In 1977, right around the time I recall seeing the first commercials for Star Wars (now known by the much clunkier title Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope), commercials appeared for a very different film – The Car (Updated to add the link that I forgot before). (Trivia – The Car was released on 13 May 1977, Star Wars was released on 25 May 1977.)
The Car was, for reasons I still can’t fully explain, a film that captured my imagination from the start – probably because of my parents’ unequivocal refusal to take me to see it. I can recall finding a novelization of the movie in the book rack at the local grocery store, where I read probably half of the story over the course of a few weeks. The writing, as is typical of movie novelizations, was fairly bland and not horrifying in the least, but the parental ban persisted.
At some point, I found someone who had actually seen the movie – the girl who lived next door to us and who occasionally watched my brother and me. She talked the movie up, as she did every movie she saw, but her stellar recommendation, alas, did not sway the folks.
Then Mom and Dad took us to see Star Wars, and The Car was largely forgotten until it turned up on TV many years later, after which I largely forgot about it again until I was casting about for a movie to review.
And so I bring to you my review of the 1977 death-on-wheels cheese-fest known as The Car.
The Car opens with a quote from Anton La Vey1:
“Oh great brothers of the night, who rideth out upon the hot winds of hell, who dwelleth in the Devil’s lair; move and appear.”
Apart from serving as an example of why Anton La Vey will not be remembered as one of the 20th Century’s great writers, this quote gives us some insight into what we’re about to experience.
Dawn breaks across the vast expanse of the desert. A cloud of dust rises in the distance, something dark and sinister at the front. This is our first look at The Car. (Trivia – The Car in The Car was designed by George Barris, the same customizer who built the Batmobile for the Batman series in the ’60’s.) Cut to a pair of cyclists on a mountain pass, resplendent in their mid-1970’s fashion.
The young woman, Suzie, challenges her guy, Pete, to a race through the tunnel up ahead. They pedal off into the darkness, unaware of the cruel twist of fate about to befall them.
We see, through the red-tinted windshield of The Car, the opening of the tunnel, as The Car enters shortly after the couple. The pair emerge from the far end of the tunnel, and work their way down the switchback road as The Car gains on them, stalking them like some…big, black, metallic stalking thing. With wheels.
Our cycling couple looks back as The Car bears down on them, first pinning Suzie between its door and a rock wall on the roadside before sending her over the side, then knocking Pete off of a high bridge over a desert riverbed, all the while blaring its horn in a grisly staccato.
After lingering on the scene of Suzie’s demise, we cut over to meet Sheriff’s Deputy Wade Parent (James Brolin, AKA Mr. Barbra Streisand). Wade, resplendent in his 70’s hair and immaculately groomed mustache, is the divorced parent of two young girls.
Wade’s mustache is dating Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd, later a regular on Magnum, P.I., where she co-starred with Tom Selleck’s mustache), a teacher at the girls’ school. Lauren is quite anxious to be accepted by the girls. She leaves to get ready for work, while Wade’s mustache starts its morning routine and get the girls ready for school.
Meanwhile, somewhere across town,2 a hitch-hiking French horn player is greeting the dawn with some pastoral melodies, outside of the home of Amos and Bertha. Amos is, we quickly discover, an abusive sonofabitch with a volatile temper who happens to own an explosives business. Bertha honestly serves no real purpose in the story other than to get yelled at by Amos and give a little bit of background to the character of Ev, the aged sheriff who we’ll meet in a bit.
Amos, unimpressed with the orchestral stylings of the hitch-hiker, sends him on his way. Cue the distant cloud of dust that we should recognize by now. As The Car approaches, our errant troubador imagines the driver to be a beautiful young woman who will ferry him off to a tropical beach somewhere. Little does he know…
The Car, barely slowing down, swerves to hit him. He narrowly gets out of the way, and angrily shouts at his prospective ride, which has screeched to a halt a short distance away. He gives The Car the finger, which apparently offends the thing, as it begins to back up, gaining speed quickly, slamming into the confused minstrel before grinding back and forth over him for good measure. The Car speeds off into the distance, its horn blaring victoriously.
Wade’s mustache gets the call as he’s taking the girls to school on his motorcycle that there has been a disturbance at Amos’ place. After presumably dropping the girls off, he heads over, and arrives just as the Coroner shows up to claim the body. With a shovel. We get a description of The Car – big and black, low roof, no plates – and we meet Ev, the sheriff who worked with Wade’s late father.
A quick cut back to the sheriff’s station and we see the entire force getting put on alert for The Car, then we cut over to the local school. Wade’s mustache’s lady Lauren is a music teacher there, and is working with the marching band for the upcoming parade (here we have an example of the technique of foreshadowing, masterfully used by the director).
In a character moment that never really goes anywhere, the principal pulls Lauren aside to ask her about a drawing that one of the students made of Lauren teaching in the nude. The principal asks if Lauren thinks it’s healthy for 13 year-old boys to imagine their teachers naked. Lauren replies that it is. There’s probably some extensive social commentary to make here, but before we get that chance, Wade’s mustache and fellow deputy Luke (Ronny Cox) show up to visit their ladies. Lauren and another teacher, Margie, briefly visit with the men, and we learn that Luke is a recovering alcoholic who has been dry for a claimed 2 years. (The only reason for mentioning a character’s alcoholism and his time on the wagon is because he’s going to fall off that wagon at a crucial point in the movie.
A call comes in telling Wade’s mustache and Luke to head out to the site of the bike attacks earlier in the film. At the scene we find that Suzie was the daughter of the local doctor, Dr. Pullbrook, and that she was last seen with Pete Keil. Luke doesn’t believe that Pete could have been involved, since Pete was “in his Bible class” and had told him that he was going for a job interview.3
Back at the station, Ev is trying to convince Bertha to press charges against Amos. She won’t, and leaves with their son. Ev remarks that he knew Bertha in High School, which makes for some odd math – Ev (and Amos) look older than dirt. Bertha looks nearly as old as the dirt, but her son looks to be maybe 10.
Luke goes to check the “armaments locker”, making a side trip to the trunk of his patrol car where he’s stashed a bottle of booze that he takes a couple of long hits from.
Sheriff Ev, meanwhile, gets much the same idea and invites Wade’s mustache to the bar across the street. Ev walks outside and notices, in order, Amos yelling at Bertha as she gets into the truck, The Car parked down the street, and The Car up close and personal as it springs to action and pastes Ev in the middle of the street, narrowly missing Amos.
As the lately overworked coroner shows up to claim the body, Amos is taken into custody, claiming he can blow The Car sky high and identifying it as the same vehicle that hamburgered the hitch-hiker earlier in the film.
We also get some dialog in Navajo as Chas, the Navajo deputy talks with an elderly Navajo woman who got a close look at The Car before it ran down Ev. He translates her account as a description of The Car. It’s obvious there’s more, though.
The next morning, in a flurry of activity, a call comes into the station from the school principal who wants to know if the planned parade practice can go on. It’s decided that the practice should wait until the afternoon, and a deputy will be assigned to supervise, and we find out what Chas didn’t say as Donna, the Navajo dispatcher, tells Wade’s mustache that the old woman claimed that there was no driver in The Car! Wade’s mustache decides that the parade practice needs to be called off, and tells Luke to call the principal. Just then, a call comes in that a fisherman has discovered Pete’s body (the biker from the start of the film. Remember him?) has been found under the bridge. Wade’s mustache leaves to investigate, and Luke sits at the table looking bleary-eyed and drunk.
At the parade grounds, which looks to double as maybe a rodeo ring and a dirt race track, the band is warming up. Lauren, a vision in shiny polyester, leads the kids in their valiant efforts at music-making. A disposable deputy shows up, and climbs to a platform overlooking the area, completely missing the tell-tale glare of The Car’s windshield in the distance. As The Car grows nearer, the wind kicks up, dust blows, and the horses get upset. The Car’s horn blares like the trumpets of the Valkyries as they swoop in to claim the spirits of fallen Viking warriors, sending everyone running for the cliffs.4
The Car gains quickly, and despite being distracted by some noble-but-not-too-bright guys on horses catches up to the fleeing crowd. Unable to make it to the cliffs, the group takes refuge in a conveniently located cemetery, partially protected by a knee-high stone wall. The Car can’t enter! It tries a couple of times, but can come no closer than the gate. Lauren decides to distract The Car with taunts, so that Margie can make a dash for the deputy’s car and call for help.
Margie makes it to safety and radios for help. Wade’s mustache heads for the parade grounds, and the rest of the deputies begin to converge on the area. As the sirens grow near, The Car takes off. Wade’s mustache tells Lauren to take the girls home.
The action shifts to Ray, a deputy covering one of the desert roads. He sees The Car speeding towards him, and readies his shotgun. The Car stops a few yards short of Ray, who unloads his shotgun at it to no effect. The Car turns and races away, with Ray in hot pursuit. The deputies mobilize, and Ray chases The Car up a road leading to the top of a mesa, where he expects to trap it. Unfortunately, The Car manages to turn around and trap Ray in his car at the edge of the road, where it pushes him over the side (nicely invoking the cliche of the exploding car in the process).
The Car blasts back down the road, and comes face-to-face with two police cars on the road. In perhaps the best stunt of the entire film, The Car turns sideways and puts itself into a barrel roll over the police cars, killing the occupants (off-camera), and continuing on its way.
(Trivia – this stunt is edited in at least some of the TV versions of The Car, including the one that I saw years ago. The edit, if I remember correctly, isn’t very well done, and leaves a glaring continuity gap later regarding the number of dead cops.)
Wade’s mustache nears the scene, and he lays his bike down to block The Car. The Car stops short, and Wade’s mustache takes a few shots at it. He approaches The Car slowly from the side. The window lowers slightly. The door pops open. As Wade’s mustache reaches for the door, it slams open, knocking him to the ground, dazed. The Car’s engine revs loudly, and it appears to vanish!
Wade’s mustache awakens in the hospital, being patched up by Dr. Pullbrook (Suzie’s father). The deputies show up. Notes are compared – The Car was undamaged by everything that happened to it. They speculate on bulletproof glass and self-sealing tires. At least 6 cops have been killed. No driver has been seen. The kids are at home with Margie. They call, and tell Wade’s mustache that Lauren “cussed out” The Car. Lauren leaves to get her things, accompanied by Chas. She’s going to watch the girls. Wade’s mustache calls Luke in and asks why the parade practice wasn’t canceled. He realizes that Luke is hitting the sauce again.
Chas drives Lauren to her house. On the way, he passes his trailer, concerned for his family. Lauren tells him to drop her off, go check on his loved ones, and come back in half an hour. As Chas heads home, we see that The Car has been waiting, dark, in the woods on the way to Lauren’s. With Lauren left alone, The Car makes its move.
The wind picks up. Lauren, quick on the uptake, realizes that The Car is near, and runs inside. (Trivia – in her living room is a cheesy, partially completed painting of Wade and his ‘stache. She calls Wade’s mustache, fearfully telling him that she can hear the engine of The Car. Through the window, we see the approaching headlights of The Car – two glowing predatory eyes growing larger by the moment. Lauren looks up just in time to see The Car launch itself through the wall at her. It drives through the house, horn sounding triumphantly, and takes off down the road into the darkness.
During the cleanup, Wade’s mustache becomes facial hair on a mission. The Car must be destroyed! Luke, questionably sober, declares that he knows why The Car couldn’t enter the cemetery – it was hallowed ground. It sought revenge on Lauren because she cursed it, and Wade’s mustache is next.
The plan that develops involves having Amos and a bunch of the deputies plant explosives around the rim of a box canyon outside of town (recall that Amos is the local dynamite monger), and Wade’s ‘stache leading The Car in where it can be buried under tons of rock.5
That evening, Wade’s mustache makes sure his girls are asleep, then he goes into his garage to do some tuning on his bike. As he’s working, he notices that he’s not alone in his garage – The Car is in there with him! ZOMG!! And it got in past the locked door and everything! The Car begins gunning its engine, filling the garage with exhaust! Wade’s mustache makes a break for it, diving out a window and starting his motorcycle – the chase is on!
The Car chases Wade’s ‘stache through the streets of Santa Ynez, before getting out into the open desert. They head to the canyon ahead of schedule. Amos and company haven’t finished laying the explosives, so Wade’s mustache plays a game of vehicular tag with The Car to stall for time.
He soon loses his bike, so Wade’s mustache starts up a rope that Luke has tossed over the side. The Car withdraws and heads up the road to the top of the canyon, where Amos and the deputies are almost finished. Wade’s mustache gets to the top, and he and Luke move away from the edge to lure The Car.
As it crests the top of the canyon, The Car charges full speed for Wade’s mustache and Luke. They wait until the last instant, and dive out of the way. The Car, unable to stop, launches over the edge, horn honking as it plummets to the canyon floor. Amos pushes the plunger on the detonator, and something like eleventy thousand pounds of dynamite drop the canyon wall onto The Car. A column of fire bursts skyward, accompanied by an unearthly howl. The survivors see a monstrous face appear briefly in the flames before they dissipate.
The sun rises over the distant hills, and it appears that The Car has been defeated!
As the credits roll, we see a wheel’s-eye view of The Car (another Car?) driving through the streets of a large city. The evil continues, and nothing but the lack of a budget for a sequel can stop it!
And there you have it. 30-some-odd years haven’t really diminished the cheese-factor of The Car. That said, as far as cult-favorite films go, The Car isn’t nearly as bad as some others, and it’s milder than a lot of stuff that ends up on network TV these days. If you’re looking for a flick for a weird movie night, this might be your thing.
2A note on geography. Our story is set in the town of Santa Ynez, Utah. Santa Ynez is uniquely situated so that every point in town is roughly two minutes from every other point in town. Further, we have mountain passes, canyons, mesas, and large flat expanses of plains that are two minutes from each other, yet totally invisible from within various points of the town.
3Take note of this. Luke is supposed to be the spiritual one. We know this because of his reference to his Bible class and because of the cross he wears on a chain that conspicuously pops out of his shirt a couple of times. Also, the scene showing Suzie’s body is probably the single most graphic scene in the entire film, and it is basically the actress laying on the ground in some weeds with some technicolor blood smeared on her. It’s interesting that 1977’s PG-rated movies are less violent than most modern TV crime dramas.
4I’m not exactly sure why anyone would think it would be a good idea to run maybe a quarter-mile across an open plain to the foot of some cliffs while being pursued by a driverless car that has already killed several people, but what do I know?
5OK. So by this point, we’ve got a pretty clear picture that The Car is some sort of vehicular embodiment of evil. (The Car is not original in this concept, by the way. In 1974, there was a TV movie called Killdozer! featuring a murderous piece of construction equipment. The car motif was used, arguably to better effect, by Stephen King in his 1983 novel Christine.) Now, maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, but if I were some sort of evil spirit or demon or whatever, and I wanted to inhabit something murderous, I think I’d go for something more maneuverable, like, I don’t know, a velociraptor or something. Maybe a giant robot crab…