The politics and belief systems dictated by the controversial but incredibly fashionable Church of Satan – and the teachings of its leader Anton LaVey – would become one of the most talked about topics of “in-vogue” conversation during the late sixties and seventies. It is therefore not surprising that Elliot Silverstein’s The Car (1977) from Universal Pictures opens with a quote from LaVey, which quickly establishes the film as a car-centric curio deeply indebted to the devil and occultism. Having the film’s monstrous machine (a customised 1971 black Lincoln Continental Mark III) associated with the powers of darkness, allows the film to tap into the current trend of Satanic-themed horror, made vastly popular with the success of The Exorcist (1973) and its imitators. However, even though this film would have Satanic High Priest Anton LaVey as its technical advisor, the film owes more to Native American Indian spiritualism than the world of the dark underlord and is plotted and constructed in a manner that responds to tipping its well-designed hat to Universal’s previously released spectacular hit Jaws (1975), rather than resembling the aforementioned Warner Bros. venture about a possessed little girl. Outside of LaVey’s quote (which comes from the “Invocation of Destruction” in his Satanic Bible) and minor involvement in the production, The Car utilizes one more ingredient that is born from religious horror-themed cinema, and that is the grandiose and inspired music. Set alight by Leonard Rosenman’s thunderous and forceful score which boasts deep bass notes pounding an impenetrable sense of impending doom, The Car’s inventive and elegant reconstruction of the Latin hymn “Dies isare” is a terrifying re-working of a musical arrangement that symbolically reflects the purpose of the Last Judgement – something that Elliot Silverstein’s film thematically embraces. But as previously mentioned, The Car seems to ignore its religious promise, instead it opts for a non-demonic leviathan, much more akin to the shark in Steven Spielberg’s massive blockbuster and also as relentlessly ferocious as the same director’s maniacal truck in his made for TV master work Duel (1971). Universal Pictures would be responsible for a thoroughly Satanic car in an anthology horror film from 1983 entitled Nightmares, which would pit Lance Henriksen against a car from hell, complete with an inverted crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror. Thankfully, the lack of a religiously driven horror in The Car works to its benefit – because the movie is a wonderful riff on a small town terrorized by an uncompromising and unfeeling evil.
The opening sequence set to glorious Californian light is a marvel in celebration to the golden desert land of an America that film audiences know all too well; it is as if it is the world of the movie Western but now embraced by a modern sensibility. The film doesn’t walk into revisionist Western territory, but it does embrace the glorious openness of the wilderness and is peppered with rogue cowboys searching for meaning and assurance. The film’s first victims are also just as archetypal as the Western tropes that dance in and out of the narrative construct; they are a young couple racing on their bicycles and are representative of good health, vibrancy, energy and youthful zeal. Much like Chrissy in Jaws, they are the monster’s first victims and this long legacy of early victims being young people – sacrificial lambs – is perpetuated and used intelligently.
As opposed to these young people who are killed, the film’s protagonist Captain Wade Parent (James Brolin) is someone who looks as though he’d refuse to die, or refuse to even be put in such dire situations. The cyclists come across as risk takers, racing down wingding roads and in flirtatious competition, while Wade instantly comes across as someone who revels in comfort and order and design. He has a relatively new girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) and two young daughters Lynn and Debbie (Kim and Kyle Richards) and his life seems to be back on track after separating with the mother of his two girls. As stoic and as masculine as Wade is (Brolin cannot be anything else, and this works in his favour as an actor), he is also sensitive enough to want his offspring to feel comfortable with the new situation at hand and Lauren is much the same (“I just want the girls to like me”). Lauren is presented as an outsider to the parent household, while the eldest daughter at least has a slight understanding of divorce, with the film lending itself to sitting underneath the flag post of divorce culture in narrative based art forms. Wade is also similar to many policemen in American seventies cinema, that haunted hunter type – living in the shadow of his all-too-good sheriff father who has recently died. It is as if the entire town of Santa Ynez rests upon his shoulders, and he carries the burden of every citizen’s concern like Atlas carrying the earth, however, Wade is someone who only responds to possibilities if it enforces his station of comfort and sense of order.
Adding to the mix of this stylish and taut thriller is character actor legend R.G. Armstrong in possibly his most repugnant role as a dynamites and explosives dealer who beats his wife (Doris Dowling) – in many regards he is a caricature of poor white trash, and is essentially loathsome for the sake of being loathsome. He is also hurriedly established as an “enemy of the progressive people” when he is first introduced berating his wife as well as a young hitchhiker who annoys him with his French horn. The hitchhiker comes face to face with the murderous car moments after his altercation with Armstrong’s roughie, and extending his thumb hoping this supernatural automobile is in fact a normal civilian with a hankering for picking up wayward youths, he dreams of the driver being a beautiful thirty four year old nymphomaniac. Sadly of course it doesn’t work out for the young musician, and the car speeds towards him, aiming to kill. He calls out “Up yours with a splintered fiddle, ya son of a bitch!” and moments later the car spins around and strikes him dead. Here, the film employs its third victim as a more cynical representation of late seventies youth as opposed to the almost too-wholesome thrill seekers from earlier. Interwoven within the film – and outside of social commentary made on the strained relationships between the old guard and the youth of America – are some small town secrecy subplots, however these are delivered without any fanfare, instead they are presented just as is, but also cleverly as an extension of plot development. For instance, the police investigation sheds some light on character interaction; a clear example is the fact that the Sheriff (John Marley) harbours a romantic and, more importantly, nurturing interest in Armstrong’s downtrodden wife, while the film’s vested interest in Native American culture also acts as meaty marrow to the narrative bone when an elderly indigenous woman is interviewed by a fellow tribesman officer – giving the film a culturally sensitive edge that unifies the indigenous and the European settlers. “Bad things are coming with the wind,” says the elder Native woman in her native tongue. Later it is discovered that she mentions the car that she saw run down the sheriff had no driver – a wonderful play on the invasion and rape of her land by the faceless “pioneers” who drove her and her people out of their communities and villages.
Adding to this mix of nicely crafted additives that make up a thoroughly engaging ride, are cult movie star Ronny Cox as a policeman who used to drink and has now been driven back to the bottle, suspicions about various characters building as deaths are investigated and the police station itself – a usually quiet place – now disrupted by this new enemy of the people, embodied by the rampaging car. The major set piece to this film presents Lauren taking on the maniac machine. She is a teacher and in many ways, one of the kids too. In an early scene, it is found out that she is also ogled by one of the boys who sketches her nude, and is scolded by her older more conservative peer. The core scene that is the most exciting has Lauren leading a marching band rehearsal for an annual parade, only to have it interrupted by the terrifying car that wishes to run down her students and everyone in its path. The trapping of a small town event that marks a celebration is akin to the 4th of July celebrations in Jaws, and this pops up in various films facing disasters. The wind storm – harking back to what the Indian woman said – pushes the terrified children around while the car zooms through, hellbent on killing the entire congregation of students and adults, is a dramatic ingredient and as Lauren (the born leader) calls out and directs the petrified people, instructing that they “go up to the cliffs!” it is learned that the car won’t enter the gravesite Lauren leads everyone into – it doesn’t touch hallowed ground. Lauren’s braveness is on show here, and her screaming at the car and antagonising the supposed “driver” with furious taunts is somewhat an empowering moment, not only for her, but for her peers (including the stuffy older woman who took issue with a boy’s healthy interest in the female form) and students, building a sturdy solidarity. It also wins the hearts of Wade’s daughters who see her as a heroic figure, taking on the car. Sadly later in the film, Lauren, left alone at her place, is stalked by the car and killed in her own home. Crashing into her living room at full speed, this incredibly composed sequence has the car’s headlights seen through the window while she talks to Wade on the telephone. The framing is a classic Hitchcockian visual cue and it works remarkably well, with building terror that leaves no time to breathe – the sheer force and ferocity of this speeding car permits no moment for Lauren to react or respond. In the last act of the film, Brolin’s Wade is left to confront the car and it draws out into a lengthy battle initially involving the other police officers, but then ending with him facing off with the monstrous car, a la classic Hollywood Westerns. When Wade is left inside the wreckage of Lauren’s home, here we see a damaged man, so used to comfort and order – now engulfed by mess. Assisted by two cops, a stern Native and a fragile alcoholic, there is a beautiful moment where no word of dialogue is uttered and time is seen passing. When the moment comes to “speak” in the wreckage at Lauren’s house, Wade desperately refuses to hear and believe that the car is a supernatural force, even when he is confronted with facts that point to this reasoning. Like the fierceness of the wind that ushers in the demonic car, this denial and stubborn refusal to acknowledge an otherworldly entity that drives this vehicle to homicide will pass. Wade (as well as Brolin) will become a man determined to act against a monstrosity that has left its mark on his now shambolic world.