“Jaws on wheels”: that’s how The Car is commonly dismissed by mainstream and genre critics alike. True, there are elements of this pronunciation that are true. it came from the same studio a few years after Jaws was an industry-shattering success and features a law enforcement agent up against a single-minded menace picking off the populace of his town. However, that’s where the similarities end. The Car has more tricks up its sleeve than being a Jaws clone, offering a quirky sensibility and a creepy, esoteric supernatural angle to its plot that has made it a cult favorite over the years.
The Car begins with a mysterious automobile emerging from the haze around a desert town. It begins mowing down tourists and locals alike as Sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin) mobilizes his deputies to find and corner it. However, they soon discover that not only is this new menace clever and ruthless, it might also be supernatural in origin. As the phantom car begins targeting his friends and family, Parent and his dwindling staff must resort to desperate measures to take down their unusual foe.
The resulting film is a stylish slab of pulp horror that might surprise you with how creepy and compelling it is. The script, penned by Dennis Shryack and Michael Blodgett with Lane Slate, is often knocked for its outré premise but it handles the outlandish plot concept with skill. Rather than give the mystery car an easy explanation, they instead give it an air of mystery as it slowly reveals elements of its nature: for instance, there is an eerie scene where it chases a school class practicing a parade until they take cover in a cemetery, where it refuses to enter while spinning out at the gates with rage.
The script also has an interesting “Stephen King novel” kind of vibe in that it invests time in giving the characters personal lives, troubles and dreams that extend beyond fulfilling the plot’s twists and turns. On that note, The Car benefits from a strong cast that runs with these interesting characterizations and thus enhances the film by playing the story straight and thus intensifying its chilly power. The underrated Brolin anchors the film nicely with a performances that shows plentiful charm and emotion and Lloyd is a quirky delight as his unconventional lady love.
There’s also strong supporting work from Ronny Cox as a deputy with a guilty secret, R.G. Armstrong as a mean local who might be more helpful than he first seems and John Marley as an older deputy with romantic problems. Viewers might also want to look out for a quick, charmingly odd bit from John Rubinstein as a musically-inclined hitchhiker with an active fantasy life.
Finally, The Car benefits from strong direction by talented journeyman director Elliot Silverstein. He cleverly offsets the likeable performances from his cast with a moody visual style that exploits the film’s desert setting beautifully. He makes a meal out of each setpiece in the film, wringing the maximum suspense and shock effects out of each one in a way that reflects his background as a former director of The Twilight Zone. His work is supported nicely by elegant ‘scope photography by Gerald Hirschfeld, punchy editing by Michael McCrosky and an edgy, nerve-jangling score from Leonard Rosenman.
Last but not least, the title attraction is a major part of the film’s appeal. The George Barris-designed vehicle has an odd, art deco design to its contours that gives it a uniquely alien look. Stunt coördinator Everett Creach deserves praise for setting up several amazing car stunts, including a bit where the titular villain takes out two patrol cars at once via a flip. It’s one of the most mind-blowing car stunts that Schlockmania has ever seen in a film.
In short, The Car isn’t the Jaws knockoff its often considered be. Instead, it’s a crafty mix of car-stunt film and eerie supernatural horror that has earned its devoted fanbase — and it’s worthy of rediscovery by the bigger cult movie audience.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just released this title on blu-ray for the U.S. market. The transfer is fantastic, offering a rich palette of earthy colors and sharp details throughout. Both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo tracks are included: the 5.1 track was used for this review and it is fantastic, weaving in some great surround effects during the shock scenes and making excellent use of the film’s shivery score. Be sure to listen to the end of the credits for a fun little sound design flourish when you use this track.
A few short but interesting interviews were created for this release. The first is a nine minute chat with Silverstein, who discusses how he came onto the project and how he navigated around some philosophical differences with the studio to make the film as eerie as he could. There’s also some neat details on the stunt scenes, including a scary close call the director had on the set.
The next is a 12 minute chat with actress Geraldine Keams, who discusses how she got her film career going and how she had to translate dialogue for another actor in one key scene. Finally, there is a 10-minute chat with Melody Thomas Scott, who discusses how this role helped her transition from child actor to adult actor. She’s also frank about her differences with Silverstein and tells a funny story about she took a big risk to get back at him.
The disc is rounded out by a set of promotional materials. There is a theatrical trailer and a t.v. spot that both capture the film’s creepy vibe well and also make effective use of its car stunts. Next up is three minutes’ worth of radio spots that use the same grim-voiced style of narration as the trailers. An expansive image gallery closes things out, offering over 100 images of stills, publicity photos, lobby cards and ad art from around the world.