The film: The Car
The Principals: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong, Ronny Cox, Kim Richards, a customized 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III, and could it be… SATAN? Directed by Elliot Silverstein.
The Premise: A small, peaceful town in Utah is suddenly terrorized by a murderous, black sedan… the likes of which has never been seen before. Only the sheriff of this hodunk-podunk town in the middle of Mormon country can stop this unholy force from its sinister rampage. Unfortunately, he’s killed pretty quickly. So that means James Brolin (as Captain Wade Parent) has to step up instead and set the example for his future Goonie by taking on the Devil’s Coach himself. Well him, his dirt bike, a gun that doesn’t do jack shit against a Hellwagon, some other deputies, a seventies Native American stereotype, a crazy wife-beater (not the shirt) with some TNT, and the power of love. All that is true, except for the love part. Because love is stupid.
Is It Good? Not really. It suffers from several major flaws. First, what you have here is a film that is clearly borrowing its ideas from other films, namely two in particular – Duel and Jaws (coincidentally, both made by Spielberg). The main plot follows Jaws fairly closely, almost as if the initial pitch meeting started out with, “Did everyone see that shark movie that came out a couple of years ago? What if we did that movie, but set it in the desert! And we’ll make the shark a killer car! No one would ever suspect! Besides, everyone knows this Spielberg guy isn’t going to amount to anything! Did you see that other movie he did that we’re kinda ripping off? Well done, everyone! Let’s go score some coke and hit a discothèque afterwards.”
From there, quite a few of the main story beats from Jaws are lifted, but with a minor alteration or two: The sheriff’s second-in-command is the hero. The Car attacks a marching band practice that Brolin’s character Wade tells them to cancel. They recruit a drunken spouse abuser who has the tools they need to defeat The Car. Even small character moments seem to mirror similar scenes in the unarguably better film. When we’re first introduced to Brolin’s character, he’s having a playful/sexy moment with his girlfriend (“We made him divorced! Ha!”). In fact, I never realized how much this film reminded me of the Spielberg classic until I sat down to watch it for this review. Then again, the last time I saw it I was eight and caught it on one of those Saturday afternoon horror show host programs brought to you by Purina and that crazy car dealer guy down the street who often did his commercials in his underwear.
Another problem with this movie is that while I was watching it, I kept thinking to myself, “So this is what it would be like if Universal made a PG-rated grindhouse film.” Anyone who’s familiar with that period of classic cinema or pretends to have been a fan the whole time thanks to Quentin Tarantino knows that grindhouse flicks were known for their low budgets. Most often this would be evident by the numerous scenes of heavy-dialogue or character moments, while the film would only contain one or two “money shots” – one of which would always be saved for the climax of the film. Universal’s DeathLincoln has this down pat. This film is filled with long and heavy moments of characters sitting around and regurgitating large amounts of dialogue. And most of it is in the service of giving almost every adult character in the film even a slight back story. I’m not kidding. Almost every grown-up not only has some personality trait or background info revealed through conversation, but almost every adult in this town has dialogue! There are no background characters here. And death doesn’t get you out of it, either. When the first two deaths in the film are discovered, there’s an exchange about each character and how one of them was going to go out for a job interview. Even a random hitchhiker, who is introduced solely to meet grilldeath, reveals himself to be a french horn player who seems delighted at the thought of being able to play music with his farts (this really happened).
And with the movie top-heavy with folks sitting or standing around chatting about what Carl’s favourite sandwich is, that means that The Car itself doesn’t get a lot of screen time. It shows up twice at the beginning to take three folks, then only pops up on occasion throughout the rest of the movie’s run time. There are only two big scenes for the title character – the standoff with the marching band practice in the cemetery and the finale where the deputies have their final showdown in the canyon. And with the budget only allowing for four custom Lincolns to be made and used, it’s understandable as to why they had to keep its appearances light.
But that leads me to the real problem with this feeling like a grindhouse movie. Like I mentioned, it feels like Universal tried to make one at the PG level. Unfortunately, that means that any nudity, language, gore or gruesome death scenes are absent from the entire movie. The most we get is a crimson smear across a bridge after the first double-murder of a way-too-low body count. The end result is that sadly, this movie is too tame for it’s subject matter. You have a devil-driven sedan bent on running down folks with no rhyme or reason. This is a plot that was made for gruesome imagery and carnage. Instead, what we’re given is what was easily made to be shown on Saturday afternoons (ask my eight-year-old self). Even the previously-mentioned scene between Brolin and Lloyd attempting sexyplay has no teeth. It’s like Universal edited their movie for television before even putting it in theaters. I’m honestly surprised that Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey agreed to be associated with this flaccid film.
The final strike this film has against it is the performances. Practically everyone in the movie comes off like a crazy person in the way they recite their lines. Kathleen Lloyd taunts The Car from a small cemetery in such a way that you’d swear she had just come from a tailgate party. In a scene that literally had me laughing at loud, the sheriff has a brief interchange with Brolin about how tragic it is that a spouse is getting beaten by their future dynamite saviour. A split second later, he shoves his fists in the air and screams “WHISKEY!” Then he’s killed by Beelz as soon as he steps outside. Even Brolin comes off bipolar with the way he goes from restrained one moment to drinking the same crazy Kool Aid as everyone else in the movie.
Too make a long story short (too late), you have what could have been a great concept for a hardcore demon-wagon killspree flick. What we are left with is a disjointed film trying to be a thriller. Unfortunately, it’s punctuated too frequently by unintentionally comedic acting, scenes that are actually trying to be funny and no real bite.
Is It Worth a Look? I think it is. Despite everything I said above, I found myself enjoying the The Car. At the very least, the film isn’t boring. Even the dialogue-heavy scenes are entertaining to watch merely for the insane performances on display. I found myself grinning frequently while the filler scenes in between Car sightings kept me amused. And when you do get to see some Satanic auto-play, the score (which is a reworked orchestral version of Berlioz-Symphonie Fantastique) does a pretty good job of setting a sinister tone for each scene where the demonic murder vehicle takes another life. In fact, the Car scenes themselves – as few and far between as they are – actually manage to pull off being menacing. I know when I saw it at eight years old those scenes of the Car terrorizing everyone chilled me to the bone (mainly because I was raised to fear Satan, because he’s real and he’ll get you!). But even now, as an adult who’s definitely more level-headed, I find the scenes of The Car very effective. In particular, there’s a scene where Brolin’s girlfriend Lauren is on the phone to Brolin in her darkened house. In the background is an open window. As she talks to him over the phone, the lights of The Car appear in the distance and quickly make their way toward the house right before it jumps right through it, taking Lauren’s life with it. It’s actually a pretty chilling and effective scene, so much so that it even got my girlfriend to look up from her silly memes on her laptop long enough to say “Holy crap.”
Bottom line is that despite it’s heavy flaws, The Car is a fun selection for a Saturday afternoon when you’re either stuck indoors because it’s raining or you’re just in the mood to laze on the couch, especially if you enjoyed the kind of Saturday afternoon horror and thriller fare local networks used to offer back in the day. It also wouldn’t hurt to invite over a few friends and crack open a few beers for the experience. The cast apparently did.
Random Anecdotes: The custom Lincoln Continental Mark III used for the film was created by custom car-designer George Barris, who also is responsible for the Batmobile from the sixties Batman TV series. This is also one of the first film roles for everyone’s favourite Cohaagan, Ronny Cox. Oddly, his acting in this film comes off as the most grounded.
Cinematic Soulmates: Jaws, Duel, Christine, Killdozer!, Maximum Overdrive.