“Incapable of infusing any sense of suspense!”
Opening with a quote from top banana at the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey (who has a technical advisor credit here – see also The Devil’s Rain), and a score comprising of a theme lifted from one of the more diabolical sections of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, The Car unequivocally lays its cards on the table regarding the origins of the film’s mechanical menace. It seems that His Satanic Majesty likes nothing better than spending his days away from the office tearing up the dusty highways of Utah in a black Lincoln Continental looking for pedestrians to run down.
The success of Spielberg’s Jaws saw a number of imitators ready to dive right in after the rubber shark’s dorsal wake. There were certainly plenty of other fish in the sea (or rivers) that could be utilised to bring terror to small communities everywhere (Michael Anderson’s Orca, Joe Dante’s Piranha as well as countless Italian knock-offs). Perhaps mindful of Darwin’s favourite theory (on second thoughts, perhaps not) it wasn’t long before these predators weren’t just wallowing in the shallows but heading inland (here we might find John Sayles’ Alligator or William Girdler’s Grizzly). Once the concept was proven to have legs it was only a matter of time until someone had the idea of eschewing all that the natural world had to offer.
Deciding, instead, to combine it with that earlier Spielberg success – the made for television, but theatrically released (in Europe at least) Duel. The Car director Elliot Silverstein appears to have, as well as fashioning a hybrid from Spielberg’s two most successful films at that time, made a film that highlights that director’s talent even more by making his theatrical feature look like it was made for television. If it were made now it would probably feature an actual shark stalking the desert highways and be called Autoshark or some such nonsense. It wouldn’t be any good but it might be entertaining. The Car, sadly, is neither.
The local police (including James Brolin and a permanently embarrassed looking Ronny Cox) are baffled when the normally quiet community of Santa Ynes becomes the focus for a series of hit and run deaths. Deaths attributed to a mysterious, possibly driverless, black car that seems to come out of nowhere and disappear just as mysteriously – leaving only mangled corpses (much discussed, but never seen) for the cops to ponder over. Even though the car’s approach is preceded by a dust storm, is unable to enter consecrated ground and the local Native Americans talk of bad omens, no one wants to admit that the vehicle may have otherworldly origins.
Now who would have thought that ignoring the Highway Code would be so high on Satan’s list of bad things to do that year? His less than considerate attitude to cyclists and hitchhikers suggest he might be more at home behind the wheel of a white transit van. And with all the best music at his disposal, why isn’t he hitting the freeway with some rocking tunes on the 8-track, the windows down and the wind whistling through his horns? Say what you will about Stephen King’s one attempt in the director’s chair with Maximum Overdrive, at least the driverless Green Goblin truck rocked out to AC/DC.
Elliot Silverstein seems incapable of infusing any sense of suspense (or fun for that matter) into the proceedings, relying completely on Leonard Rosenman’s brash score to elicit some sense of urgency whenever the car rolls into view. It’s interesting to note that The Car uses the same classical motif from A Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath by Berlioz that would be incorporated into the opening sequence to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining some three years later.
It’s not all bad though. A main character comes to a rather sticky and unexpected end early on, shattering that slightly cosy made for television feel. There are a couple of impressively staged stunts, as well as a handful of scenes that appear to have snuck in from a much better film. Most worthy of mention is the scene where a marching band rehearsal is interrupted by the car’s arrival – its approach is first signalled by the glint of sunlight on the windscreen in the far distance. But scenes such as this are few and the finalé is ruined by some murky looking day-for-night photography. The climatic optically enhanced fireball and final matte painting of the sunrise, courtesy of effects legend Albert Whitlock, show an artistry lacking elsewhere in the picture, but they aren’t really worth enduring the long slog to get there.
Light on thrills, low on gore – The Car has little to offer the audience most likely to seek it out.
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Starring: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, Ronny Cox
Running time: 96 minutes
Original Release Date: 13 May 1977
DVD Release Date: 15 July 2013
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