Friday, September 02, 2016

10 Reasons: THE CAR (1977)

Nobody said living in a post-JAWS monster landscape was going to be a busket of clacks and thistles, because--no matter how far above sea level you may park your groovy one-hearse town--the scythe, she a-come a swipin'. This is the high-octane truth learned by one unlucky black customized Lincoln when it innocently incurs the ire of a small posse fronted by one wife-beating demolitions expert (E.G. Marshall), a Burt Reynolds imitation motorcycle cop (James Brolin), a relapsing alcoholic deputy, and a cadre of various out-of-order western bit characters in THE CAR (1977). But hell, before it's dispatched to that great infernal pit-stop down below,  this one-of-a-kind low ridin' custom Lincoln learns a valuable lesson and wreaks some unleaded vengeance upon several no-good hippies, a few cops, and even an innocent lovely brunette, in the process giving literality to phrases like 'drive through' and 'dust-devil'.

The ne plus ultra of land-based Jaws rips, the CAR rocks so hard it rattles like a spray paint can in an echo chamber. You can imagine the Universal Studios bigwigs, intrigued by all the money earned by JAWS, and THE OMEN, the nationwide yen for the occult and Detroit muscle cars, watching the script for a demonic souped-up black town car terrorizing a small desert town all but write itself. As if they needed proof, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT came wizzin' by two weeks after THE CAR. 

Alas, it passed right on by with nary a victory honk. And so THE CAR was razzed off the road and left to its wild red yonders, leaving us kids to wonder if those red yonders weren't really right behind us, ready to flash their brights in the dead-of-night highway half-asleep moment. We kids loved it! I remember staring at the novel at Woolworth's, fascinated, imagination revving up. 

Well, in them days, the sorrows of small box office returns were the joys of prime time TV. I remember  my parents, me and brother watching it on its happy Friday Night Movie premiere, happy as clams, mom making popcorn and pouring ice-cold coke, my dad all whiskey sour-cheery and sharp-witted, my little brother and I flanking him, lobbing witticisms like blind shells at the screen (and if we actually made dad laugh it was like scoring a major victory). THE CAR was the kind of movie you could follow real fine even drunk or sugar and salt-addled. Good times. This blog's roots lie in night like that one. It maybe explains maybe why I hate Mystery Science Theater (it tries to steal my dad's affection) and why now, thanks to DVD, THE CAR glows in mine eyes like Rosebud roasting on an open fire in a KRAMPUS snow globe full of (blank).

Yeah I been watching a lot of MATCH GAME 78 on Buzzr.... for the same reason I love this film. Wanna make somethin' of it?

Blank: it's not just a space to be filled, it's a goal in itself.

Revisiting it for this post I noticed that, even now, I like THE CAR better than a lot of more than some of the more highly praised post-Jaws monster genre creations. I like it better even than Joe Dante's PIRANHA. 

And I love PIRANHA. 

1. Car Design

The problem inherent in just transposing the 'rogue shark besieges small tourist town' blueprint onto the Great American Western highway is that there's very few places for a car to hide where we won't see it coming. (It can't exactly leap up from under the asphalt.) At night the thing can turn off its headlights, and then snap on the brights at the right psychological moment. During the day it's hidden only by its blurring speed and the occasional tunnels or brush. Ingeniously--rather than trick the car out with air brushed horns and fangs (the way, say, Rob Zombie would)--THE CAR's designers bring Lewtonesque shadows to its outer chassis. Painted a dull matte grey-black, it looks like a miniature even though it's life size; the big grinning grille / front fender / headlights alternate looking vaguely like bull horns, teeth, or --to my crazy eyes--the glowering lamps of the mollusk in THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1959- below-left), which featured a similar bucolic western America setting facing an existential but localized threat.

Recently I took a frame-by-frame look at a few dark splotches in Val Lewton's 1942 CAT PEOPLE to try and figure out, at long last, what's going on in the shadows of the famous pool scene. You know it: Irina walks into the corner while her rival treads water in the middle of the pool--and then the shadow of a black cat emerges. When she crouches down into the darkness, now that it's all in HD, we see something is forming in between the shadow of Irina, the shadow of the corner of the pool, and the shadow of a cat, but it's just an indistinguishable animated ink blob; it's that rare kind of subliminal animation actually blocks imagery out rather than fleshes it in. It's just a half second or so of inked out darkness - blacker than the black shadows of a dark corner of an unlit pool room, but the effect is uncanny. Paul Schrader didn't get that concept for the remake, so had to use the whole make-up latex blood and placenta schtick, to far less effect.

CAR director Elliot Silverstein knows the reason JAWS worked such a number upon our popular imagination in the summers of 75-6 was the opaqueness of the water...As kids playing in the surf we were always weirded out by the fact that we couldn't see our feet (it wouldn't work near as well in the clear turquoise water of the Caribbean) so we could be about to stand on a crab pincer or get stung by a jellyfish or step on a gross slimy patch of seaweed. This experience makes deep impressions on the unconscious mind, i.e. the dark Lewtonian shadow. What we can't see right below us is simultaneously terrifying and intriguing. Similarly, the interior of the devil car is the mystery; we can't see who's driving, if anyone, nor can we totally know for sure why the car is even there (some Native American return of an ancient evil spirit idea is batted around) and that's part of its effectiveness. I'd have preferred we didn't get even the small interior view of the empty driver's seat (I have a feeling it was insisted on by the producer), but then again not showing anything carries its own penalty too. It makes literal-minded people ornery. Films like Blair Witch Project and Duel go out on a limb, knowing the ambiguity is either going to hit--and make a classic--or piss people off. 

2. UTAH!

Silverstein's original conception of the film was more Lewtonesque - with the idea that the car would be zipping around at high speed with its headlights off in the dead of night, flashing on its brights right before running someone down or totaling their car (ala Stuntman Mike). BUT hey, there's a few moments of that, to some fine effect, so don't worry. And THEN, in the daytime, we see Utah's gorgeous national parks with all the canyons and Mars-looking red rock piles and glory therein. Thanks to recent DVD and Blu-ray remastering it's now no longer just a "fun" film but a breathtaking lure to anyone who's become sick to death of big city life and longed to escape to where everyone knows your name and the closest thing to evil is EG Marshall.

Escape, the lure, the road west... Gerald Hirschfeld's camera never gets too over-the-top with art, just delivers the vistas. Hell, it's not rocket science.

The climax with its early dawn thing; the sun just coming up from between the far off mountains-- that's hard to get just right when capturing all the Utah scenery - but Hirschfeld does it. And the final shot with the smoke and the sun coming up like a big round eye of God... man, that's just totally the shit.

3.  Leonard Rosenman's para-diegetic score 

America was used to talking cars and intelligent VW Bugs thanks to TV comedy shows like HERBIE and MY MOTHER, THE CAR, but the way this devil car communicates is solely through engine revving and a horn from hell, a rising and falling  death rattle blast that Roseman's hip-but-never-ostentatious score gamely enfolds in the fabric of his score. He also great use of the desert wind whistling through idle band instruments as elementary school marching band parade practice temporarily halts out on a lonely track field, and the way that cacophonous sound gradually shifts into a lower octave as "the Car" rolls into view. The mounting engine drone, the cacophony of the instruments, the roaring wind, the children's panic, all fuse into the score. Great churning bassoons and oboes tap their way through Grieg's Mountain King's hallways and ye olde funeral dirge "Die Irae" (later heard in Wendy Carlos' Shining) and the long scary drones of octave drooping thunder; the piercing top note sustains and clanging cymbals merge flawlessly with hell's own car horn as it revs up for the kill and exults in triumph, Rosenman is clearly trying something new and cool, merging diegetic/ambient and score together in a way that has our ears always sifting around through the melody, in search of that telltale horn...

4. Kathleen Lloyd as Lauren

You can call the film derivative if you want--another JAWS-DUEL-EXORCIST hybrid ripoff--but there's no cash-centric mayor ranting about starting a panic and scaring off tourists ("so some car ran over a few hippies? Don't make a big thing about it and scare away the tourists?"); no defrocked alcoholic priest working as an auto mechanic who alone can stop it ("Someone's gonna have to climb inside that car and hang a cross around the rearview mirror, and I reckon it's gonna have to be me."), not even obsessive Ahab-like FBI agent with a tire tread scar across his face from when he was run over by the same vehicle in Alamogordo last month ("I'll get that car if it's the last thing I do!") etc. What the film does have, however, in spades, is a long, "boss" (1) ) scene wherein sheriff James Brolin's girlfriend, elementary school teacher Lauren, taunts the car from the dubious safety of the church graveyard to try and protect her terrified class. It's a real stunner of a scene and Lloyd brilliantly acts a full range of emotions, moving very palpably from terrified, to mad, working herself up to sneering provocations, and even branch-throwing, trying to goad whomever's driving to come out and show himself.  Her eyes getting dark and shark-like, glistening from fear-adrenalin but voice cracking from the dust stirred up by the furiously revving car, Lloyd gets the shake in her voice exactly right. She's ageless in this moment - with her big head and short sleeves she could be a fifth grader herself, or my fifth grade teacher from the same approx. time, Miss Zackon.

Her big moment here is so unusually human! It's the first time we've really cared or rooted for someone so much cooler and complex than we originally thought --and it's a girl! In JAWS, we like Mrs. Brody but she doesn't get much to do, shark-wise, and even in THE BIRDS (1963), Melanie and Annie merely help the children run to safety. But Lauren not only helps the children run to safety she gets out and, so to speak, throws rocks at the crows.

She's also a great example of what I call the 70s hot shiksa movement as that decade saw a whole slew of cool complex Jewish or Italian-American girlfriends. They're now much harder to find due to Hollywood's red head obsession. Lloyd was also the romantic interest with Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS - and was brilliant there, too. Here she sounds exactly like you'd expect a schoolteacher to sound: playful but grounded, fun but no pushover; her slightly plain-spoken voice hinting she talks to kids a lot (so has to be loud) but never talks down to them. Maybe she sounds a little infantile herself at times herself, but countermands it with a maternal toughness that lets you know you better do as she says or or she'll flatten you cold with a few measured words or grab your nuts (below camera) --while she rocks a Cagney impression, no less!

Her last scene has a hushed Val Lewton kind of magic. It's night after the incident at the church; she's being dropped off by the Navajo deputy Feeling the wind beginning to stir, recognizing it as the same unearthly wind from the attack, she runs up to call Wade. It's all very hushed and eerie, indicating the direction Silverstein originally wanted to go --that sense of enveloping darkness, the shot where the headlights start out super small down the road -- the kind of single static camera shot both Tourneur and Hitchcock alike would have been proud of. 


Right off the bat there's a totally impressive stunt --a cyclist falling off this super high-up suspension bridge over a river, flailing limbs so you know it's not a dummy. It's the kind of thing CGI would handle now, but this is stuntman territory, out in Native American preservations and uninhabited swaths of Utah, away from prying Highway Safety eyes. So when we see a tiny flash of light off in the distance at the parade ground we know what's coming, we don't need cutaways to insert dodgy overlays. When cowboys fall off their horses while distracting the car away from running children, they really do fall right by speeding tires. The car really does smash right through that house.

There is one scene though that's dodgy: where the car pulls hard turn speeding at the two cops cars in a game of chicken, then starts rolling over on itself, rolls over the passing cars and smashes in the roofs killing everyone - say what you want (we never see the car land)--and it sure is ridiculous, but we also see the cap really flip over... and all the quick cut shots of blood and fire are awesome if nothing else.

6.  Faithfulness to the Satanic Western Genre (70s)

This was the era of cowboy character donning pentagram covered black robes and sacrificing folks like William Shatner (DEVIL'S RAIN) or Warren Oates (RIDE WITH THE DEVIL), or transmigrating into random kids (BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN). These films realized--as only Jack Arnold had before (in TARANTULA and It CAME FROM OUTER SPACE)--that the strange alien landscape of the American Southwest had a disturbing, eerie, almost Satanic, majesty. Native American shamanic curses and otherworldly savvy suffused the mise-en-scene. 

The closest thing to a religious resource in THE CAR are Navajo legends. There are no Catholics priest Baptists, not even Mormons. There's an old church/ graveyard but it's long empty There is a quote from Anton La Vey in the beginning and a cross on the alcoholic deputy's neck--but why not? He's probably in AA - which equals spirituality without religion. 

This town itself, with its rugged western faces and wide-eyed children (cool kids, cute but not sweet or saintly), is almost like the 70s itself, needing to let go of all its dysfunction or embrace them. There's ultimately no explanation why that weird car is showing up at all, let alone why here, of all places. There is no 'gotcha' moment, or man vs. machine John Henry moral. The car is there because it's a gorgeous stunning vista-ridden area - and most of us who've been in that part of the country have only driven through on their way to the coast, going out of our way to get super high and drive through Utah's alien landscape, listening to Pink Floyd's "Meddle" album and going, "wow, man." In other words, the car is us, the drivers passing through to California or New York. We're the ones running over pedestrians and going "Oops, just keep going."

After all, if the devil was to drive through any part of the country, wouldn't it be here? The rocky canyons and otherworldly terrain could have been allowed to manifest as demonic if given the right atonal avant-garde drone and deep focus landscape at dawn shots (like 2001 or the beginning of THERE WILL BE BLOOD). We don't get them, but they tried and it's almost there, and the rocks are still weird enough.

(For a satiric look at how mainstream pagan/devil-worshipping was in the UK in the 70s- be sure and check out Scarfolk)

7. Cool (70s) Kids

Real life sisters Kyle and Kim Richards (they'd grow up to be real-life aunts of Paris Hilton) are the daughters of sheriff Brolin, and you know I hate kids on principle except in the 70s (I was the same age when THE CAR came out as they are here). It was the last decade in which kids ran wild all over the neighborhood from the age of five onward. We grew up wild and free and these two kids are great examples of why that was a good policy. Smart, cool, they have a good playful rapport with Brolin. Together they have that kind of lion with his cubs quality that, say, Brody and his brood had in JAWS. He drives them both to school on the back of his motorcycle! He makes them wear helmets but he doesn't wear one himself. In other words, he's one of those great 70s dads I'm always writing about, the ones able to inspire love and independence without micro-managing, hovering, fretting, or sacrificing their own happiness and freedom on the altar of their children's "safety."

8. Believably out-of-their-depth local cops:

The local cops mean well, and try hard, but they're not prepared for an indestructible devil car. Things get fouled up with their communication and their lack of experience is a real hindrance. They've barely had to draw their guns in the line of duty before, and now this? 

Though strictly small town, these are not bad guys (as they'd be in FIRST BLOOD) or buffoons (SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT). For Luke (Ronny Cox), celebrating his two-year sober anniversary, the unreality of it all is just too good a reason to relapse. Hell, I'd do the same, even though his spacey state of shock results in the attack on the parade grounds (he forgets to cancel it).

I like that, after their roadblocks fail, these cops just frankly don't know what to do, and for once it's not frustrating as they're not deposited as heroes held back from performance by some greedy mayor in a tacky sport coat --they're just plain outgunned by Satan's engine. In fact, they're a bit like the police in TWIN PEAKS if agent Cooper wasn't there --they even have a tall Native American tracker type (Eddie Little Sky), mainly so an old medicine woman from his tribe can bear witness to the running over of the local old NYC character actor on the force, Chief Everett (John Marley), and inform him the car has strange magic.

Everett's actually a pretty cool older character. "Are you gonna stand there philosophizing or are you gonna buy me a drink? You're not smart enough to do both," he says. "You know what your father once said to me," he tells Wade as they stroll across the street to the town's one bar (never seen in interior), then he forgets, "ah I was gonna make it up anyhow."  And he gets pretty furious with the local wife beater, ever-trying to convince the wife to press charges. "Be anything you want, just don't be a bully!"

Was there ever a more succinct encapsulation of 70s philosophy?

It's not Everett's death however, but Lauren's--inevitably the reprisal for her taunting--that makes it feel personal and the surviving fuzz are finally fully rallied and we're rooting for them all the way. There's a great long single static shot, no music or dialogue, of the cops sitting around Lauren's wrecked living room in a state of angry fugue shock and rage. No words, no real movement, no music--the moment is allowed to land. Then, back at the sheriff office they grab the demolition man wife beater out of the jail (EG Marshall) and Brolin just says "you." Marshall smiles an evil but reassuring grin - he'll at last get to use his violence for the good of the group. It's a galvanizing moment--and all the more potent for being done without meddling emotional telegraph scoring.

 9. Better at being a Stephen King adaption than most Stephen King adaptions

Like so many good horror novels, especially King's, we get a weird vignette of each recognizably small town American victim before they're slaughtered, and we either mourn or cheer their demises. We do wish there was more time with cute girlfriend and less of the abusive demolitions expert husband down the road--but each have an important part in the Americana tapestry. When the alcoholic deputy reacts to the weirdness of the car invasion by sneaking a fifth of whiskey out of his trunk on the day of his two-year sober anniversary, the event is given the proper shadowy ominousness--the sort King, a recovering alcoholic himself, would definitely add if this was one of his books--instead of being made light of or indirectly encouraged (welcome back!) or judged as mere character weakness (can't you just drink a beer and stop like everyone else?). All in all, rather than just painting the roadkill residents in dumb broad get-it-over-with strokes, the mood and low key vibe of the thing is really honed in on. These are people we know from our own lives, or would like to, and quickly come to care about, not generic lazily-written 'types.'

Everyone involved in the cast is smart enough to know we in the audience are going to find the premise of devil car absurd, so they wisely play it dead straight. As a result, it's fine fun and lacks the endless train of shitters and bullies that, to my mind, marred CHRISTINE --both the book and the film--in mean-spirited overkill and too many on-the-nose rock songs ("Bad to the Bone" ugh). THE CAR doesn't deign to mess in such overly-paddled waters. Like the recent Netflix hit, STRANGER THINGS, THE CAR explores the good parts of King horror novel style without the cliches and ugly American small town swath-cataloguing and cheap way to get our blood up as readers.

10. Brolin Brolin Brolin

My dad considered James Brolin the worst actor in the history of the world. That's etched in my mind (PS- dad's worst actress: Ali McGraw). Well, James fathered one of my favorite actors of our day, Josh Brolin, so he's all right with me. And you see the resemblance right off, and it makes James' films bolder and more resonant in hindsight. Both of them Brolins them look like they belong in the American Southwest (in films like this and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. They have a smattering of the noble savage about their features--like Jame's grandpa could have been the son of the Native American princess and Dewey Martin in THE BIG SKY. As with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson, that droplet of Native American ancestry in their DNA helps them look as rugged and grounded as the great American Southwest itself. Their voice just clinches it. These are men who didn't have to learn to ride a horse or shoot a gun for their first western. 

As for his character, Wade "Parent," (how associative!), we don't often see such a mix of well-meaning lummox and laconic rebel in horror movie fathers anymore. Today they are either perfect dads, seeping intelligence warmth and compassion like puss from glowing sores, or tortured-by-the-killer-who-got-away divorcee cops always late to their children's custody hearing--the haggard ex-wife glowering at him as he stumbles into the courtroom, spilling lame excuses. Today, too, child actor babyface stunted growth prettiness and 'good' masculinity have become intertwined to the point even country stars have to be clean shaven burly but baby-faced Christians rather than hairy good old boys full of swamp-bred sass, nicotine deep vocals, a moonshine twinkle in their blue eyes, and a 'stache big as all outdoors. 

But Brolin's Wade is one of the great 70s dads, fulfilling the linkage to his son Josh's portrayal of a great 70s dad, in PLANET TERROR.  Just taking his two little girls to their elementary school on the back of his motorcycle should give you some kind of a clue. This is not a man who's going to turn this devil car case over to the Feds or State Patrol--though he knows deep down he probably should. He probably doesn't even have the FBI's phone numbers. But he's certainly got the 'stache, and the moxy, and a dim cognizance of his own limitations coupled to the courage to sally forth anyway is what makes a man a man's man.

If that's the trade-off--"competence and dull safety-first responsible clean-shaven rules-follower" instead of 'mustache ridin' badasses who need to fall apart before they can be re-glued'-well then... at least we got the movies to remember the real men by. Isn't that why we're all here, to make sure we remember the things we left behind when we were booted from our comfy local highway drag strip to make way for the god-damned highway with its speed limit and tolls?

And remember: in the 70s no one used seat-belts, even in the front. EVER! Dig.

It's a slippery slope, all that life-saving is murder on our Social Security and pension funds. Honey don't think about it. Just press play and drive fast, furious, and over and over... the hippie... one more time.

"Boss" was the adjective we kids of the 70s used a lot, i.e. "Boss iron-on, Cheryl! Where'd ya get it?"


  1. Anonymous15 July, 2023

    Hello from France.
    In this movie, "thé démolition expert" is portrayed by RG Armstrong, not E G Marshall.

  2. thanks, the "X-G" initials similarity must have triggered my dyslexia.


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