Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movie Review: The Car

© 1977

Travel back with me through nearly four decades of time …

To the late 1970s: shaggy carpets, bad hair, polyester clothing. Cable TV, this humongous box attached to a thick plastic cord to the back of the television. Bringing thirty or so channels into our living room, including HBO, and the scads and scores of movies with it. Movies pre-teen Me probably shouldn’t be watching.

I wrote about this invasion in pretty entertaining detail during a review of Damien: Omen II, posted nearly six years ago, here.

But not all those flicks beamed into our house were “evil,” like that the aforementioned Omen. Some were downright good. I remember a fascination for the Midway we watched many, many times. Also such cool fare (for me) as the original Star Trek movie and such mindless entertainment as Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy, all enjoyed in that air-conditioner-less living room over those hot late 70s summers.

But the best of the “evil” movies was one me and my brother watched countless times. Literally. I don’t remember how often we watched it. Probably just about every time HBO aired it, I guess. And that movie is The Car.

In one glorious sentence, the movie tells the tale of a satanic black car terrorizing a small desert town, running down victim after victim after victim until destroyed – we think – in an explosive showdown.

Posterity calls this movie the “Jaws on land.” I’ll take it one step further. I think it’s a brilliant cross between two of the hottest flicks of the early-to-mid-70s: Jaws and The Exorcist.

Jaws meets The Exorcist

Wikipedia tells me The Car was released into theaters on May 13, 1977. That sounds about right. Seeing it on cable a year later, the fabulous summer of 1978, would make me just-about-eleven, firmly ensconced upon the borders of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Know what movie came out twelve days after it? Yup. The original Star Wars … ergo facilitating an early (and perhaps premature and unwarranted) demise. Or maybe that’s just my inner geek wishful thinking.

Anyway, I loved this movie! I loved all the characters. Will you permit me two slightly embarrassing confessions? Okay. James Brolin, starring as our hero, mustachioed, helmet-less motorcycle riding Sheriff Wade, was my first ideal of manliness, my first male role model, as a youngling. And I had a pre-adolescent crush on his goofy, spirited girlfriend Lauren, played by Kathleen Lloyd.

Super-cool hero to eleven-year-old 1978 boy

Tragic heroine and heart-thief to same kid

Loved all the secondary stereotypical and clichéd characters. There’s the wooden stoic Injun and his counterpart, the visionary old Indian crone. There’s Amos, the hard-drinkin’ wife beating loudmouth who just so happens to own a dynamite factory. There’s the craggy cranky seen-it-all police chief. I thought the odd detail of his affection for the abused wife of Amos a simple, endearing touch. Drunk weakling Ronny Cox. Lauren’s well-endowed friend. The stodgy 50s-era high school principal. The bad hair and bad clothes on all the students.  

Loved the victims. The bicycling couple at movie’s beginning …man, how that boy’s frightened squealing trying to elude the Car over a bridge – wimpy and emasculating to adult me – pulled at my heartstrings as a youngster. The obnoxious French horn playing dope … that we see him run over forward and backward – twice – horrified me as a kid. That befuddled fat dopey cop trapped in his cruiser and gently, menacingly shoved off the cliff by the Car. Wow, does every southwestern police car haul easily-ignited napalm and C4 in their back seats? And – the most terrible of deaths! – poor, poor Lauren!

Sure, the film is chock full of crazy, stupid moments. Like the Car suddenly cutting into a wild roll to take out two oncoming police cruisers racing down the highway side-by-side. Or its ridiculously tossing Wade ten feet in the air with its slightly ajar door. Or its leaping four feet off the ground to demolish its way through a victim’s house – and a victim in the process. Yeah, they’re stupid and crazy – but they never seemed stupid and crazy to young me. No, they just seemed, for lack of a better word, badass.

Watch out for that door, Wade!

And that same word best describes the design of the Car: Badass. Thoroughly badass. The low roof. The sunken headlights. The gaping fanged maw of a grill. The flat black shark-like paint. The lack of door handles – why wouldn’t a car have door handles??? The amber tinted windshield. I dunno. But the dude who designed that Car knew what he was doing and tapped into something primeval, something Jungian, something unfathomable, as does the shark in Jaws and the demon in The Exorcist.

And I love the concept of a “driverless” car … and the scene, pre-toss, where Wade almost catches a glimpse of the Car’s interior.

The best scene in the film is quite powerful. Possibly Hitchcockian, definitely Spielbergian. It’s the scene where the Car silently surprises Brolin in his garage as he’s preparing to destroy the thing. Extremely well done. Tense, oozing menace, and telegraphs a lot of power into the antagonist. That scene alone pulls the flick up one whole star in any serious review.

Oh, and the ending! I loved the grim, taciturn, alpha-male resolve to take down the Car after it kills Lauren. As if it Crossed a Line and Things Just Got Personal. Enjoyed the just desserts wife-beater / demolition mogul Amos receives as he’s shanghaied into the plot to destroy the Car. How me and my brother analyzed that massive super-explosion fireball … searching for that demon face! Watching it a few days ago, 38 years later, I thought I saw fangs and a lion’s paw. Back then I swore I spied a sharp-toothed mouth spitting out literal tongues of flame.

I see, uh, a claw ... fangs? ... a gaping maw?

Ronny Cox saw a demon. Wade saw nuthin'!

I’m honestly surprised at the negativity toward this movie when I started searching for it a few months back. It’s an unabashedly beloved scarefest from my childhood. Rumor has it that in some cuts of the film, there’s a final seen of the Car lurking about the streets of Los Angeles, stalking more victims to satisfy its bloodlust. That’s something I’d like to see for curiosity’s sake.

Body count = 11 onscreen deaths (two cyclists, hitchhiker, police chief, six cops, Lauren). Possibly more offscreen.

Grade: A+ cheese.

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