In 1975 Steven Spielberg changed the face of modern cinema when he unleashed Jaws, the father of the modern blockbuster, but a twenty-five-foot man-eating shark was not the only monster Mister Spielberg is at least partially responsible for, as his film led to countless rip-offs that have populated cinemas for decades. Now some of these rip-offs dealt with killer sharks, such as Enzo G. Castellari’s laughable The Last Shark, and then we had Dino De Laurentiis Orca, which dealt with a vengeful killer whale, while William Girdler took Jaws onto land with his 1976 film Grizzly, an almost a carbon copy of Spielberg’s film only swapping the sea for the woods, but my favourite Jaws rip-off is Elliot Silversteins’s The Car.
The premise for The Car is beautiful in its simplicity, a small town in Utah finds itself in the cross-hairs of a demonic car and only a small group of stalwart heroes have a chance to stop these four wheels of evil, and much like Jaws this film starts with a young couple out for some fun, but in this case biking not swimming. The Car mercilessly hounds the poor kids with its blaring horn a harbinger of death, but unlike Jaws, both the girl and the boy are killed with the girl being scraped against a stone railing and the boy being sent off a bridge to a spectacular 196 ft fall.
Later a French horn-playing hitchhiker flips off The Car, for almost running him down, so The Car backs up and runs him over several times, but this death is witnessed by abusive husband Amos Clemmons (R.G. Armstrong), which brings the local law enforcement in on the case.
The main law officers in this town consist of Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley), Chief Deputy Wade Parent (James Brolin), who is the single dad to two cute little moppets (real-life sisters Kim and Kyle Richards) and is dating local school teacher Lauren Humphries (Kathleen Lloyd), and then there is Deputy Luke Johnson (Ronny Cox), who is a recovering alcoholic but falls off the wagon when the death of the two bikers is eventually discovered.
Sheriff Peck believes they have a “Crazy on our hands,” and has an all-points bulletin put out on the strange vehicle, unfortunately for him, The Car doesn’t make itself easily tracked down and the Sheriff finds himself becoming the next victim. What is interesting to Wade is that he saw The Car swerve to avoid the wife beating Amos Clemmons to then run down Sheriff Peck, so it seems The Car has an interesting moral code.
And of course, no one listens to the old Native American woman who says there was no driver in The Car. Why would you? So Wade tells Deputy Luke to cancel the school marching band practice until they find this killer, but Luke has been hitting the bottle and forgets, which leads to the next attack when the teachers and kids are down at the parade grounds practicing when a strange wind blows up and soon the blaring of The Car’s horn can be heard. There is a fantastic tracking shot where we just see the roof of The Car skimming along the ridge as it arrives, and it is just like watching a shark fin cut through the water.
Everyone runs for cover as the dust cloud of the approaching car nears, but just when it looks like we are about to get a lot of little kiddie fatalities Lauren leads them all into an old cemetery, which The Car doesn’t enter for some reason. Lauren taunts the unseen driver but it just roars around the little cemetery causing more dust, but it never crosses the boundary. It isn’t until later that Luke suggests that maybe it couldn’t get the kids because the cemetery is hallowed ground.
The police eventually arrive and they proceed to try and catch The Car, it’s at this point that the characters in this movie start to really wonder about the nature of what they are really dealing with, especially after one police officer fires his shotgun repeatedly at The Car to no effect and then finds him and his car pushed off a cliff, while two other police cars are destroyed as The Car does a spectacular barrel roll over them.
Sheriff Wade gets his chance at The Car, firing several shots at almost point blank range into the windshield, but to no effect, and when the window rolls down slightly, and then the car door pops open a tad, Wade is able to just about to get a look inside the door before flies the rest of the way open, knocking him down, and then The Car seems to vanish in a blinding light.
While in the hospital recovering from his encounter with The Car our Sheriff discovers that he’s lost six police officers and The Car has once again eluded all roadblocks, and as a group, they discuss the strange nature of the car and its seeming invulnerability. He asks one of his men to take Lauren home, to get some things so she can watch his girls until they catch this thing, sadly Lauren’s home is not on hallowed ground.
This movie gets serious cred for having the girlfriend of the hero mowed down by the Devil Car, and it caught me completely off guard. This is basically a “Shit just got real” moment and our remaining characters have finally come to the conclusion that this might not be just your average homicidal killer, so they decide to use explosives to destroy The Car. That the explosives are provided by Amos Clemmons, whom The Car spared earlier, is a nice touch.
Using himself as bait Wade leads The Car through the desert to where his men are setting up an exploding finale for the evil bastard, the plan is to get The Car to the base of a cliff and then blow the ridge above, burying the demonic vehicle;e under tons of rock. The Car doesn’t like that plan and races to the top of the ridge and is only defeated when Wade and Luke stand at the edge of the cliff like perfect targets, and then dodge out of the way at the last second, letting The Car sail right passed them and over the cliff, as Amos detonates the dynamite.
Everyone kind of ignores Luke when says he saw a face in the explosion, because living in denial is an even better place to live than in Utah, and of course, during the credits we see that The Car is still “alive” and is arriving in Los Angeles. Too bad we never got a sequel.
Now The Car was almost universally panned by critics, Gene Siskel gave it one star and on Rotten Tomatoes it is at 18% and I simply don’t get the hate, this is a well-made thriller with a nice and simple premise of “What would the devil do if he had a rad set of wheels?” And there are very few “movie cars” as cool as this 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III customized by George Barris, the guy who gave us the Adam West Batmobile. Those of you who haven’t had the privilege of seeing this film yet may have seen The Car when it appeared in an episode of Futurama that had Bender turning into a WereCar.
One thing I don’t want to forget to mention is the score by composer Leonard Rosenman which contains some of the most haunting music I’ve ever heard in a horror film and it along with The Cars signature horn blasts make for a fabulous soundtrack.
Want more proof that The Car is a movie worth checking out? Kenner designed a game for children at home to play, and what I gather from the description is that kids placed objects at the bottom of the ramp and each spin of the wheel brought The Car closer until one object would finally trigger The Car’s deadly run. Sadly the objects are just stop signs, park benches and pylons and not hitcher hikers or pretty school teachers. Even sadder is the fact that Kenner cancelled production plans so this game never saw the toy store shelves.
The Car has always held a sweet spot for me because its premise is just so damn awesome as I just love the idea of The Devil deciding to pop topside for a bit, just to mow down a few innocent souls.