Sunday, July 20, 2008

Death Dives Without An Emissions Sticker

The following is humbly submitted as part of Final Girl’s Film Club series. All credit for choosing The Car goes to her.

Oh great brothers of the night, who rideth out upon the hot winds of Hell, who dwelleth in the Devil’s lair; move and appear!” – Anton LaVey

With the above quote, so begineth Elliot Silverstein’s The Car, born, not in Hell, but at Universal Studios in 1977. The Car is in the rather unique position of being the bastard child of two Steven Spielberg films, 1975’s suspense classic Jaws, and its lesser known antecedent, a minor masterpiece about a driverless truck menacing TV’s Dennis Weaver, 1971’s Duel. With nearly every studio in the world churning out Jaws rip-offs, it made sense for that film’s studio to get in on the act. 1977 was a tough year for Universal Pictures, with big budget disappointments like Sorcerer and MacArthur sucking up resources and replacing them with negative reviews and nervous theater owners. The Car would be the perfect salve for a hemorrhaging studio; a low cost horror programmer, sprinkled with inexpensive but familiar actors (utter that phrase 5 times and James Brolin and Ronny Cox appear in your living room) and the lush trappings that the resources of a major Hollywood studio could provide.

The story takes place in a sleepy desert town in what appears to be a southwest state (although I heard a character mention Utah later in the film – anyway, it’s not important). On one bright, crisp morning, a menacing black sedan appears and quickly dispatches a pair of groovy bicyclists and French horn-doodling hitchhiker John Rubinstein – a busy morning, even for the Dark Lord. The cases soon get turned over to local deputy Wade Parent (Brolin), a widower with two young children and a fiancée, Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd). He’s not on the case for 24 hours before the town sheriff (John Marley, the “piece of ass” gourmand from The Godfather) is mowed down on main street and his best buddy Luke (Ronny Cox, getting great billing for a nothing part) falls off the wagon due to Devil car-related stress. The attacks continue, including one launched against a band practice led by the future Mrs. Parent (more on that later), but it’s only when the car is unable to enter the hallowed ground of a cemetery that the true, evil nature of it becomes apparent, and our heroes realize that it will take more than a few explosives to end its reign of terror – it will take a whole lot of explosives!

One problem we’ve always had with The Car is that it’s never made clear if the titular auto is meant to be a manifestation of the Devil himself, or merely his ride. We have trouble imagining the Devil driving a car like this – it was clearly designed to look like a demonic Cadillac, or an environmentalist’s fever dream of a Detroit gas guzzler. However, the end result looks more like something Dick Dastardly would keep at his summer place on the Cape. This is the car that would pick the Devil up at the airport.

But The Car has problems that reach beyond the conceptual. While nobody likes to imagine being run over, there’s nothing inherently terrifying about watching it happen on film. Instead of being struck still with terror, we wonder where the stunt driver was seated and how much the camera was overcranked. Jaws plugged directly into a primordial fear of mankind while The Car has to remain content with exploiting the mundane concerns of 20th Century pedestrians. And those looking for a parable of mankind’s obsession with technology coming back to haunt him will come up craps as well. The Car may have been more successful had it been retooled at the factory as a pro-ecology horror picture, with the car as a murderous manifestation of our obsession with the auto. Steven King solved the problem to a degree in his short story Trucks by having all vehicles rebel against us and replacing a literal Devil with a figurative one. Interestingly, King himself turned the story into a feature film, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, where he ditched the visual elegance of The Car in favor of a gory, sweat soaked demolition derby, populated by some of the most gratuitous redneck stereotypes ever seen.

Interestingly, Maximum Overdrive seems to have borrowed at least one major beat from The Car. The scene begins at an outdoor band practice led by music teacher (and 70s television mainstay) Kathleen Lloyd. There have already been 4 deaths in the town attributed to a mysterious black sedan, so the proceedings are overseen by a deputy in a tall watchtower. All is well until we catch a glint of light in the distance; the glint moves closer as a dust cloud appears in its wake. When the near-sighted deputy finally sees it, the car is practically on top of the kids – coasting just under the desert dunes with only the roof visible (if this setup sounds at all like Jaws, expect a call from Universal’s legal department telling you how wrong you are). Lloyd leads the kids into an old cemetery, fenced in by a decidedly un-intimating rock wall. She then takes the opportunity to shout at, taunt, and belittle the manhood of the car, as it spins angry demonic doughnuts just beyond the cemetery gates. It’s almost as if someone on the crew hit Lloyd (ordinarily a very capable actress) with a blowdart loaded with methamphetamines, as her shrill spiel goes on for several gloriously uninterrupted minutes. Did Stephen King plan the scene in Maximum Overdrive where a pre-Simpsons Yeardley Smith, enraged by some act of auto-homicide and looking (along with the rest of the cast) like she’d just been dipped in a vat of stale beer and sweat, storms out of the truck stop and screams “We made you! WE MADE YOU!!!!!!!” as a homage? Already being familiar with The Car, I always felt that the scene played like a tribute – like a transvestite doing Cher’s 70s act in a Vegas show – and gave King major props.

And while we’re talking about the cemetery, I’d like to suggest that the car’s inability to enter it is the input of Anton LeVay. LeVay, founder and High Priest of the Church of Satan (tax exempt?), was a minor celebrity in the 70s, ingeniously capitalizing on the growing interest in the occult sparked by films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. He cornered the market on Satanism through canny appearances on talk shows presenting himself as a legitimate authority on all things devilish. Despite being erroneously credited with being an actor and consultant on Rosemary’s Baby (he had nothing to do with the film) LeVay received actual screen credit on 1975’s The Devil’s Rain, which possibly led Universal to bring him onboard The Car as an (un-credited) consultant. I like to imagine a black-robed LeVay sitting in a conference room at Universal, giving his notes to a bleary-eyed production assistant, mentally snapping the neck of the executive who decided that The Car needed 100% satanic accuracy. Unfortunately, there’s no record as to exactly what LeVay contributed to the picture, and aside from idle chatter regarding the hallowed ground of the cemetery being a no parking zone for the Devil’s wheels, there’s not much actual “research” on display.

None of this should suggest that The Car is without merit, even beyond its considerable camp value. There are a few good scares to be had, particularly the handling of the death of a major character late in the film. It’s also beautifully photographed, with the blasted red hues of the southwest (?) desert beautifully captured in director Silverstein’s 2.35 Panavision frame. A few old friends pop up in the supporting cast, too; Peckinpah regular R G Armstrong and the late, great Roy Jensen are on hand, and...did I mention John Rubinstein as a French horn-playing hitchhiker?

The Car also marked the beginning of quite a career jag for star James Brolin, who followed this up with the far more entertaining thriller Capricorn One (1978), the rough but effective Amityville Horror (1979), and the sadly overlooked 1980 kidnap/revenge drama Night of the Juggler, featuring some of the best NYC location shooting that you’ve never seen. With his chiseled features and silent movie-villain beard, Brolin almost seemed like a parody of a leading man – just a little too good looking – but he made some pretty smart career choices before television and Babs took him away from us. I hear his kid isn’t bad either.

With the correct expectations, The Car can be a pretty fun ride, just be mindful who sees you driving it. Sure, it’s cheesy – but it’s the kind of cheese that just isn’t made anymore. We haven’t had a decent possessed car movie since 1983’s Christine, and now, sadly, it seems like horror movies in general, much like automobiles, are being made better overseas.