Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 side-swipes. This is the high-octane truth learned by one unlucky black customized Lincoln when it innocently incurs the ire of a wife-beating demolitions expert, a Burt Reynolds imitation motorcycle cop, a relapsing alcoholic deputy, and a cadre of various out-of-order western bit characters loafing around the sheriff station in THE CAR (1977). 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 and little-wigs looking at the profits from JAWS, EXORCIST, THE OMEN, and noticing custom car culture taking an uprise, too --the affordability of the Detroit muscle car, racing movies, DUEL, DEATH RACE 2000, 50s nostalgia, etc. and it all writes itself. And CB radio culture hitting a zenith when SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT came out two weeks after THE CAR. But by then THE CAR had largely been razzed off to its wild red yonders leaving us 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.

Roasting it with my parents and brother on its happy Friday Night Movie premiere, with popcorn and coke for the kids, my dad all whiskey sour cheery and sharp-witted (as he still was back in the late 70s), my little brother and I flanking him, like his MSTK robots, lobbing witticisms like blind shells and if we made him laugh it was legit, like scoring a major victory, THE CAR  held up sturdy and true - you could follow it real fine even drunk or sugar-addled. Good times. This blog may have roots in seeing too many films late at night while on acid from through the late 80s and early 90s, but those roots came from a seed formed by seeing films like THE CAR with my dad in the 70s. It explains maybe why I hate MSTK 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.

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. The Car Itself

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 deserving young people, a few cops, and an innocent lovely shiksa, even giving a whole new meaning of the phrase 'drive through' and 'dust-devil'. And in general a lovely time is had by most. Why the fuck not? It's the 70s, and a lovely time is had by most people most of the time. We only later learned it was wrong! And the car was right. Vroom vroom, yeah right.

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 to hide. 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. Wisely, rather than trick the car out with air brushed horns and fangs (the way, say, Rob Zombie would do), the car brings the Lewtonesque shadows to its own design. 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- above left), with its similar setting and threat (prehistoric mollusks awakened in a small earthquake rise up from the Salton Sea to attack locals - a roly-poly Tim Holt bounces around as a naval officer).

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 blob; it's rare that kind of subliminal animation actually blocks shit out rather than flesh it in but there it is, a half second or so of inked out darkness - blacker than the black shadows of a dark corner of an unlit pool room. 

Director Elliot Silverstein knows the reason the shark worked so fervently 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 it's 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 that 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, who longs 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 (I love Brolin goes into the garage the morning of the big climax it's still night out, and when he comes jumping out the garage window it's early dawn then in wide later shots its morning and the sun's 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, that's just totally the shit.

3.  Leonard Rosenman's score 

America was used to talking cars thanks to TV shows, but the way this devil communicates is through a horn from hell, a rising and falling  death rattle blast that Roseman's hip-but-never-ostentatious score gamely enfolds. Sometimes if a car alarm is blasting out my window I play along to it via harmonica or ukelele or whatever's handy (most all car horns and alarms are tuned to C) and Rosenman clearly has too, for his merging of diegetic ambient sound of the car horn into his score is sheer termite genius, as is the use of the desert wind whistling through idle band instruments during a parade practice out on a lonely track field, gradually shifting into a lower octave as "the Car" rolls into view, the droning of the children's marching band cacophony and Rosenman's mounting drone panic brilliantly, cleverly, wryly fusing 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 after (the CC reads "car honks triumphantly")

Rosenman's a solid enough scorer that he doesn't feel he has to prove it the way certain composers I'm always ragging on do. He doesn't need to compose a complex piece of emotionally micromanaging orchestra pomp when a 10 piece bunch of drug-addled avant garders fired off Lalo Schifirn's cacophonic home guard will do.

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; there's 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; 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 where sheriff James Brolin's girlfriend, elementary school teacher Lauren, taunts the car from the dubious safety of the 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 both from the dust stirred up by the furiously revving car, voice dripping fear-spiked adrenalin, 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. She becomes a true Mother Courage.

She's a rare bird in these kinds of films, and 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.

Lauren is 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 in our red head nose job freckle and anorexic passive third wave bitches or doormats 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 but never talks down to them. Maybe she sounds a little infantile herself at times, but countermands it with a maternal toughness that lets you know you better do as she says or--you're not sure how--she'll make you insane with a few measured words or grab your nuts (below camera) to get you to do what she says --while she talks in 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; it's the one scene 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 Hitchcock would be 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.  The Satanic Western Era (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) to 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. Catholic, Baptist, Mormon... not a priest in sight. There is a quote from Anton La Vey in the beginning and a cross on the alcoholic'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 (but not cute 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 going "wow... wow, man." In other words, the car is ours. We're the passer-through, running over pedestrians and going "wow, man."

After all, if the devil was to drive through any part of the country wouldn't it be here? Isn't that good enough? Of course 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), but what you gonna do? 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. 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.

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

The local cops mean well, and try hard, but they're not prepared for an indestructible devil car. Who is? Things get fouled up with their communication and lack of cool-in-a-crisis training. 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, they 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 ." "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), "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.

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 (Arnie's being bullied is overdone, prolonged, cliched and upsetting), 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. Needless to say, we loved this film so much. Run 'em all down, you crazy car! I got nothing against Brolin on the other hand, though I could never admit it to my dad. And today, whether he can act or not, he fathered one of my favorite actors of our day, Josh Brolin. And you see the resemblance, and it makes James' films bolder and more resonant as a result. And both of them look like they belong in that Southwestern territory - 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, who set the trend for that type of masculinity (thank god) and Kris Kristofferson, the droplet of Native American ancestry in their DNA is there to make them seem as rugged and grounded as the Great Southwest. 

As for his character, Wade "Parent," (how associative!), we don't often see such a mix of well-meaning lummox and laconic rebel in fathers in horror movies anymore, they're either perfect dads of intelligence warmth and compassion, tortured weekend cops always late to their custody hearing, or abusive shitheels. Child actor babyface stunted growth prettiness and masculinity have become intertwined so rather than the big tent of 'don't ask don't tell' gayness 'passing' as straight, allowing for all the hairy chest swagger in straight male sex objects, today even country stars have to be clean shaven burly Christians rather than hairy good old boys full of swamp-bred sass and moonshine.

But here, Brolin is the great 70s dad--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 car case over to the Feds or State Patrol. He probably doesn't even have their phone numbers. But he's got the 'stache, and the moxy, and limitations that serve him well.

If that's the trade-off--competence and dull safety-first responsible clean-shaven rules-following gained, mustache ridin' badasses who need to fall apart before they can be re-glued lost--well then... at least we got the movies to remember when girls were girls and men were men. 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 shacks to make way for the god-damned damn dubbed 'progress'?

And remember: in the 70s no one used seat-belts, even in the front. 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... the hippie... one more time.

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