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Car, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 20 July 1999

The Car

Anchor Bay Entertainment
MPAA rating: PG
starring: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, Ronny Cox, R.G. Armstrong, John Rubinstein
release year: 1977
film rating: Three Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

When it was first released in 1977, The Car was greeted with such hoots of critical derision and relatively little boxoffice returns that it pretty much killed the theatrical movie career of director Elliot Silverstein. He'd done some successful films, notably Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse, but evidently The Car sent him back to television permanently.

It's a shame, really; there's a lot wrong with The Car, but not with Silverstein's work on it. His direction is fine, the characters are well-presented, the photography excellent, and the film's pacing is good -- and at times Silverstein creates a new kind of creepiness. The movie is set in the Southwestern desert, and mostly in daylight, and yet at times, Silverstein uses these elements, not exactly conducive to horror, to the right ends. For example, there's a wide-angle shot with a deputy atop a lookout tower of some sort; the Panavision image shows a vast expanse of sunlit desert behind him -- and then, way off in the distance, we, but not the deputy, see a wink of light, then another, the sun reflecting on something shiny out there in the desert. And it's moving -- we know The Car is on its way. Silverstein understates this; there are no music stingers, no zoom shots -- just the brightly sunlit desert, and those chilling blinks of light. But it's enough.

The story, however, is not enough. It's bizarre combination of Duel, Jaws and The Exorcist; the screenplay by Dennis Shryack, Michael Butler and Lane Slate is well-organized, but the materials are wrong. the characters are a bit better-drawn than in other horror movies of the period, but there's no relationship between them and the mysterious killer car.

We first see it run down a pair of bicyclists who don't try to get out of its way, then a hippie hitchhiker who has a French horn. (In an amusingly gruesome touch, when the ambulance arrives to pick up the hitchhiker's body, we see the driver approaching the remains -- with a scoop shovel.) Eventually it attacks the town itself, then picks off individuals, and finally is cornered by desperate deputy sheriff James Brolin and a few assistants. They try to blow it up with dynamite, and they see a literally demonic shadow among the flames -- but the end-credits play over scenes of the Car cruising through downtown Los Angeles, and we hear its distinctive honk honkity honk. The horror continues.

But just what the horror is doing here is never even hinted at -- no one even wonders about this. When they finally realize it's some kind of supernatural car without a driver, all the small town types simply accept this. But that's not good enough. Why does the Devil take the form of a car, of all things? Why does it attack this town? Is it picking out individual people? There's something to be said for presenting an "unknowable" menace -- but not when it comes in the shape of something as prosaic as an automobile.

Americans love their cars; one of the main traits our country is known for around the world are is our devotion to automobiles -- so it would be amusingly ironic for the Devil to go after us via our cars in some manner. But there's no logic, no sense of a mind behind the Car's killings -- it's just a mean nasty car that likes to run over people. There's no sense of people getting their come-uppances for relying on cars, no sense of scales being balanced, or even being tipped violently one way or the other.

In short, someone thought of the idea of the Devil in the form of a car (or driving one -- we never know for sure) running people down, and there the thinking stopped. It's as if the bare-bones idea alone is good enough, and it definitely isn't. And there's no connection between the characters and the menace. For example, in Jaws, Sheriff Brody hates the water, but lives on an island -- and has to face a menace that lives in the water. But in The Car, not one of the characters is even so much as an auto mechanic. Granted, too much of these connections would be contrived, but the movie needed to offer some reasons for (a) the Car itself and (b) why it's going after these particular people in this particular place.

Running time that could well have been used to cover this kind of thing is instead wasted on irrelevancies such as the careful investigation of the cyclists' bodies, much discussion about the make and color of the car, and Ronny Cox's alcoholism, R.G. Armstrong's wife-beating. All these are logical enough, but have no connection to the menace of the Car.

Technically, the film is excellent on all levels. Gerald Hirschfeld's Panavision photography captures the grandeur of the desert as well as the low-slung menace of the car with style and impact. The car stunts arranged by Everett Creach are sometimes interesting, always well-done, and once -- when the car abruptly turns sideways and barrel-rolls over a couple of oncoming cop cars -- uniquely spectacular. (There should have been more stuff like this.) George Barris' design for the car is a little overdone; the headlights glower satisfactorily -- but they also look crosseyed.

While no one had home sound systems in mind when making The Car, the sound-effects pros who worked on the movie were experts, and use natural and artificial sounds to great effect. Just the opening sequence with the voices of the bicyclists' echoing off the rocks provides as much a sense of the desert and their isolation as the wide-screen photography does. The wind that rises whenever the Car appears is underplayed in terms of sound, which works better than if it were a roaring gale. But all the explosions, tire screeches, collisions and gunshots are sharply, clearly rendered. It's not exactly a sound demo disc, but the sound is excellent throughout.

Too bad that more thought wasn't given to the script of The Car, the basic idea, though absurd -- the Devil as a modified Lincoln Continental -- has an oddly compelling, even convincing feel. The cast is good, Silverstein and his team do their work well, but the movie is short on imagination and creativity.

more details
sound format:
includes letterboxed and pan-and-scanned versions; trailer; talent biographies
aspect ratio(s):
Widescreen anamorphic - 2.35:1
Full Screen (Standard) - 1.33:1
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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