(This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in June of 2014 on the site Cheese-Magnet.com. Long live the Cheese-Magnet!)
I should probably preface this article by stating that I am a big fan of The Car (1977). I have watched it over a dozen times and I own a 1:18 scale die-cast of the titular vehicle. This is not to say that it is a fantastic movie. The plot is simplistic and the dialogue can occasionally be painful. It was panned by critics on its initial release and can be found on multiple “worst of” lists. But there is just something about the ‘Jaws on Wheels’ that fascinates me.
WARNING: Spoilers abound
The film opens with a quote from Anton La Vey:
Anton La Vey was an author and musician, who looked rather like Ming the Merciless and who, in 1966, founded the Church of Satan. The quote is taken from the Satanic Bible. It sounds kind of ominous but I suspect the quote has no real significance or relevance to the movie, despite La Vey receiving a Technical Advisor credit on the film.
The cast is led by James Brolin who two years later would star in The Amityville Horror. In 1986, Brolin earned the envy of many a fan of WKRP in Cincinnati when he married Jan Smithers best known for her role as Bailey Quarters. Nowadays Brolin gives a funny turn as John Bertram Short on the sitcom Life in Pieces but is probably still best known as Mr. Barbra Streisand and the father of Josh Brolin. In The Car, Brolin sported a moustache and a scruffy, feathered haircut. This creates a look that Christian Bale has used with some success.
None of the cast are really big names although several are familiar faces from TV and film of the 70’s and 80’s. Leading lady Kathleen Lloyd looks so much like Sarah Silverman that I went hunting online for a family relation (I didn’t find one).
The most notable supporting cast member is Ronny Cox who has been in everything from Deliverance and Robocop to Dexter and True Detective. I didn’t realize he carried enough name recognition for special acknowledgement in 1977 but he is called out in the opening credits as And Ronny Cox as “Luke”.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The real star is The Car itself. Designed by legendary Batmobile creator, George Barris, The Car is a customized 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III. Barris chopped the roof, raised the door line, and added heavy, chrome, wrap-around bumpers. The grill was custom made and the headlights were sunk behind the grill and fenders to give The Car a menacing looking ‘face’.
The credits play over a desert landscape on freeze frame. Once the credits are finished and the film begins to roll, The Car seems to suddenly appear out of nothing in the distance. It races towards us trailing a very Road Runner-esque trail of dust.
Cut to two teenagers who are cycling down the middle of a curvy road in the mountains. This doesn’t seem like the smartest choice even if you don’t know you are in a movie about a demonic killer vehicle. The dialog here is very unnatural. It might have sounded ok on paper but on screen it seems rushed. Pete and Suzie’s conversation feels like it should have occurred over a much longer time period. In particular, when Suzie tells Pete he is getting old, Pete responds with, “Yeah? Now who’s getting old?” But he doesn’t really do anything to justify that comeback.
The couple ride through a long winding tunnel, still unwisely in the middle of the road. Meanwhile trouble is approaching. Watching closely, you can spot the TUNNEL road sign from the orange-tinted perspective of The Car.
Somewhat surprisingly, Pete and Suzie make it safely out of the tunnel. The camera slowly pans in on the tunnel mouth from which they just exited. There is a flicker as light is reflected off a grill and, in the next instant, a quick cut has The Car bursting from the tunnel.
Pete and Suzie hear The Car’s engine even before they see it so they finally move over to the side of the road. This doesn’t help them, however, as The Car drives right up behind Suzie. This gives us our first opportunity to hear The Car’s horn. It sounds more like a transport truck horn or maybe even a train horn but what makes it great is the fluttery way in it which it is applied. The Car is giving a throaty, diabolical laugh as it chases down its victims.
The Car pulls alongside Suzie and forces her right up against a short brick wall at the side of the road. This is a little odd since there was no brick wall at the side of the road before. But it doesn’t matter because soon enough the wall vanishes again and The Car pushes Suzie off the road and over a cliff.
The Car comes up behind Pete, actually managing to rub the rear wheel of Pete’s bike with the front bumper. But for some reason, The Car doesn’t simply mow Pete down but again bumps him off the side of the road. This bump, however, occurs as they are driving over a very high bridge.
The scene ends with a shot of one of Suzie’s shoes and the mangled but still-spinning front wheel of her bike lying beside the mysterious wall. This would be more effective if we hadn’t clearly seen Suzie’s entire bike go over the edge.
It’s about time to introduce our leading man. Brolin plays single parent, Wade Parent (yes, really). Wade is a Captain on the Santa Ynez police force and is raising two young girls on his own. (Wade’s children are portrayed by real-life sisters Kim and Kyle Richards. One year later Kyle would play Lindsey, one of the kids protected by Jamie Lee Curtis, in John Carpenter’s Halloween.) Wade is also in a relationship with Lauren Humphries, the music teacher at the girls’ school, who has spent the night. I suppose their morning banter and hijinks is meant to demonstrate what a loving and fun relationship they have. I find it rather nauseating. Lauren pretends to be a newscaster, comments on Wade’s ‘dragon breath’, and does a terrible Edward G. Robinson impression. Wade counters by singing some weird song about muleskinners and wrestling Lauren to the floor in an attempt to get a morning quickie. They work too hard at being a quirky couple. The worst has to be when Wade asks her, “Did you ever notice it’s impossible to brush your teeth without wiggling your ass?” Lauren responds, “Everybody knows that!” I guess I missed the memo.
After that unsavoury interlude, it’s about time we got back to more death and dismemberment. Johnny Norris (John Rubinstein) is a slightly spaced-out hippie playing the ‘Call to the Cows’ section from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” on a French horn at the side of the road. After briefly getting into the middle of a domestic incident between the town-scumbag Amos (R.G. Armstrong) and his wife, Johnny attempts to hitch a ride. The circumstances that find him on the outskirts of town attempting to hitch a ride into town, I don’t understand. But he no sooner states his plan then a vehicle appears on the horizon. Johnny not only assumes he has a ride but that the driver will be a 34 year old nymphomaniac who will take him water skiing in the Amazon basin. Therefore, when the car blasts past him, Johnny is understandably disappointed and yells out, “Up yours with a splintered fiddle!” But of course, this isn’t just any car. The Car apparently does not appreciate Johnny’s witty retort. It slams on the brakes, turns around impossibly fast, and, according to Amos who witnessed the attack from his kitchen window, drives back-and-forth over Johnny a total of four times.
Wade gets word on the radio that something is amiss. After dropping his kids off at school (on the back of his motorcycle), he heads over to Amos’ place. Sheriff Everett and Deputy Luke are already on the scene.
The sheriff (John Marley) treats Amos as a hostile witness, barking questions at him and giving him the third degree. This treatment doesn’t have anything to do with the hit-and-run but is rather due to the common knowledge that Amos is an abusive husband. What’s more, Sheriff Everett has a soft spot for Amos’ wife, Bertha. Everett goes so far as to get a little too touchy with Bertha during the interview. The film has a lot of these little side plots that never really pan out. I imagine the script writer was attempting to give some depth to the characters by providing these glimpses into their background but they seem too tacked on and disjointed.
The police bully a vague description of The Car from Amos and return to the police station. Here we meet the rest of the department including Chas (Henry O’Brien), a Native American, whose presence on the police force is not accepted by all of the townspeople. At the start of this scene he is being taunted by someone on the phone to “go back to what you people do best” and Amos will later toss racial slurs in Chas’ direction. Again this doesn’t really amount to anything but it does result in an amusingly tacky moment at the end of the film. Sheriff Everett gives the troops a little pep talk, which is pretty much limited to stating he is unhappy about the murder, and sends them all out to the streets.
We detour (no pun intended) to a quick scene at the school to establish Wade’s girlfriend Lauren as the music teacher and set the ground work for a marching band practice later in the film. Along the way, we are also introduced to two additional pointless subplots. First we learn that one of Lauren’s students has a crush on her and sketches nude pictures of her. (When asked by a fellow teacher whether she thinks it is healthy for a 13 year old boy to picture his teacher naked, Lauren responds, “Absolutely!”) We also learn that Ronny Cox’s character, Luke, is a recovering alcoholic (two years sober to the day). Luke will soon fall off the wagon as the stress gets to him but it is never really pivotal to the plot.
Remember Pete and Suzie? Well, someone has stumbled upon Suzie’s body so Wade and Luke are called to the scene. Despite a fairly large force at the site including two cops directing traffic, the sheriff’s department makes no attempt to secure the crime scene and even allows photo-taking gawkers to stand atop the blood stained wall Suzie was forced against.
Sheriff Everett is aware that Suzie had gone on a biking trip with a Pete Keil. Having not yet discovered Pete’s body, Sheriff Everett suspects Pete’s involvement in Suzie’s death. He also believes The Car was involved, however. I’m not sure if he is implying Pete is the driver of The Car or what exactly. Pete happens to be Luke’s neighbour. In fact, Luke indicates that he had become Pete’s surrogate father. In another pointless diversion, Luke is adamant that Pete could not have been biking with Suzie because he had told Wade he was going to the neighbouring town of Ogden for a job interview.
That night back at the police station, Sheriff Everett and Wade send the troops out to man the streets and then decide to hit the bar despite still being on duty. They plan on taking Luke with them (for a sarsaparilla) but Luke has plans of his own. He digs out a bottle of booze he has apparently kept hidden for two years in the trunk of the squad car he shares with Wade. While Luke drinks in the garage, Everett heads to the bar. Unfortunately The Car is waiting in the shadows, parked at the curb on the main strip. With what I’m sure is an actual roar dubbed in with the sound of the engine, it charges down the street. Wife-beating, racist, alcoholic Amos narrowly avoids being hit by diving to the curb but Everett is mowed down.
With Everett out of the picture, Wade assumes control of the sheriff’s department. He has Chas translate for an elderly native woman who was the only witness, besides Amos, to Everett’s death. Chas dismisses her statement as ‘Indian talk’. Later we will learn that she told him there was no driver in the big, black car.
The next morning, Wade is asked by the school whether or not they can go ahead with parade/marching band practice. Wade, who apparently assumes he will have this all wrapped up in time for lunch, tells them to hold off until the afternoon. During the rehearsal a sudden wind kicks up a lot of dust, disrupting the band and making the horses skittish. When everyone stops for a moment, they hear The Car’s mocking horn in the distance and make a panicked run for it.
The students and teachers take cover behind the tombstones of an old graveyard. From this position, Wade’s girlfriend, Lauren, taunts The Car, going so far as to throw a stick at it and call it an ‘upside down bathtub’. The Car appears to take this very personally, angrily doing donuts and revving its engine until the police arrive and scare it off.
Through the use of a lot of sped up footage, we are shown the police attempting to box The Car in. The Car, however, is not going down that easy. First it lures one deputy up into the hills and pushes his police cruiser off the edge of a cliff (the cruiser explodes as it starts its fall). Next, in the strangest offensive driving manoeuvre I’ve ever seen, The Car intentionally flips itself in order to roll over two police cruisers simultaneously.
Wade and The Car get into an absurd standoff with Wade standing in the middle of the road ineffectually shooting at The Car’s tires and windshield. Luckily for Wade, The Car is suddenly in a playful mood, toying with Wade rather than simply running him down. Eventually The Car knocks Wade to the ground by swatting him with a car door. This is somehow enough to require Wade to spend a night in the hospital. In his absence, Wade asks Lauren to stay over at his place and watch the kids. He has Chas drive Lauren over to her home to pick up a few things.
Chas drops Lauren off at her house while he swings by his own place to check in on his family. Lauren fools around in the middle of the street chasing a scrap of paper but makes it into the house unscathed. Unfortunately for her, she apparently lives in a house made entirely out of wood panelling. The Car drives right through the front window, mows down Lauren in her own living room, smashes out of the back of the house, and races away.
After a fairly long awkward scene of Wade mourning Lauren’s loss, he calls the entire remaining police force together to formulate a plan. This plan hinges on the involvement of resident jerk Amos and his munitions truck and isn’t Amos just so smug that they need his help.
The plan is to simply lure The Car into a canyon and blow it up with Amos’ explosives. I suspect this is not approved police procedure, but who am I to judge? Wade intends to be the bait as he seems to think he holds a special interest for The Car. He therefore goes back to his house to grab his jacket and prepare his motorcycle. What Wade fails to notice as he tinkers about in his garage is that The Car has somehow managed to get in the garage with him.
Once he realizes The Car is in the garage with him, Wade oddly locks the small side door he came in through and instead tries to exit through the main front door. Of course this puts him directly in The Car’s path and, of course, the door is locked. Fortunately for Wade, The Car is once again in a playful mood. After racing towards Wade a couple of times only to back off, The Car begins revving its engine, filling the garage with smoke, and honking its horn. This gives Wade the opportunity to jump through the garage’s plate glass window (!), hop on his motorcycle, and race away. The Car smashes through the garage in hot pursuit.
With The Car right behind him, Wade calls Luke on the CB radio to tell him they are on the way. Luke’s response is that Wade is too early and will have to stall.
Eventually, they get the explosives rigged up. Wade and Luke trick The Car into driving right off the edge of the canyon using that time honoured ploy of acting like sitting ducks at the brink and then jumping out of harm’s way at the last second.
To add insult to injury, the men set off the explosives causing The Car to be buried under a mountain of rock and apparently filing in the entire canyon. The resulting fireball (and no, I’m not entirely clear on why there is a fireball) contains the vague idea of a monster/demon face that no one but Luke will admit to seeing.
With The Car defeated, there is really nothing left except to have that tacky moment I mentioned earlier.
The Car (1977) Directed by Elliot Silverstein; Written by Dennis Shryack, Michael Butler, & Lane Slate; Starring James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong, Henry O’Brien, Melody Thomas Scott, Kim Richards, Kyle Richards, & Ronny Cox; Available on Blu-Ray from Shout Factory.
A final update: A sequel was made to The Car just this year. Titled The Car: Road to Revenge, the film boasts a cameo by Ronny Cox, although apparently not in the role of Deputy Luke. Unfortunately the car in the new film is not The Car but rather a luxury sedan called a Lazarus. The Lazarus is also not a mysterious demon vehicle but rather is possessed by a murdered district attorney. The possessed vehicle seeks revenge on those that murdered him in a cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic (maybe?) city. I have yet to see The Car: Road to Revenge so I should not judge. However, what I just described does not sound like a worthy sequel to my beloved The Car.