As John Landis points out in his Trailers From Hell introduction to the promo for Elliot Silverstein’s The Car, which is included in this loving high-definition restoration, the film was driven by the success of religious horrors like The Exorcist and Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Jaws. The progeny of such an unholy union is exactly as daft as you’d expect, and it’s really quite fun.
The small town of Santa Ynez, Utah is terrorised by a black car with no license plate and, more horrifyingly, no driver. As cyclists, pedestrians, and the police force are picked off one by one, can Captain Wade Parent (James Brolin) protect his loved ones and find out how to stop the car from hell?
After a hilariously portentous opening quote from Satanic church founder and “Technical Consultant” Anton LaVey (“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!”), The Car attempts to combine the relentless, anonymous horror of Duel with the story beats of a slasher movie. We have the opening murder of two teens who have the misfortune to be cycling on these haunted roads, while an easily amused hitchhiking musician (“Fart music!”) is repeatedly run over when he makes the mistake of hurling abuse at it.
What pushes The Car out of so-bad-it’s-good territory and tottering towards genuine quality is its sense of humour and the fact that it’s beautifully shot. While the central story never transcends its own ludicrousness, Gerald Hirschfield’s cinematography is fantastic, helping to create a sense of character for The Car itself. Moments like Brolin’s cautious approach to devilish doors with no handles, or the scene in which teacher Lauren desperately herds her kids to the safety of a cemetery, are genuinely tense.
On the other hand, the chase sequences veer from impressive to hilarious, with each police car poised to explode at the drop of a ten gallon hat. Similarly, the revelation that the car is most likely a demonic creation sent from hell is played completely straight.
However, the increasingly po-faced atmosphere is counter-balanced by an extremely likeable cast. Brolin provides a strong centre as the single parent who suddenly has a lot on his plate (“Ten years of giving out traffic tickets and all of this in one day”) and Kathleen Lloyd provides some much-needed levity as the gung-ho Lauren. Meanwhile, veteran character actor Ronny Cox (Robocop, Deliverance) is good value as the nervy deputy who figures out what’s going on, and John Cassavetes regular John Marley hams it up as the despairing Sheriff.
There is enough here to suggest that the film’s cult status is based on more than just its silly plot. It’s well-shot, well-performed, and there is a great sense of impending doom in the film’s first half. Once the action starts in the final half an hour, however, Silverstein’s grip on the material is finally shaken loose and it becomes an entertaining but totally daft oddity. As ever, Arrow have provided a superb restoration which includes a commentary with Silverstein and interviews with special effects artist William Alridge and actor John Rubinstein.
Deeply silly but with excellent cinematography and a strong cast, The Car is great fun.