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-swipes. 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 he'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 young people (who deserve it), a few cops, and an innocent lovely shiksa (who doesn't), even giving a whole new meaning 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 hear the Universal Studios bigwigs drooling at the money earned by JAWS, EXORCIST, THE OMEN, then observing the affordability of the Detroit muscle car, the vogue for drag race movies (DUEL, DEATH RACE 2000, 50s nostalgia, etc.) and feeling an idea for a demonic town car terrorizing a small resort town all but writing itself. As if they needed proof, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT came wizzin' by two weeks after THE CAR, and 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 needn't have worried. The sorrows of box office returns are the joys of a fast turn-around to Prime Time. Making fun of it with my parents and brother on its happy Friday Night Movie premiere, 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 it real fine even drunk or sugar-addled. Good times. This blog may have roots in night like that one watching THE CAR; it maybe explains maybe why I hate Mystery Science Theater (it tries to steal my thunder) 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 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 its headlights off and than snap on the brights at the right psychological moment, but during the day it's hidden only by its blurring speed and occasional tunnels or brush. Ingeniously--rather than trick the car out with air brushed horns and fangs (the way, say, Rob Zombie would do)--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), which featured a similar bucolic western America setting and threat (prehistoric mollusks awakened in a small earthquake rise up from the Salton Sea to attack locals).

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, wherein Irina walks into the corner and then a black cat emerges. You can see that when she crouches down into the darkness, something is being animated, ink painted right onto the celluloid; you can 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 shit out rather than fleshes it in; a half second or so of inked out darkness - blacker than the black shadows of a dark corner of an unlit pool room, and the effect is uncanny. Paul Schrader couldn'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... That we couldn't see our feet and could be about to stand on a crab pincer or get stung by a jellyfish... this was the unconscious mind --that was the dark Lewtonian shadow. Here the interior of the car is the mystery; we can't see who's driving, 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, but not showing anything carries its own penalty too.

the red rock Utah vistas are glorious --

Silverstein's original conception of the film was even 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 in the daytime, filmed all around Utah's gorgeous national parks with all the canyons and Mars-looking red rock piles and glory therein, thanks to DVD and Blu-ray well, it's 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.

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. With great termite genius, Rosenmen enfolds the diegetic ambient sound of the car horn into his score, so that the horn seems to slowly come into earshot in the middle of the orchestral weave, the score and the diegetic sound fusing as one. In other scene, the score makes 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 drone, the cacophony, the children's panic all brilliantly, cleverly, wryly fuse as one.

With great churning bassoons and oboes and horns tapping 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's a solid enough scorer that he doesn't feel he has to prove it, and without drawing any attention to what he's doing, Rosenman merges 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--but there's no greedy mayor ranting about starting a panic; no defrocked alcoholic priest working as an auto mechanic prophesying that the only way to stop the car is to hang a cross from its rearview mirror ("Someone's gonna have to climb inside that car, and it's gonna have to be me, glug glug"), no 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, etc. What the film does have, however, in spades, is a long, boss scene wherein sheriff James Brolin's girlfriend, elementary school teacher Lauren, taunts the car from the dubious safety of the chuch 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 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.

This moment, and her peformance throughout, 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 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, in a sense, 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, 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, due probably to talking with children all day-- 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 scenes - being dropped off by the Navajo deputy - feeling the wind, recognizing it from the attack at the track field, running up to call Wade's room in the hospital-- all have a hushed Val Lewton feel that indicates 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. 


...the cyclist falling off the damned high suspension bridge, flailing limbs so you know it's not a dummy -- 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 for example we see a tiny flash of light off in the distance at the parade ground we know what's coming - it's a detail left to build on its own, trusted and indulged. When cowboys fall off their horses distracting the car from hitting children, they really do fall right by speeding tires. The car really does smash right through that house.

The scene where the car pulls hard turn speeding at the two cops cars in a game of chicks -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) but it sure really flips 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 kids (BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN), making great use of the west's stretches of eerie alien landscape; magic hour shots unearthing inherent otherworldly evil (and all it entails) ub contrast with dark nighttime sacrifice interiors. This being Utah (but not Mormon country, visibly), a Navajo folk tale aspect becomes the closest thing to real religion. No Catholics, Baptists, Mormons... not a priest in sight. There is a quote from Anton La Vey in the beginning and a cross on the alcoholic deputy's neck (he's the one who recognizes the devil's hand) and why not? He's probably in AA - though maybe not anymore. The sick and suffering in and out of the runes, salute tee.

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 needing to let go of all its dysfunction or embrace it all the way--there's ultimately no explanation why that weird car is showing up at all, here of all places. Theres 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--in my case, back in the early early 90s--get super high and drive through the Badlands listening to Pink Floyd's "Meddle" album and go "wow... wow, man." In other words, the car is us, the drivers passing through to California or New York. We're the passer-through, 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 rocks and terrain could have been allowed to manifest as demonic if given the right atonal avant-garde drone and static 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 to give the whole thing an unusual, striking, almost Anthony Mann-style mise-en-scène.

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

7. The 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) when they (we) still ran wild. These two kids are smart, cool and 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 safety and conformity.

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. Who would be? 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.

But they're not bad guys (as they'd be in FIRST BLOOD) or buffoons (SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT) either. 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 out of their depth. In fact, they're a bit like the police in TWIN PEAKS would be 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 note its got a 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 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," says Everett.

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. So rare to have so little dialogue--and then back at the sheriff office they grab the demolition man wife beater out of the jail (EG Marshall) and bring him out to the front 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 but all done without meddling emotional telegraph scoring.

 9. Better at being a Stephen King adaptation than most Stephen King adaptations

Like so many good horror novels, we get a weird vignette of each victim before they're run down and we so wish there was more time with cute Kathleen Lloyd and less with the tired bits with the abusive demolitions expert husband down the road, though I do like that he comes through in a pinch for the fireball climax, and that the 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--an event given the proper shadowy ominousness, instead of being made light of or indirectly encouraged or judged as weakness.  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 or would care about, not generic lazily-written 'types.'

Everyone involved is either smart enough to know we know the whole idea of a devil car is absurd, so they wisely play it dead straight or they're just stupid enough to put it over. 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"), while THE CAR doesn't deign to mess in those 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.

10. Brolin Brolin Brolin

My dad considered James Brolin the worst actor in the history of the world. Well, whether he can act or not, he fathered one of my favorite actors of our day, Josh Brolin. And you see the resemblance right off, and it makes James' films bolder and more resonant as a result. And both of them look like they belong in that Southwestern territory (in films like this and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN)- they have a smattering of the noble savage about their features, some Native American princess wed to some Dewey Martin (ala THE BIG SKY) in their ancestral past. 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 Southwest itself. 

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. They're either perfect dads of intelligence warmth and compassion, oe tortured divorcee weekend cops always late to their custody hearing. And child actor babyface stunted growth prettiness and 'good' masculinity have become intertwined to the point even country stars have to be clean shaven burly Christians rather than hairy good old boys full of swamp-bred sass, nicotine and moonshine.

But Brolin's Wade is one of the great 70s dads, fulfilling the linkage to his son'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 got the 'stache, and the moxy, and a dim cognizance of his own limitations.

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.

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