Review: The Car (1977)

It it a Phantom, a Demon, or the Devil himself? There's nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide, no way to stop.... THE CAR

It it a Phantom, a Demon, or the Devil himself?

THE CAR (1977)
Rated PG / Color / 97 minutes
Directed by Elliot Sliverstein
Also Known As: DeathMobile
Purchase it: Amazon.com (DVD) | Amazon.com (Blu-ray)

Before CHRISTINE… Before MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE… Before THE WRAITH (and a few years after DUEL and KILLDOZER) there was… THE CAR! I first caught this flick on television as I did some late-night channel surfing when I was around ten years old. It didn’t spook me too much, but the movie stuck with me as I reached adulthood. And that was after a single viewing, because I haven’t revisited this 70s classic until now!

As the film opens, a young man and woman are riding bicycles down a lonesome highway, where they are accosted by a strange black car. The vehicle runs them off the road to their deaths, then disappears as quickly as it appeared, thus beginning THE CAR’s reign of terror! But it’s not until the murderous machine claims a second victim that the local sheriff’s department begins their crusade to bring the serial vehicular manslaughterer to justice.

After the mysterious car mows down Sherrif Everett Peck (John Marley), his replacement, Wade Parent (James Brolin), leads the fellow officers in a campaign to nab the villainous driver. But as the investigation continues, the no-nonsense Wade begins to suspect that something is amiss after an eyewitness claims that “There was no driver in the car.”

After losing more good men, the woman he loves (in an incredibly awesome scene where “The Car” crashes through a house!), and a bit of his sanity, Wade enlists the aid of a mean ole wife-beating drunk named Amos Clemens (R.G. Armstrong). Amos happens to have a large supply of dynamite, which Wade and his remaining deputies plan to put to good use. But will a buttload of explosives be enough to stop a car that is nearly indestructible, and possibly piloted by the Devil himself?

Clearly, they're going to need a bigger boat!

They’re going to need a bigger boat!

Made during the early years of the “Satanic Panic”, THE CAR is an interesting film that seems to have been created to ride on the coattails of JAWS’ extraordinary popularity. In fact, THE CAR is pretty much a retelling of JAWS: All of the same story elements are there.

You have the small town being terrorized by an unknown force (a demonic car instead of a shark), that is eventually saved by a brave hero that is clearly out of his element (Wade Parent filling in for “Chief Brody”). And an explosion is the method of choice from ridding the besieged town of its problem. All this film is missing is a wealthy car expert who goes on the hunt out of scientific curiosity, and a grizzled World War II vet with an axe to grind against automobiles.

THE CAR has an incredible cast: James Brolin (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR) leads the pack as the kindly, yet stern, Wade Parent. He’s a likable everyman who’s biggest hurdle in life (prior to “The Car” showing up) was getting his two daughters to accept his new girlfriend. Brolin’s Wade is backed up by veteran actor Ronny Cox (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, THE BEAST WITHIN) as Deputy Luke Johnson. He is easily the most tragic character in this film because he loses so many friends, a teen that was like a son to him, and his bout with alcoholism.

Interestingly enough, he’s the only person in the film that readily accepts that the car is evil incarnate. While others try to explain away Car-related phenomena, he’s the first to come to the conclusion that they aren’t dealing with anything human.  Luckily for these dumbfounded heroes, aid eventually arrives from an unlikely source: The irascible Amos Clemens, played by veteran actor R.G. Armstrong. (RACE WITH THE DEVIL, EVILSPEAK, THE BEAST WITHIN.)

Or In-Famous Amos as he's known in these parts.

Or “In-Famous Amos” as he’s known in these parts.

Armstrong is a very versatile actor, and I love how much of a bastard he is in this movie. He’s not exactly the hero type, but he gains some redemption in the final act by gleefully helping Wade and Luke set up an explosive welcome for the film’s antagonist. And on that note, the car itself is pretty damned cool!

Custom built from the chassis of a 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III, the titular villain is a force to be reckoned with. Built like a tank, bulletproof, fireproof, and sporting a bad temper, this car is like Christine’s abusive boyfriend. And thankfully a good amount of effort was taken to give “The Car” some personality and make it a character in its own right.

“The Car” is clearly sadistic, and enjoys playing with its victims. In one scene it turns the tables on a pursuing officer by trapping him within his own car, as it slowly pushes the police cruiser off a cliff. Mere moments later, it parks itself and allows Wade to get close enough to smack him with the driver-side door, sending him to the hospital. It also gets angry when Lauren hurls insults at it, so it specifically targets her later in the film.

the car 03

Pure evil always politely closes your car door before it murders you.

The entirety of THE CAR was filmed at various locations in Utah (including several state parks), and director Elliot Silverstein, and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld, made great use of the rocky landscapes. The opening scene (and subsequent establishing shots) features beautiful panoramic shots of the terrain, where all is still, until a tiny cloud of dust appears in the distance, heralding the coming of the “Mormons’ bane.”

Nearly forty years after its release, THE CAR still holds up well. While I’ll admit that it suffers from a bit of clunky dialogue, and hits the brakes too often for scenes of cops planning roadblocks and patrols, I still very much enjoyed it. It boasts some great cinematography, lots of cool stunts, and a SHINING-esque score that helps build a little tension when Satan’s Lincoln materializes out of the desert.

Thanks to Scream Factory, I’m now a proud owner of THE CAR, and I plan on revisiting it again soon. It’s a solid supernatural thriller that delivers the goods, and I am more than happy to give it:

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Packaging: THE CAR comes in a standard Blu-ray case, with awesome new cover art (pictured top left of this review)! And if for some reason you don’t like it, you are out of luck because the original poster art is (oddly enough) not on the opposite side of the insert.

Audio & Video: This is where Scream Factory’s release really shines! THE CAR’s 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is beautiful: This movie looks brand new! For audio options there’s both a 5.1 DTS-Master Audio track and a 2.0 DTS-Master Audio track. I watched the film with the 5.1 option and I was more than happy with it. Dialogue, Leonard Rosenman’s score, and the roaring engines and blaring horn of “The Car” all came through crisp and clean from my surround speakers!

The Extras: Here’s where this release falters a tiny bit. Along with the original theatrical trailer, a TV spot, radio spots, and a still gallery, there’s a trio of short interviews (about twelve minutes each) with Director Elliot Silverstein, and actresses Melody Thomas Scott and Geraldine Keams.

And featuring Melody Thomas Scott in her breakout role!

Melody Thomas Scott in her breakout role in THE CAR!

Silverstein seems almost embarrassed to have his name attached to this film, and continually says how it would have benefited from modern digital f/x, and how they “did the best they could.” He also delivers a quick anecdote about he got a little too close to one of the film’s more dangerous stunts and felt a piece of “The Car” whiz by his face.

Geraldine Keams (Donna the dispatcher) starred alongside Clint Eastwood and Chief Dan George in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES prior to her role in THE CAR. In her interview, she heaps praise upon Silverstein, and the film. She also reveals a cool trivia tidbit about how the “Navajo woman” that witnesses Everett Peck’s death (played by Margaret Willey), was actually a Sioux Lakota and couldn’t speak a lick of the Navajo dialogue scripted for her.

Finally, there’s the interview with Melody Thomas Scott, who had the small role of Suzie Pullbrook, the first onscreen victim of “The Car.” She recounts how Silverstein kept demanding her to go faster on the bicycle and “go to the edge of that cliff” for a specific shot, and how she obliged, nearly killing herself in the process! (They got the shot, but it nearly gave the director and film crew a collective heart attack!) She also shares a fun story of how she messed with some tourists while done up in her “death makeup.”

Final Verdict: Though I really would have enjoyed a director’s commentary (which is included in the Arrow Films Blu-ray release), or interviews with James Brolin, Ronny Cox, or Kathleen Lloyd, the extras included on the disc are more than sufficient. The audio and video presentation of THE CAR is superb, and I really dig the new cover art. This one’s a definite must-own in my book, and I’m happy to give this Scream Factory release a rating of: