*½/ **** Image B+ Sound B Extras B
starring James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, Ronny Cox
screenplay by Dennis Shryack & Michael Butler and Lane Slate
directed by Elliot Silverstein
by Bryant Frazer America's love of the open road collided with its suspicion of out-of-state license plates in The Car, a risible 1977 thriller about a muscle car on a killing spree. The Car was conceived as a cash-in--an easy riff on Jaws with the working title Wheels(!)--but it earned a reputation for genre silliness that made it a staple of late-night TV line-ups in the 1980s. Shot mostly in the Utah desert, The Car follows sheriff's deputy Wade Parent (James Brolin) as he investigates a series of mysterious hit-and-run killings involving bicyclists, a hitchhiker, and a mean-looking, black Lincoln Continental. It's a low-octane concept even for genre knock-offs, and despite the traditional framing of organized law enforcement as the heroes of the piece, there's not a lot of detective work required. The Car shows up; the Car runs someone over; the Car drives away, blasting its horn triumphantly. It's not until it takes a special interest in Wade and his schoolteacher girlfriend, Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), that the deputies concoct a plan to lure it out of town and into a trap, using Wade as bait.
Circumspect in its violence, The Car isn't much of a horror show, but it is at least a real movie, with competent performances, moderately impressive stunt work, and serviceable if undistinguished direction by Elliot Silverstein (of Cat Ballou fame). It kicks off enticingly enough with a well-staged sequence in which the title character bullies a clean-cut couple on road bikes, ramming both of them off the highway. Though the Car mostly dispatches one unfortunate pedestrian at a time, there is a set-piece involving its opportunistic attack on a marching-band practice that's kind of hilarious if you imagine the screenwriters racking their brains, charged with frothing up a pretense for the equivalent of a shark attack on dry land. Later, in the most ferocious moment of the picture, the death machine takes out its target simply by accelerating out of the darkness and literally ripping through her house at full tilt while she's on a phone call.
Despite some genuinely dopey touches (like the POV shots taken from inside the Car, treated with diarrhea-brown filtration), the production hits a few grace notes. Silverstein, who had previously directed A Man Called Horse, makes sure to cast a few roles with actual Native Americans, including Geraldine Keams, Eddie Little Sky, and Margaret Willey, and just that little bit of representation goes some distance towards establishing a credible sense of place. Journeyman DP Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein, Two-Minute Warning) captures some picturesque American Southwestern landscapes without getting precious about it, and editor Michael McCroskey, hitting the big screen after cutting 28 episodes of "The Waltons", manages, somehow, to keep the pacing fairly brisk across the film's not-really-action-packed 96 minutes. Nostalgists will appreciate the vintage fashions and hairstyles on display, as well as a look at James Brolin at peak beefcake, but The Car best demonstrates that the 1970s were a different era in a scene where Lauren assesses her figure as exaggerated in a 13-year-old student's nude drawing. "This is Tommy Ness again," she says. "His proportions are always off."
Steven Spielberg's earlier made-for-TV Duel featured a more plausible and frightening battle of wits between everyman Dennis Weaver and an unseen asshole trucker, with no supernatural dimension implied. And while 1983's Christine, based on Stephen King's contemporaneous novel, was closer kin to and may even have been inspired by The Car, it was a character study of an awkward teenager making friends with an angry Plymouth Fury that wondered which partner was really the evil one. By contrast, The Car feels fusty and conservative, striving to update the western for the era of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist by opening on a portentous quote from famous Satanist Anton LaVey and climaxing, absurdly, with a serpent's apparition appearing in a fiery canyon conflagration. If it lacks commitment to anything beyond what's absolutely required by its meagre premise, that's part of what charm it retains. The Car is just a roughly chiselled slab of B-movie with as much violence as its PG rating permits, some nice scenery, and not a pixel of CG imagery cluttering up the celluloid. Sometimes that's all you want. If now is one of those times, maybe you want The Car.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Scream Factory's Blu-ray release of The Car presents it in a fine 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that deals well with a palette dominated indoors and out by dusty browns and greys. The image is balanced to deliver consistently ruddy skin tones while avoiding the overt red push that sometimes turns films of this vintage a little garish. Blue skies and neon lights pop off the screen, and if the subtle colour gradations seen on various rock formations don't exactly do justice to the locations, the understated look is more natural than the oversaturated alternative. Contrast is maybe slightly lower than the norm overall, particularly indoors, although many daylight exteriors shine with colourful highlights. The climactic chase sequence is shot using unconvincing day-for-night techniques that appear to be accurately reproduced for video. Film grain is smooth and unobtrusive, except in the darkest scenes, where shadows may have been slightly lifted to reveal detail, emphasizing grain in the process. (The print seems exceptionally clean, which suggests noise-reduction was applied to soften up the picture a tad.) Leonard Rosenman's score and sound editor John Stacy's aural staging of the action are the main beneficiaries of the disc's two high-fidelity sound options, a merely clamorous DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo mix and a superior 5.1 DTS-HD MA track with cleaner separations and a thicker low end. Alas, a more period-authentic mono option is nowhere to be found.
Special features are patchy. Arrow Video's Region B release featured a director's commentary, but this Region A disc instead gets "Mystery of The Car with Elliot Silverstein" (9 mins., HD), a fairly short interview in which Silverstein comes across as mildly annoyed at the memory of making the film to the production company's opportunistic standards. "I tried very hard to point out to the company that the devil was in the darkness--in the mysterious corners of a city," he says. "Whereas what we were facing was God, who was in the desert in the bright countryside with a small town. So I had a series of contradictions to deal with. But that was my assignment."
Perhaps inevitably, Brolin is nowhere to be seen, though we get engaging sit-downs with a couple of supporting actors. In "The Navajo Connection with Geraldine Keams" (12 mins., HD), the actress remembers growing up on a Navajo reservation and scoring a role in The Outlaw Josey Wales before getting the part of Donna, one of the sheriff's deputies, in The Car. Of Silverstein, she suggests, "he was a fantastic director." And "Just Like Riding a Bike with Melody Thomas Scott" (12 mins., HD) turns the spotlight on the "Young and the Restless" actress, who played one of the two bicycle victims in the movie's prologue. She remembers walking around Zion National Park in full corpse make-up just to freak out the tourists, which is nice. She remarks that Silverstein's manner was "gruff," and admits, "I was frightened of him just because...he made me uncomfortable."
The disc also features six different radio spots, a single TV spot, and a theatrical trailer (2 mins., HD) consisting mainly of the film's money shots edited together, tail to head, with The Car's signature horn blaring on the soundtrack: BEEP! BEE-BEE-BEEEEEP! Finally, there's a well-curated selection of production stills, lobby cards, and international key art in colour and black and white--including an ad for a licensed tabletop game that has players put obstacles at the bottom of a ramp and a model of the titular vehicle at the top. At some random point during the game, the Car rolls downhill and smashes through the items in its path. "Last surviving player wins!"