Way off in the distance of a vast desert landscape we catch a glint of sunlight reflecting off of something metal or glass. Then, a trail of dust becomes visible, kicked up by something moving at great speed and on an erratic course. We hear something, too, something strange, angry, and it's getting closer. And the closer it gets one cannot mistake the noise for the roar of a powerful engine. And then an unearthly horn sounds off, rattling the bones of anyone who can hear its incessant blaring, announcing the arrival of some mechanical monster straight outta hell.
Cut to two young backpackers, Peter and Suzie (Woodlock, Scott), who are riding their bikes down a lonely stretch of mountain highway, laughing and talking, until this is all drowned out by the rapid approach of some customized car with a familiar sounding horn. The menacing vehicle taunts these cyclists for a bit, who motion for the driver to just pass them. Instead, the car settles beside and keeps pace with the trailing girl, whose screams are cut short when the vehicle slams into her, causing Suzie to fly off into a steep ravine, where she dies instantly on impact. The car then zeroes in on Peter as the highway comes upon a deep gorge. Again, the driver of the car screws with him as they cross the expansive bridge, tapping his rear tire with the front bumper. Then, before they reach the other side, the car floors it and smashes into Peter, sending him and his bike plummeting over the side and into the gorge below as the car’s menacing horn echoes off the rocks.
Up the road a piece, a hitchhiker named John Morris (Rubenstein) waits by the side of the road for another lift. To kill time, Morris plays a tune on his french horn until he’s interrupted by a violent domestic dispute that spills outside of a nearby home, where an Amos Clemente (Armstrong) beats on his wife, which, sadly, seems to be their daily morning routine. Morris interjects, but is told to mind his own damned business. Fine by him, besides, there’s finally another car heading up the road -- but I don’t think he’ll want a ride with this driver as it’s the same car that killed those two kids. Later, when Amos tries to describe what happened next to Wade Parent (Brolin), chief deputy, and divorced father of two young girls, he has trouble getting his head around what he saw. He didn’t recognize the type of car at all, feeling it looked both foreign and domestic -- chopped down hard top, color, tinted windows, and saw no license plate. What Amos did see was the car running down the hitchhiker, and then back-up and run him over again. Twice.
Later, when Suzie’s body is discovered, Wade confers with his boss, Sheriff Everett (Marley), thinking it might be connected to his hitchhiker hit and run. Everett isn’t so sure, thinking Peter, a troubled youth, might have done that to Suzie even though Luke (Cox), another deputy, and a born again former alcoholic, two years sober, defends Peter, saying the boy had really turned it around. Either way, Everett orders stakeouts on all the roads leading in and out of town to keep an eye out for both Peter and the car Amos described. Then, after the sun sets, Amos’ wife, Bertha (Dowling), shows up at the station, her face covered in bruises. Everett begs her to press charges against her husband, but she just can’t do it and leaves in tears. Apparently, back in high school, Everett loved this woman, too, but she chose Amos over him and is now suffering the consequences. And so, a disheartened Everett leaves Wade in charge, saying he’s headed to the bar for a drink.
Outside, while crossing the street, Everett witnesses Amos further berating Bertha, then notices the odd looking car parked further down the street, which suddenly roars to life and accelerates toward Amos, but then swerves to miss him and runs Everett down instead, killing him. Chaos reigns in the station as Wade tries to sort out what happened, taking Amos’s statement first, confirming it was the same car that killed the hitchhiker. A defiant Amos leaves, screaming the normal nonsense, most of it racist, reminding his taxes pay their salaries. Meantime, an old Native American woman gives her statement to deputy Chas Littlefeather (O’Brien), who translates for Wade. But he doesn’t get all of it as Chas dismisses the last part, saying it’s nothing but native superstition. Nonsense, really. But the next morning, Donna (Kearns), their dispatcher, feeling it might be important, tells Wade what Chas left out: seems the old woman spoke of a devil on the wind and swears the car that killed Everett was empty and had no driver...
Back on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, after a round of golf, Richard Matheson was driving home with his friend and fellow author, Jerry Sohl, who, you remember, wrote Night Slaves (1972), when a trucker started tailgating them and refused to back off for several miles. Drawing inspiration from the incident, the writer tried to pitch the idea of a motorist terrorized by some lunatic truck driver on a lonely stretch of road to several anthology TV series he’d written for -- The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but received nary a nibble. And so, Matheson switched gears and turned it into a short story instead, which was first published in the April, 1971, issue of Playboy Magazine under the title Duel.
Ironically enough, as soon as the story was published, it was immediately optioned to be adapted by the ABC Network as a telefilm for there Movie of the Week slot. And somewhere on the Universal lot, young Steven Spielberg’s secretary handed him a copy of Playboy, told him the featured story was about to be made into a film and suggested he should apply for the job, feeling he’d be perfect to translate the material. The studio agreed. Meantime, Matheson would adapt his own screenplay, which was explicit the unnamed trucker remain unseen, aside from a few glimpses of his tattooed arms and snakeskin boots, and his motives remain unclear and unanswered. Spielberg was already on the same page, feeling fear of the unknown was perhaps the greatest fear of all and his version of Duel (1971) plays heavily on that fear. And on top of that, the effect of not seeing the driver made the real villain of the film, essentially, the truck itself and the trucker pretty much just along for the ride.
Spielberg would wrestle with these same themes as he struggled to film JAWS (1975). Think about how more effective that film was when we don’t see the shark at all and just feel its presence: the broken off pier, the barrels, the pitch perfect score. Sure, this approach was by sheer necessity due to technical difficulties with the constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark but Spielberg adapted under these trying circumstances and delivered something truly special when it just as easily could’ve been awful. And I know a lot of people have described JAWS as a B-picture with an A-budget but I’ve yet to see anyone really compare it to Universal International’s sci-fi output of the 1950s; for what is the oversized shark but a surrogate for the giant spider in Tarantula (1955), where the local hero must track down what’s causing all the mayhem, find expert help, and destroy the monster before it eats the whole town? The only real difference is Spielberg’s film is set near the water while Jack Arnold’s films always took place in the desert.
Anyhoo, both Duel and JAWS were huge hits and spawned many imitators over the years. And in 1977, Universal, perhaps tired of everyone else knocking of their cash-cow, decided to make one of their own, cribbing elements from both of Spielberg’s films and, perhaps, in a nod to those 1950s classics, set the proposed feature of, essentially, JAWS On Land in the small desert mountain town of Santa Ynez. As for the villain of the piece, in Duel we do catch a few glimpses of the driver but in The Car (1977), director Elliot Silverstein and a trio of screenwriters eliminate the human element altogether. Well, sort of. You see, the car in The Car is the manifestation of some hellish demon sent to wreak havoc on Earth one pedestrian traffic fatality at a time. This was also the era of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) after all, and what goes around comes around in the rip-off department.
Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey was given a Technical Advisor credit on the film, and his quote shown during the opening credits is taken from the Invocation of Destruction found in The Satanic Bible: "Oh great brothers of the night who rideth upon the hot winds of hell, who dwelleth in the Devil's lair; move and appear.” Thus, we are kinda dealing with a known unknown in The Car as it’s fairly obvious from the get go something preternatural is going on. And the devil, as they say, is in the details; and I love the subtle and not so subtle ways the Car does the devil’s work -- like how it purposely avoids that malignant bastard Amos, an agent of violence and chaos, to run down Everett, an agent of law and order:
And we get two views of domestic life in The Car: the dire and abusive Clements, and the loving bliss of Wade Parent and his girlfriend, Lauren Humphries (Loyd). Now Lauren is also the music teacher at his daughters’ school, which is why she must always sneak out of his house before they wake up in the morning as Wade isn’t sure how they will handle their father moving on without their mother. Turns out his kids are smarter than Wade thinks, are well aware of Miss Humphries’ sleepovers, and would love to have her be their new mommy as long as their routine doesn’t change too much. Alas, it may already be too late as the Car strikes once again, menacing Lauren and her charges in the school marching band as they rehearse for a parade at the fairgrounds.
It begins with a hot wind suddenly kicking up, and then the horses go berserk as the air is filled with swirling dust and then split by the scrying siren of the Car. And while several cowboys run interference, Lauren directs the children to flee for the safety of the nearby cliffs. But the Car makes quick work of the horses, riders, and a lone deputy, who never stood a chance, and cuts the children off, who then seek refuge in a nearby cemetery. Then, the car appears to throw a tantrum as it circles the cemetery but won’t cross its boundaries. And as it idles angrily by the gate, Lauren approaches and starts hurling insults and invective at the driver, which leads to one of my most favorite non-sequitur of all time when another teacher chimes in:
(I honestly thought she was saying, "Cat poo!")
Turns out this was all a distraction so Luke’s wife, Margie (Thompson), could make a run for the dead deputy’s cruiser and radio for help. She makes it, barely, and gets an S.O.S. off to Wade, who was out fishing Peter’s body out of the river. And as Wade notifies the entire department to converge on the fairgrounds, a lone deputy maintaining one of the roadblocks hears the call but spots the Car coming toward him and engages in some hot pursuit. Seems the Car gave up on those trapped in the cemetery and went looking for other prey -- namely the deputy, who doesn’t realize he’s being suckered into a trap at the top of a mountain until it is far too late and winds up pushed off a cliff. (Watch for his body being jettisoned from the burning wreck as it tumbles down to the rocks below. Wow.)
Next, the Car plays a game of chicken with two more squad cars. Thinking they have the advantage, none of them are prepared for what happens next as the Car goes into a skid, and then flips into a barrel roll, which smashes the patrol cars, killing the deputies; but then the evil machine lands on all four tires and tears off completely undamaged.
When Wade arrives at the scene on his motorcycle, the Car could’ve easily crushed him, too, but it just sits idling -- almost purring. Wade, knowing the damage the driver has done, the friends he’s killed, and how he threatened Lauren and the children, draws his pistol and fires at the tires, then the front windshield when the occupant refuses an order to get out of the vehicle. But his spent bullets leave no trace of impact. Then, he cautiously approaches the driver’s side door but finds no handle. He tries to peer inside when the window opens just a crack, but the Car suddenly tears off, strikes a glancing blow with the thrown open door, and leaves Wade bleeding in the dust.
But Wade survives and is taken to the hospital, where he asks Lauren to go and stay with his kids since he’s being kept overnight. He then grills Luke, who was supposed to have called the school to postpone the parade rehearsal and realizes his old friend didn’t because he has fallen off the wagon. Meantime, Deputy Chas gives Lauren a ride to her place so she can pick up a change of clothes, but then begs off to go and check on his own family who live nearby before taking her on to Wade’s. No problem, says Lauren, but as she stops to unlock the front door the wind starts to pick up again. Frightened, she rushes inside and phones Wade, saying she can hear the engine of that damnable car. Behind her, Lauren doesn’t see a pair of headlights barrelling toward her through a large picture window until the horn blares, she turns, and barely has time to scream before the Car smashes through her home like a cannonball and crushes the woman in her own living room. (This whole scene, I feel, is another loving nod to those old Universal monster movies. Take a look below to see what I mean.)
Thus, a devastated Wade gathers what’s left of the decimated sheriff’s department and hatches a desperate plan to stop the Car once and for all. Seems Wade will be the bait to lure the cursed machine into a box canyon, where, with the help of Amos, a demolition contractor, they will blow the cliffs apart and bury the Car under a ton of rocks. And despite what he’s seen and didn’t see, Wade still doesn’t buy into the supernatural angle -- strange, considering the tenor of his plan, but Luke sure as hell does and makes his case one last time, saying the Car is a demon or the devil himself, counting off how it couldn’t enter hallowed ground at the cemetery, and how it went after Lauren because she cursed him, and the impossible stunts it’s pulled off, like flying through a house four feet off the ground. Wade doesn’t have time to listen to the ravings of a drunk, reminds Luke he has work to do, and heads home to say goodbye to his girls -- perhaps for the last time.
And so, while Amos, the remaining deputies, and a few volunteers head to his warehouse and load up on boxes of dynamite, Wade, to his horror, finds the Car silently waiting for him in his garage. Trapped, Wade is almost gassed to death by all the carbon monoxide before he’s finally able to escape without getting crushed. And so, with the car hot on his tail, Wade heads into the canyon, where the other men are still stringing wire and hooking up blasting caps. The trap nearly works, but the Car proves too wily and winds up on top of the canyon where it has Wade and Luke trapped against the precipice. But it charges too fast, the men are able to bail in time, and the car goes sailing over the edge.
And as it plummets to the ground, Wade gives the order to blow the damned thing. Amos hits the plunger, and a massive explosion rocks the canyon, followed by an inhuman scream as flames and smoke fireball into the sky and, as the men watch horrified, these flames seem to coalesce and take the shape of a demonic figure with claws and fangs that spits another fireball from its gaping maw before it dissipates. And then, all is eerily quiet. The canyon has completely caved in on itself and the Car is trapped underneath all of it. And when it’s over, only Luke will comment on what they’ve seen while the others refuse to acknowledge it, especially Wade, as if to not tempt fate any further.
Developed under the working title of Wheels, as originally conceived, The Car was intended to be even more overtly religious, which makes it sound kinda like The Benediction segment of the anthology film, Nightmares (1983). Director Silverstein would later relate how the script was extensively rewritten on the fly and why the religious stuff was toned down considerably as most of the action takes place during the light of day, where the devil feared to tread according to the original version. We do get some red tinted POV-shots from inside the car, making one think there might be some kind of horned and fork-tailed thing in there behind the wheel but the brief glimpses we do get show nothing. Personally, I think there’s enough still there to get the point across and give the film a nice sulfurous kick that goes well beyond the reveal of the Car, still alive and well, now prowling around the freeways of Los Angeles during the closing credits.
The Car itself was the creation of legendary car customizer, George Barris, who also built the Batmobile for the Batman TV series and the Munster Koach and the Drag-U-La for The Munsters. It began life as a Lincoln Continental Mark III, with a 460 cubic-inch V8 engine. And at Silverstein’s request to make the car look more sinister, Barris chopped the roof down and made the side fenders both higher and longer, recessed the headlights, painted it jet black, tinted the windows, and added minimal chrome highlights to give it a certain anthropomorphic, maniacal visage when viewed from the front. And one cannot discount one of the most important elements of the Car -- the ear-splitting horn, which was a Hadley Ambassador Rectangular Bell Horn, and its cadence, according to the director, was the letter X in Morse Code.
Four cars were built in total for the production. The main showcase car cost $84,000 and was built by twelve craftsmen, led by Dennis Braid, in six weeks. The other three were specially rigged for certain stunts and destroyed during the shoot -- one during the barrel roll, the second destroyed while crashing through the house, and the third was lost when it went over the cliff for the climax. Kudos to stunt driver Everett Creach, who pulled off some spectacular gags, especially that barrel roll. Seems there was some kind of cannon mounted on the passenger side door loaded with a sawed off telephone pole topped off with a steel cap. And when Creach rolled the car, he fired the cannon, which punched the pole into the ground, causing the car to flip and roll five times at great speed. Again, it looks incredible on screen. And while we’re applauding stunts, I’d still like to know how they pulled off that 196 ft. fall from the bridge? That was also damned impressive.
But on top of the game cast (-- James Brolin was a stud and in his prime here, and Kathleen Lloyd is so adorable I can’t even even, and both were aided and abetted by some wonderful character actors like Ronnie Cox and R.G. Armstrong), a memorable villain, supernatural elements, Gerald Hirschfeld behind the camera maximizing those scenic landscapes, and some amazing stunt work, I think what really glues The Car together is Leonard Rosenman’s menacing score, whose main theme is a reworking of “Dies Irae” -- Day of Wrath, a vintage Catholic requiem about the Second Coming and Judgement Day. And when you put that kinda fire and brimstone underneath that car, with that horn, and the wind, and the dust, and the murder, and the mayhem, and whatever the hell that was in the flames, I’m telling ya, The Car really taps into something primal and should not be so readily discounted or be seen solely as nothing more than just a goofy stop-gap by Universal to keep audiences on point while they slapped together an official sequel, JAWS 2 (1978), which is nowhere near as fun or as effective as its landlocked and demonic four-wheeled brethren.
What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's three reviews down with 23 to go! Up Next: Get the biggest can of bug repellent you can find. You're gonna need it.
The Car (1977) Universal Pictures / P: Marvin Birdt, Elliot Silverstein / D: Elliot Silverstein / W: Dennis Shryack, Michael Butler, Lane Slate / C: Gerald Hirschfeld / E: Michael McCroskey / M: Leonard Rosenman / S: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, Ronnie Cox, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong, Elizabeth Thompson, John Rubinstein,