has the skill nor the budget to emulate Jaws - the film which provides the template for much of the narrative. He mounts one or two impressive and suspenseful sequences (the car driving through the side of a house to claim a victim, the car rolling and flipping in order to take out two police cruisers) but these are disparate moments. A touch of class is added with a welcome point of view shot from inside the car (these shots are tinted red for added demonic atmosphere). But in the main this film is slow and talky. The desert location however (the film was shot almost entirely on location in Utah) is impressively conveyed, the dust and wind helping too obscure the vehicle which often appears off screen when least expected. In this respect The Car bears comparison to John Carpenter’s Halloween - both films utilise the frame in a similar manner and as The Car came first perhaps this was an influence on Carpenter? What is perhaps most surprising is a downbeat and sombre mood which doesn’t let up throughout the film. The Car is played entirely straight and is totally lacking humour, despite the potential in this area that the premise offers. The film never stops being fun though and it ends in a suitably absurd and fiery finale in which we glimpse a familiar demonic form raging within the flames.

© Shaun Anderson  2010


  1. I think this film is campy as hell, but a fun ride from beginning to end. The car jumping inside the house to kill the teacher is hilarious! I really enjoy this film for its B-movie cheesiness. Great review!

  2. Thanks for the comment Fred - I totally agree, THE CAR makes up for its ineptitude by its B-movie enthusiasm, and and for the fact that its a lot of fun from start to finish.

  3. Damn, this sounds like a fun watch in deed! Gotta get down to it! It kind of reminds me of that other haunted car movie from the 80s called The Wraith, ever seen that one?

  4. I'm surprised you havent seen this Franco - maybe I'm so familiar with it because it played a lot on late night television here in the UK back in the 1980's...its rubbish, but its rubbish thats fun. I do indeed remember THE WRAITH...Charlie Sheen as a leather clad avenger driving an incredible souped up blac sports car - a weird blend of teen horror and the road movie.

  5. Thats okay man, I like my fair share of rubbish from time to time, it lightens things up!

  6. "The Car" is exactly the kind of movie the British film industry should be producing on a regular basis but for some reason they cant seem to do it which is why the British film industry is crap.


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