After Warner Bros. scored a huge success with THE EXORCIST (1974) and Twentieth Century Fox packed them in at the cinemas with THE OMEN (1976) Universal decided to ride the crest of the success of these devilish movies by making one of their own, namely...er...THE CAR. THE CAR isn’t quite as well thought of as the latter two pictures, which arises partly from it being a conscious attempt to remake JAWS in the desert, but also because by 1977 the devil movie subgenre was reaching saturation point, and because Jack Starrett’s superior RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) had already done driving cars fast around the desert in the name of Satan so much better.
When watching THE CAR this time round (because of course I’ve seen it before, as many of you probably will have, on late night pan-and-scan screenings on ITV) I was reminded, of all things, of the words of Roy Ward Baker when he was asked about directing Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. His reply went something like, “Well they’d done everything they could think of with vampires, so this time they thought ‘By God we’ll have them as lesbians.’” There’s a similar feeling as THE CAR’s rather threadbare plot begins to unfold. You get the idea the three (!) screenwriters sat in a room and said “Ok, we’ve had people worshipping the devil, the devil as a baby, the devil as a little boy, so why don't we have the devil DRIVING A CAR!!!!”
Needless to say, it’s about as daft as it sounds.
Like a lot of good horror films (and even more terrible ones) THE CAR takes an absolutely ludicrous idea and runs with it, or at least drives with it. A black car appears in the Utah desert and goes on the rampage, killing a couple of teenage cyclists and crushing a young French horn playing hitch-hiker after he’s the victim of a fart gag by consummate character actor R G Armstrong. Armstrong is his usual marvellous self in this, by the way, and in fact he’s one of the best things in the movie. I strongly suspect he was encouraged to improvise his own dialogue as it’s a lot better than the rest of what's on offer here.
James Brolin is the policeman hero, seen here sporting a moustache that would soon accompany him into the depths of madness in Stuart Rosenberg’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979). He’s divorced and having it off with teacher Kathleen Lloyd while still caring for his two tweenage daughters. Lloyd is busy rehearsing the children for some appalling-looking town parade, but what’s that black shape lurking behind all the dust, horses and brass musical instruments?
THE CAR is not a good film. In fact John Landis cheerfully describes it as ‘dumb’ in the extras. It’s by no means a terrible one, though, and if anything it reminded me of the old Universal monster pictures of the 1950s, ones like TARANTULA, where some enormous beastie spawned by science (the demon of its day) would terrorise the decent little all-American town before the all-American military was called in to bomb the shit out of it. At one point we even get the classic old monster movie shot of the heroine on the phone while the monster car lurks outside the window.
The car itself is quite an impressive creation. Big, black, and with a design that’s just wrong enough to give it an edge. It snorts and parps continously as if it’s just had an infusion of curried eggs into its petrol tank that’s made it very angry indeed. It refuses to drive into a graveyard, eventually (ie about an hour later) leading to the realisation that there might be something demonic behind the wheel.
The pacing is THE CAR’s biggest problem. There’s nothing wrong with a daft monster movie, but if you’re going to make one you need lots of the monster and not so much of your multitude of characters’ soap opera problems. The script either needed a few more drafts or someone needed to be a bit more ruthless in the cutting room.
On the plus side the Utah locations look fabulous, and composer Leonard Rosenman makes similar use of the Dies Irae as he did when he scored RACE WITH THE DEVIL to emphasise the evil lurking in the wide open desert spaces. Performances are all fine, with special mention to Mr Armstrong for being memorably violent and seedy.
The film ends with the predictable big explosion, and thanks to the commentary track by director Elliot Silverstein (moderated by Calum Waddell) I now know what that shape in the flames is actually meant to be. I’ll leave you to find what he says for yourselves.
As mentioned above, I’ve only ever seen THE CAR panned and scanned on TV, so Arrow’s Blu-ray 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is the revelation it could not help but be. Best served are the daylight shots of Utah, which look just fabulous. There’s quite a bit of grain in some of the night shots but overall this is a handsome transfer, and undoubtedly the best this film will have ever looked on home video. Extras include the aforementioned commentary and turn from John Landis, guesting in a segment from ‘Trailers From Hell’. There’s also a featurette in which special effects artist William Alridge remembers working on the design of the car, and another where actor John Rubinstein reminisces about playing the French horn and getting squashed. There’s also the usual reversible sleeve and a collector’s booklet with an essay and an interview with co-writer Michael Butler. An Easter Egg reveals a short video interview with director Elliot Silverstein. I’d tell you how to find it but it’s so obvious you won’t miss it.
THE CAR is no classic, but it is a piece of late 1970s movie fun, and the kind of ridiculous idea that might have looked good on paper (or perhaps not). Nevertheless, it’s now available in the most pristine version ever for all those who wish to take a ride.
THE CAR will be released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 15th July 2013