The Car Review
The Car is, to be blunt, about a car. Not just any car, but a seemingly driverless Lincoln Continental which arrives in a Utah town and starts killing people. It’s worth noting that the eponymous vehicle begins by showing excellent taste in victims. It starts by killing two irritatingly perky teenage cyclists and goes to run over an astonishingly annoying hitch-hiker who insists on playing a French Horn. But once it kills the police chief (Marley) who is firmly on the side of the angels – he hates abusive husbands like big old R. G. Armstrong – we realise that all bets are off. The only man who can stop The Car is Sherrif Wade Parent – a single parent, in case the name didn’t tip you off – and he’s definitely equal to the task despite being distracted by the charms of irksomely happy-clappy schoolteacher Lauren (Lloyd).
It doesn’t take too much film knowledge to realise that this is vaguely inspired by Duel, the Steven Spielberg TV movie about a homicidal truck – though that truck did definitely have a driver. But in this case, the car would seem to be genuinely possessed and the director, Elliott Silverstein, added a quote from “creative consultant” Anton Le Vey at the top of the film which leaves us in no doubt as to the occult nature of the intrusion. Nor can it enter hallowed ground, allowing a group of children to hide in the local cemetery. So, it would appear that another inspiration might be the success of The Exorcist which made possession the dinner party topic du jour and Jaws which involved the audience in an irrational attack by a deadly predator. It does also seem to be hooking into the success of car chase movies such as Eat My Dust, Gone in 60 Seconds, Cannonball, Death Race 2000 and The Gumball Ralley.
In the circumstances, the film ought to be ludicrous. That it isn’t bad – and is in fact quite good – is largely down to the execution, which goes beyond simple efficiency into the realm of occasional inspiration. I don’t want to raise unrealistic expectations because in general The Car is a straightforward studio programmer. But it has genuine visual distinction thanks to the superlative cinematography by Gerald Hirschfield, an undervalued talent who worked a lot with Frank Perry but is perhaps best known for Young Frankenstein. His photography of the Utah landscapes is intensely atmospheric, capturing the dusty emptiness in shades of brown and blue. The shots from the car’s point of view are also very nicely done. Equal credit should go to the effects by William Aldridge, Kevin Pike, and Albert Whitlock, and the stunt crew which included the great A. J. Bakunas. Elliot Silverstein’s direction is taut and efficient – he’s one of those directors who came from television, had a big hit - Cat Ballou - and then faded into the background, but he brings a sharp eye for a suspense sequence and very sure pacing.
There are some unintentionally comic moments, mostly provided by the screenplay. Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack are reliable professionals but their dialogue could do with more humour fewer splodges of unfortunately straight-faced exposition – “How the hell could he get through our roadblock?” It would certainly take a dull soul not to giggle when James Brolin says, in all seriousness, “How? (long pause) and why?” There would be a lot more inadvertent laughs had it not been for the acting which manages to be, for the most part, low-key and credible. Brolin is an excellent leading man, selling the unlikely situation, and the supporting cast does a good job. John Marley’s excellent character performance is invaluable, adding subtle shadings to what might in other circumstances have been a typically shouty police chief, particularly in his poignant scenes with the battered wife. Equally, Ronny Cox as Brolin’s alcoholic partner gives his character an unexpected depth. I’m not so sure about Kathleen Lloyd as Lauren – she was excellent in The Missouri Breaks but she seems to strike a wrong note here, particularly in a peculiarly misjudged introductory sequence
As a horror film, The Car is certainly short on genuine scares, especially compared to the skilful escalation of terror in Jaws. But it does have some creepiness here and there, particularly during the opening scene when an orange filter gives us the point of the view of the monster, and there’s a great unexpected plot twist at the seventy minute mark which demonstrates that an old car can learn new tricks. Most of all though, there is the car itself, a mute presence which is most effective when just sitting there, watching and waiting.
One of the nicest things about Arrow is that their excellent Blu-Ray discs give you a chance to re-assess some films which might otherwise have been dismissed. The Car is a case in point; a minor but entertaining movie which now looks as good as it ever has done.
Presented in its original ratio of 2.35:1, the film sports some handsome location cinematography which scrubs up beautifully in high definition. It’s a remarkably clean transfer with very little obvious damage or obtrusive noise. Film grain is subtle but definitely present and the level of detail is exemplary. As so often with Arrow, the representation of colour is gorgeous. Although it’s not likely to get the same popular acclaim as their higher profile Bava restorations, this is as nice as transfer as I’ve seen this year and an admirable achievement for a film which has hitherto largely been dismissed. No complaints about the lossless audio track either which sees the mono track spread across the front two channels to excellent effect. Leonard Rosenman’s score is a particular beneficiary and I was amused to see that the main theme running through the film quotes the same Berlioz “Dies Irae” used to shattering effect three years later in The Shining. Optional English subtitles for the film are included.
A nice package of extras has been assembled. Firstly, there is a commentary track from Callum Waddell and Elliot Silverstein which promises much but doesn’t really deliver. Silverstein is an 85 year old man with a long career behind him and a faltering memory. It’s evident that he hasn’t watched the film in a very long time and that he’s not particularly inclined to discuss what he actually does remember. Some directors want to analyse their work and others simply don’t and never the twain shall meet. Waddell does his very best to propel the track along and does get a few nuggets here and there; Silverstein discusses a little about his previous work, explains the decision to include the Le Vey quote, laments the fact that he didn’t do more night shooting and expresses surprise at the cult following for “a series of soap-opera like segments” – but its’ hard work to listen to and was presumably not the most satisfying experience for either man. Silverstein tends to fall back on the explanation that things are “ a mystery” and this naturally limits the discussion of the film’s content. The final impression one is left with is that Waddell talks a lot and asks a lot of questions which get the response “Yes” or “Thank you.” A typical example is his attempt to get an anecdote about Lee Marvin which is met with the answer “Well, that’s another story”.
Rather more satisfying are the interviews. The better of the two is Making a Mechanical Monster, a fascinating 27 minute chat with William Aldridge who did the mechanical special effects and also helped out with the stunt work. Aldridge has a long and distinguished career in effects – he worked on the likes of Die Hard and has the nickname “Bill Effects” - and is a very engaging participant who obviously has great affection for this film which was his big break in the industry. There are some amusing anecdotes about “the gags”, a term which always confuses me but which is how stuntmen refer to their big scenes. I loved the story about the car rolling over the top of the police cars which seems to have been insanely complicated. The other interview is a briefer chat with John Rubinstein who played the ill-fated hitch-hiker. He has vivid memories of how much he loved making the film and discusses his attempts to play an unfamiliar musical instrument, the filming of his death sequence; he also displays an unexpected awareness of the genre and the film as a whole.
Finally, the original trailer is included, along with a John Landis narrated version. Landis likes the film as a bad movie but acknowledges the minor cult following and informs us that Guillermo del Toro is a big fan. Retail copies of the disc also feature a booklet featuring new writing and interviews but this wasn’t supplied with the review copy. Look at the extras menu and you'll easily find a brief easter egg. The disc is locked to Region B.
The Car is a sleek and sharp little film which works very well on its own level and deserves to be better known. Arrow’s Blu-Ray, with its exceptional picture quality, should give it the chance to find a much wider following.