In the wake of the record-breaking success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the notion of the Summer Blockbuster was firmly cemented in the minds of Hollywood’s studio executives, and it was only a matter of time before Universal Pictures would want to once again cash in on the formula of an unstoppable leviathan hunting down and killing people. Even before Jaws, another blockbuster called The Exorcist (1973) was already spawning countless imitations on the theme of Devil possession. So, in 1976, a film about an unstoppable, possessed killer automobile must have seemed like a good idea to Universal, who assigned the film to director, Elliot Silverstein (A Man Called Horse , Cat Ballou ). The idea was to make what the studio referred to as “Jaws on land.”
The Car’s comparison to Jaws is more than just in terms of the grand scheme. Many of the story’s basic plot points in Jaws are also largely adhered to in The Car. Like its ocean-bound predecessor, The Car opens with the monster appearing out of nowhere and claiming its first young victim at random (in this case, two victims on bicycles who are driven off the road to their deaths). From there, the film unfolds in a pretty familiar fashion. The main characters and their community are introduced, intercut with the continuing murder rampage by the titular monster. Like in Jaws, the first act culminates in a dramatic crowd-scene, where the monster and the full scope of its menace to the community come into stark view. From there, the chase for the killer is on.
Much like Stephen King’s Christine (1983), The Car is essentially a well-produced B-movie and, considering how silly the whole concept is, it’s amazing just how much tension and emotional involvement director Elliot Silverstein is able to generate. What’s also amazing is how menacing the monster car is. In the accompanying director’s commentary Silverstein repeatedly laments having to shoot most of the car scenes in bright daylight, thus diminishing the monster’s menace. Yet he deftly uses camera angles and clouds of road dust to effectively turn something concrete into something half-glimpsed and otherworldly. In this, he is helped enormously by the beautiful cinematography of Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein), the sound design—including a monstrous-sounding car horn and engine, and the music of Leonard Rosenman who even manages to incorporate the “Dies Irae” theme into key moments.
The other advantage was in casting some very fine character actors in key roles, including a very good Native American actor, Eddie Little Sky (Black Eagle in A Man Called Horse). Like in Jaws, the main hero is a small-town cop (played with gravitas by James Brolin) who supplies the film with necessary emotional grounding to make the absurd premise positively believable. Most of the supporting characters are also cops, and Silverstein humanizes them to a surprising degree, rather than letting them be merely stoic authority figures. Brolin’s girlfriend, played with bright-eyed warmth by Kathleen Lloyd, is at once heroic and vulnerable—not the typical damsel in distress.
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the gorgeous-looking restoration and digital transfer, (done by Universal Pictures), gives a new lease on life to this obscure film. The image is crisp and clear throughout, making Utah’s epic desert landscapes come vividly to life. Grain looks healthy, but never obtrusive, with the possible exception of a few of the darker shots. Color, for the most part, is solid, and I did not detect any digital restoration excesses. Overall, the image retains a nice filmic look.
The Stereo 2.0 PCM track sounds full and vivid; especially when the car revs its motor, or blows its hellish horn—the effect is appropriately startling at times. Dialogue and music come though very clearly and overall everything sounds great across all frequencies.
As expected from Arrow Video by now, this release comes with a wealth of bonus material. This includes and Audio Commentary with director Elliot Silverstein, two featurettes on the making of the film and its history, an episode from the Trailers from Hell website featuring John Landis as commentator, an extended collector’s booklet and a reversible sleeve containing both the original and newly commissioned artwork. The only complaint I have is related to the Audio Commentary, or rather its moderator. Elliot Silverstein seems a naturally shy man when it comes to explaining his work, but rather than drawing him out with engaging questions, the moderator frequently pushes him and, on at least one occasion, starts arguing with the director as to why it is important for him to comment on a given scene. This strikes me as unprofessional and borders on hectoring, even though it’s all very polite. On top of that, many of the questions the moderator asks are staggeringly irrelevant. At one point in the film, when a gust of wind blows across the screen to foreshadow an approaching menace, the moderator asks, “Ah…is it windy in Utah?” The director explains that this was artificial wind created for the scene. “In general, is it windy in Utah, though?” the moderator comes back. “I don’t know,” the exasperated director replies.
The Car is an often silly, formulaic B-picture which yet hits most of its marks with precision and manages to be quite entertaining and involving, thanks largely to the craftsmanship of its director, actors and crew. Like many horror films, even good ones, it is a triumph of style over substance. Arrow Video is to be commended for bringing us a film, in a fine transfer, which will be outside the radar of most filmgoers. Even if you don’t think an obscure 70’s horror film about a possessed car is your cup of tea, you might want to take a chance and check this out. You might come away surprised at just how well done this is.
~ By Dima Ballin