Existential Dread on Wheels: The Car (1977)

If Ingmar Bergman had chosen to make a film about a murderous automobile, it would have been The Car.

If you were a pale and hapless young movie geek at the time, the summer of 1977 was the greatest summer ever. There had never been a summer like that before, and never would be again.

I remember being on a family road trip on our way to California. We’d stopped for a few hours in Reno, and as was my habit at the time I picked up a local newspaper and flipped it open immediately to the movie ads. My heart began beating erratically as my eyes darted from ad to ad and I came to realize in an instant that I absolutely HAD to see every single movie playing in Reno at the time. There was Star Wars, sure, but there was also Squirm, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Viva Knievel, Empire of the Ants, The Exorcist II, Airport ‘77, even Rollercoaster (in Sensiround!). The neat thing about Star Wars was that it was effortlessly siphoning off all the audiences from all those other movies, meaning the theaters would be empty.

I ripped the page from the paper and thrust it at my parents. “Look! They’re even playing The Car!”

Well, sometimes parents don’t understand these things and after lunch we continued on toward California. I kept that page from the Reno paper with me, though, and beginning the minute we got back home I eventually did see every one of those films as they trickled into northeastern Wisconsin. Saw most of them more than once.

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Of all the remarkable films out that summer, few (with the possible exception of Squirm, and maybe Rollercoaster), are as sadly forgotten today as The Car. I guess there are reasons for that. When Elliot Silverstein’s (Cat Ballou) last film for a decade was released, critics and audiences alike noted that it was little more than a mechanized Jaws knockoff. They had a point, though the picture owed as much to Spielberg’s earlier Duel as it did to Jaws. The movie after all involves a sinister looking black car that roars out of the desert and begins picking off random residents of the small desert town of Santa Ynaz, leaving it up to Sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin of Capricorn One and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) to put a stop to it. Unlike the shark in Jaws, though, the car here seems to be driven by Satan himself, which complicates matters.

Despite a fine cast that includes Brolin, Ronny Cox (Deliverance, Robocop), John Marley (Deathdream), R.G. Armstrong (Race With the Devil), Kim Richards (the Witch Mountain pictures) and Kathleen Lloyd (It Lives Again), some clever camera work and sound design, some beautiful desert scenery, and that whole “devil” twist (the Church of Satan’s Anton LaVey even signed on as technical advisor for some reason), the story by that time had become an awfully familiar one, here further marred by the most god-awful dialogue the era had to offer.

So okay, after the opening credits and a score based on Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, The Car (designed by the same man who designed the Batmobile for the TV series) roars out of the desert with its diesel horn blaring and shoves two bikers off an overpass. Then it grinds an asshole hippie musician hitchhiker into the pavement, establishing that it blasts its horn before and after every kill. Then it runs down several more people in assorted creative ways, and as the film rolls on it becomes clear Satan’s targets are not exactly random. For some unknown reason The Car is picking off people who are in some way connected to the sheriff. When the sheriff does confront The Car alone on the highway at one point, after firing several bullets at the windshield and the tires with no effect, he strolls up to the driver’s side door which flies open and knocks him to the ground. Then The Car speeds away without injuring him. Why? Who knows?

Oh, and you get your standard middle school marching band, same as in most all these films, and they’re playing the same goddamned Sousa march these middle school marching bands always play in the movies. And the great R. G. Armstrong plays a drunken wife beating redneck, because when he wasn’t playing stern judges he was always playing drunken, wife beating rednecks. Yes, all your favorite clichés are on hand here.

But while on the surface the film seems to be little more than another standard issue knockoff with a big killer automobile instead of a big killer animal of some sort, there’s something else going on under the surface. I’ve always thought so, anyway. Although The Car is often dismissed as a boilerplate rip-off, at heart it’s actually a rare big-budget foray into existentialist horror.

Let me put it this way: If Ingmar Bergman had chosen to make a film about a murderous automobile, it would have been The Car.

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All the hallmarks are here. The town in which the action takes place, for instance, is not really a town at all. There are a few buildings here and there, a few scattered homes, the police station, a bar, but each camera angle is nearly overwhelmed by the endless, arid desert that surrounds and dominates every scene in the film, symbolizing the emptiness of man’s soul. Even when the middle school band practices, they don’t practice on the school grounds (what school?) but in the middle of the desert beside a small graveyard. There’s no point in asking how they all got out there given that there’s no bus or anything. No, they were out there in the desert because that’s where they are ALL THE TIME. In fact that’s where all of us are, in the desert by the graveyard.

Note, too, how as Luke, the recovering alcoholic deputy, the great Ronny Cox is filmed almost exclusively through windows and doorways, and he’s almost always weeping. He weeps through nearly the entire film, often bordering on hysterics. He’s a man trapped, a man boxed in, and a man with no other recourse than to weep in frustration, but it does no good.

When Lauren (Lloyd), Brolin’s girlfriend and the band instructor, herds all of the children into the graveyard after The Car smashes through band practice, she turns and confronts it, screaming weak obscenities, demanding the driver show himself. But the driver does not appear. Lauren wants answers, she wants evidence, she wants to understand in her own puny way the workings of a savage and meaningless universe, but receives no response at all except the growling of a turbo-charged demonic engine.

Then there’s James Brolin’s Sheriff Parent, who at several points in the film will stop and stare for what feels like minutes at a time. He just stands silently and stares at walls, at the desert, at nothing. This may begin to explain why The Car does not kill him, but only those around him. He’s a man who recognizes the Nothingness, the futility of it all, but does not weep and does not rage. He only looks into the Void, as Nietzsche said, and the Void looks back at him.

It’s a film marked by inexplicably long silences and an overwhelming sense of existentialist dread. It’s almost as if Silverstein is asking the question (as Bergman would have), “What happens to man alone in a world without God?” Well, he gets run down by Satan’s Rolls, that’s what!

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I’ve long believed that if The Car had been released in Swedish in this country, it would have been hailed as a groundbreaking masterpiece, an insightful look into the hopelessness of the human condition brilliantly disguised as a dumb and derivative monster movie. It wasn’t, though, and, well, it wasn’t.

The Car itself, with its low-slung roof, amber-tinted windows, and wickedly smiling grill, is still pretty fucking cool, gotta say.

 

Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 Out of 5 Stars

 

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Rating:

2.5 out of 5