Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chuck Wilson's Underrated Horror Classics: The Car (1977)

"There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no way to stop... THE CAR"

Well my good friend Annubis has been trying unsuccessfully for a while now to get me to write a little something for this site, and now I’ve finally caved. I plan on (hopefully) writing a regular post dedicated to classic films of the horror genre. These films, in my opinion, tend to be overlooked, underrated, under appreciated or just plain forgotten. I even plan on re-examining a few films that I once hated but now enjoy, and vice versa. So without further adieu, I bring you this week’s classic film, The Car, from the glorious year of 1977.

The film begins with a young couple bicycling down a highway in southern California, when suddenly a car (complete with red-tinted car POV!) appears out of nowhere and begins tailing them, eventually running over both. We are then introduced to Wade Parent (James Brolin), the sheriff of a nearby small town, whose biggest problem, currently, is dealing with the effects of new girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) on his two daughters, Lynn and Debbie (played by real sisters, and child stars, Kim and Kyle Richards). Amos Clements (R.G. Armstrong) awakes for his daily slap-around session of his wife Margie, when he is notices a young hitchhiker waiting outsides his house playing a french horn (“If you don’t get out of here, you’ll be farting music for a year!”). Suddenly, the same car appears and runs the hitchhiker over -backing over him several times. The local police are surprised then further perplexed (“What in the hell is going on?” “Ten years of giving out parking tickets, and all this in one day”) by the discovery of the earlier victims. Luke (Ronny Cox), a recovering alcoholic, begins succumbing to his old demons when it is discovered that one of the bikers was his neighbor, Pete, whom Luke thought of like a son.

Bertha, Amos’s wife, visits the police after another beating, but refuses to press charges. Angry, Everett (John Marley), an old boyfriend of Bertha’s, decides to got to the local bar for a drink, when suddenly the car appears, nearly running over Amos before wiping out Everett. Amos, and then a local Native American woman, confirm that it was the same car from earlier. The woman also drops a few other tidbits including: “Bad things are coming with the wind” and “There was no driver in the car.” The police set up roadblocks and postpone the school’s parade rehearsal, but when the rehearsal finally begins at the local fair grounds, the car appears and reeks havoc in the film’s first big action set piece. A massive wind and dust storm occurs right before the car arrives. It runs over an officer and a few others, sending the children scrambling to a nearby cemetery, which the car refuses to enter. Lauren yells and taunts at the car (“You’re a chicken-shit, scum of the earth, son-of-a-bitch!”), causing it to throw a little temper tantrum, running it off before the cops arrive.

The car reaches a roadblock, but after bullets bounce off it, the car takes off. A chase ensues, but the car easily outruns, and then wipes out three different police cars before confronting Wade on his motorcycle. Wade fires a few shots before approaching the car, briefly getting a look inside before the car door opens and knocks him over an out. He awakes in the hospital and orders Chas to take Lauren home. They make it there, but the car soon appears, and well… things don’t turn out too pretty. The stage is now set for the final showdown in which Wade and the remaining police join forces with Amos for the final car vs. man smack down-the rumble in the desert, if you will…

The first thing that really stands out about the film is the cast, featuring A-list actors, such as Marley, Brolin and Cox, the Richards girls, Armstrong, who has been in everything, and several Native American actors-all giving realistic and believable performances, despite some hokey dialogue. (Other notable horror and genre films staring these actors include: Brolin in The Amityville Horror, Lloyd in Its Live Again, Marley in Deathdream, Cox in Deliverance, Kyle in Eaten Alive, Halloween and Watcher in the Woods, Kim in Assault on Precinct 13, and re-teaming with Armstrong in Devil Dog, R.G. in Race with the Devil, Evilspeak, Predator, etc.) The characterization is above standard for a film of this sort, making you actually care about the people not just about the action and horror scenes. The film is littered with social issues including domestic abuse, alcoholism, racism, the impact of divorce on families with children, a sheriff trying to live up to the memory of his father (who was also a sheriff) etc. Director Eilliot Silverstein, mostly known as a TV director throughout the sixties (and for the western A Man Called Horse), adds plenty of style and suspense; not to mention plenty of scares and surprises. Long, slow shots of the car approaching people who are unaware contrasting with quick, sudden scenes where the car attacks without warning. After a key death scene, the camera lingers longer than usual on the carnage, letting the unsuspected death hit home. The overall pacing is slow, but the action, when it comes, is quick and unrelenting-the middle chase and finale feature quite a few amazing stunts. The car itself is not only menacing, but also has quite a personality of its own, often toying with its victims, honking its horn when victorious and throwing tantrums when it is pissed off. We never even get a complete shot of the entire car until 46 minutes in. Music is top notch also, featuring the "Dies Irae" theme that would later be used in the opening theme for The Shining.

At the time of its release, the film was labeled Jaws on land, but I think it is more complicated than that. The film combines several genres including action, road movies, killer vehicle movies, satanic horror, and the western-so if you’re going to compare it to a Spielberg movie, I’d go with Duel. The images over the closing credits, in which we see the wheels of a car driving through a city, even set it up for a possible sequel-no doubt Hollywood is currently working on a remake/reimagining. There are two DVDs out there including the OOP Anchor Bay DVD and a newly remastered DVD from Universal. Both are bare bones though and neither feature the additional footage that was shot to pad out the TV version of the film.

Fans of horror, action and cult movies from the 70’s should definitely check out this little gem.



Anonymous said...

I first saw this on the ABC Sunday Night Movie in the early 80s but dont really remember the additional scenes (almost everything ABC showed back then had additional scenes added to fit into a 2 or 3 hour timeslot). Kathleen Lloyd's death scene is still one of the all-time greats.


Anonymous said...

Oh, spoiler alert! I tried not to give that away, as it is one of the key shock/surprise moments of the film along with the garage scene. Sorry that Annubis forgot to post the photo of the Richards girls. I was going to include that just for you! When will we be expecting your article on here?

Noah Soudrette said...

I've gotta see this ASAP.