July 09, 2008

THE CAR (1977) - sworn enemy of road safety

(1977, USA)

Steven Spielberg's taut TV movie Duel (1971) may have prompted a few spin-off genre of 'road movies' that were crossbred with horror films. There was TV movie with a killer bulldozer, naturally called Killdozer (1974), the unbeatable Death Race 2000 (1975), and the creepy Race with the Devil (1975). This was when car stunts were cheaper and more convincing than horror special effects. I saw The Car in July 1977 in the UK, on a double bill with William Girdler’s Day of the Animals.

The Car probably looked like a complete gamble on the printed page - hats off to the cast for signing up. But despite the offbeat scenario, it works in a weird way. The Car is thoroughly menacing, working on our fears of evil as well as our experiences as pedestrians and cyclists...

It starts in a dusty Utah town, when a mysterious black car bumps off two innocent victims (bumps them off a high bridge, that is). After further hit-and-run deaths, the local sheriff is shocked to hear that no driver was seen inside, and bullets can't touch it.

A weird wind precedes each deadly appearance. In the distance, a dust trail slowly comes nearer, and there’s the sound of an increasingly ominous car horn... (heavily referenced in the Futurama episode 'The Honking').

What does it want, where is it from, and can it be stopped? As the killer car shows no sign of slowing up, the local police start believing the worst...

With some spectacular stunts, the action is quite low-key but inventive (the Car rarely kills the same way twice), and the cinematography highlights the spectacular desert locations.

The Car rarely gets more than creepy, but works well as a mystery, as long as you’re not expecting a thorough explanation at the end. The premise is more like Jaws on land, than The Exorcist on wheels. It's not at all like John Carpenter's adaption of Christine, which rolled up in a similar vein six years later.

The brave bewildered sheriff is played by James Brolin, (inbetween leading roles in Westworld and Capricorn One). Spunky Kathleen Lloyd (of It Lives Again) plays his wife. As police deputy, Ronny Cox has some great emotional scenes but a low, low billing - this was halfway between his memorable characters in Deliverance and Robocop.

A few years ago, the unique design was celebrated with a beautiful 1:18 die-cast replica from ERTL.

But the star is the car - a cool, fearsome creation from George Barris, who also styled the original Batmobile for the Adam West Batman TV series (1966). From its super-darkened windows to the pedestrian-unfriendly double chrome bumpers, this is one sight you wouldn't want in your rear-view mirror.

Newly remastered by Universal for DVD in the US, The Car has never looked better, the 2.35 image never looked crisper. My only gripe is that the opening titles were originally in a different colour in the cinema release (and in the Anchor Bay DVD released in 2000), where they were a deep electric blue rather than a pale green.

The Anchor Bay DVD artwork for the 2000 release

DVD Beaver has a bunch of framegrabs from the new transfer, with shots of the stars and a great shot of the terrifying tail-gating scene...


  1. Hell yessssss.
    This movie is a gamechanger. Totally got under my skin as a kid. That was a season where I was afraid to go to the beach because of JAWS and afraid to ride my bike on the street.

  2. This movie when I first saw it in Puerto Rico I was 16 years old, it has some funny moments like coming to the sheriffs at a full stop engine off just standing there and like saying to them, "you can't get me, you can't get me". It could have been a comedy movie like who can catch it instead of running people over.

  3. Well. He was daring THE CAR because it couldn't enter a graveyard...

  4. This is a guilty pleasure of mine if there ever was one!..silly possessed killer car.. but the film is SO well made with great stunt drivers that it's hard not to enjoy it!..beautiful St.George Utah locations..I also saw it in 1977.