There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, though, there’s no way that “It seemed like a good idea at the time” is just going to cut it…
The Car (1977)
(Dist.: Universal Pictures; Dir.: Elliott Silverstein)
Okay, so how the hell did this happen?
It’s easy to imagine the thought process over meetings at Universal City back in the 1970s. There were plenty of people contemplating the relationship with their cars, with the recent oil crisis still casting a pall over people’s perceptions, so a movie about cars seemed to be a likely winner. And they recently had a good summer with a film about a small town dealing with an existential threat, so something more in that wheelhouse was probably considered safe.
Now, that recent success, Jaws, was directed by Steven Spielberg, a director who made his reputation with Universal when he got good notices a few years prior for directing a made-for-TV film called Duel. His film about a businessman (Dennis Weaver) being terrorized by a semi that tries to run him off the road, a film where we never see who’s the cab of the truck at all, struck a chord with a lot of viewers.
So, in theory, a version of Duel for theaters released for summer audiences should be a winner, right…?
We have no idea where the car referred to in the title of the picture comes from, save for a quote on screen opening the film from Anton LaVey, occultist and author of The Satanic Bible, who was retained by Universal as a creative consultant, which suggests that Satan is either behind the wheel or manifesting as the car itself. Presumably, if you knew LaVey and his work and reputation well enough, no further explanation would be needed, although without that knowledge what happens on screen thereafter makes damned little sense.
What does happen is the car shows up near Santa Ynez, Utah, where the local sheriff (John Marley) becomes the fourth victim of the automobile early into the pic, after three stock characters met grizzly hit-and-run fates, leaving the defense of the town to Chief Deputy Wade Parent (James Brolin). Distracted by his daughters Lynn Marie and Debbie (real-life sisters Kim and Kyle Richards) while concerned for his girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), Wade does what he can against a car that’s unknowable, which operates by its own unguessable rules and seems to have on its mind only death and chaos.
And really, to give the plot any more consideration than that would be akin to the effect of reading the Necronomicon backward; our brains could never handle such questions. Questions like, “Where did this car come from?” and, “Why is it going after these people?” and, “Why should I give a damn about any of these stupid people who do crazy things and say the worst possible lines?” and especially, “Why is a wife beater one of the heroes of this film?”
Amazingly, even for a film from the 1970s, there’s a principal character, Amos (R. G. Armstrong) who we first meet as he whacks his spouse Bertha (Doris Dowling) out in the street, where after abusing her he witnesses the third killing the car commits. He goes on to being pivotal in saving the survivors with a dynamite truck he happens to own that serves its purpose like Chekov’s gun, after which he presumably goes back to being an SOB since there are so few “good” people left behind after all’s said and done.
There weren’t a lot of “good” people left in the theaters after the film opened, or for that manner anyone regardless of persuasion. The initial box office was bad, and when Fox opened their own summer picture two weeks later to ever-increasing interest, The Car went into reverse the rest of that season. Other than a few special select interests (probably Satanists and fans of George Barris, who in addition to designing the cars used on Batman and The Munsters did the work on the real “star” of the film), the movie would not find its audience until it became a TV staple.
Proving that filmmaking is closer to alchemy than chemistry, that William Goldman was right again, and some trains of thought should never leave the station.
Or even the parking lot…
NEXT TIME: When a lack of aggression is of no small concern…