45 Years Later: “The Car” Is Terrifyingly Bad Horror Hell on Wheels
There’s a long-standing joke in the industry that when a movie does really well, producers jump at the chance to capture lightning in a bottle…a second time. The very phrase “lightning in the bottle” is meant to represent just how elusive that is, but that doesn’t mean money-hungry producers have learned that lesson yet. It’s the reason there are so many slasher movies, comic book franchises and westerns – and so on.
Specifically, in 1975, Universal Pictures released Jaws, a movie that was so good he defined the term “blockbuster” for years to come. It created a cultural staple of summer blockbusters and went on to earn $470 million worldwide on a budget of just $7 million.
In the years that followed, avid producers went wild with ersatz shark movies: Mako (1976), The last shark (nineteen eighty one), Devouring waves (1984), and many others. Even more shamefully unbelievable were the “Jaws on Land”, replacing a shark with a bear in grizzled (1976) and Claws (1977).
And by far, the most gripping and bizarre take on this came from Universal Pictures itself in 1977. The car.
In the 2015 Blu-ray release of Scream Factory, director Elliot Silverstein expresses the inherent contradictions he faced while creating this “Jaws-earthly simulacrum”. Silverstein talks about the film as a job, not a hobby project, despite his work in the western and horror genres. He always brought his professionalism to the project and strove to make Universal understand that “the devil was in the darkness”, but they were facing God, “who was in the desert, under the bright sun”.
In a bucolic town in the middle of the desert, a mysterious black 1971 Lincoln Continental appears in yellowish vantage point to wreak havoc on unsuspecting residences for no rhyme or reason. It’s up to Wade Parent (James Brolin) to find out what drives this madness as the car smashes again and again, culminating in an explosive showdown in the valley gorge.
And that’s all. That’s pretty much the movie.
The name of the game was chaos for the producers, but Silverstein intended to create a disturbing film with a sinister antagonist. With each lap, Silverstein raised the suspense to eleven. As the car cruises around marching band rehearsals, slips through the shadows of city streets, and roars down country highways, its driverless devilry solidifies.
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Silverstein’s attempts to “bring on the devil” are evident in the opening sequence. The film is preceded by a quote from Satanic Temple founder Anton Le Vey, who is also credited as a technical advisor. Next comes the haunting and grave melody of Gregorian chant Dies Irae (very similar to the Bright opening release, only two years later). No one can say it wasn’t “A for Effort” horror. Sure, it’s wacky B-movie cult cheese, but it was really never going to be anything else.
There’s solid cobblestone horror in these country roads. To this day, no one working on the film knows who was driving the car; whether he drove himself or whether the driver was the devil, remains unknown. Silverstein enlisted George Barris, whose previous work included the 1966 Batmobile and Dukes of Hazard General Lee, to modify the Lincoln Mach III coupe.
A team of twelve people lowered the roof three inches and added three inches of height and length to the fenders, giving it its signature naughtiness. There are no door handles, with windows tinted in multiple layers to give it that all-black veneer. Four vehicles were used, with modifications totaling $84,000 of the film’s budget. And what’s a scary car movie without a signature horn? The car spells X in Morse code with a Hadley Ambassador Rectangular Bell horn.
The strong cheddar here comes from the acting and the dialogue. In a world where everyone is either a cop or a teacher or a student, the campy interactions blocked the film’s greatest potential. As harrowing as the mystery is, there’s an awkward B-story in Wade’s backyard with schoolteacher Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd). Lauren becomes a pawn in upping the ante in one of the film’s most suspenseful (albeit hilarious when taken out of context) moments.
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John Marley, of death room and many other “guy-who-was-into-that-thing” character roles, as Sheriff Everett is played straight without a margin for the bizarre hijinks that ensue around them. Ronny Cox as “Deputy #1” puts on a solid performance as a recovering alcoholic who is pushed off the wagon when the terror escalates. RG Armstrong poses as a peddler of “Chekhov’s Gun” explosives and a woman abuser who sees a hitchhiker almost get hit by the car. Although it sounds like high praise, the overly direct performances break the tone of the film. The dialogues are too crisp and often laughable with phrases that just don’t fit in the mouths of these great actors.
Despite his successes in pulling out an evil car in the desert plot, The car underperformed at the box office. His Jaws meets Duel (1971 – and oddly enough also directed by Steven Spielberg) the atmosphere failed to capture audiences and critics alike with its nonsensical character arcs and lack of special effects. Silverstein admits the studio was overwhelmed with projects, which left some of its most ambitious ideas on the table (in his interview, he greatly laments what could have been done in the CGI era with the film). Despite some incredible practical stunts, including a 196-foot first jump off a bridge and an effective barrel roll over two police cars, he missed the mark and found himself in the darkness of the adjective cult all the way to the exit. Blu-ray from 2015.
In its own right, because a good idea can never stay on the table, The car collected imitators, including The hearse (1980), The Wheels of Terror (1990), Black Cadillac (2003), and a loving tribute in Futurama episode “The Honking” – in which Bender transforms into a were-car of the make and model of Cars evil self.
The car definitely earned its place among the best bad movies ever made. cemented in The Official Razzie Movie Guide by Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson, it is listed as one of the 100 most enjoyably bad films ever made. It carries the legacy as one of the earliest entries in the “Terror on Wheels” subgenre and cements the future of greats like Christina (1983) and… well, maybe just Christina.
The truth is that after 45 years, The car remains one of the best examples of killer car horror. It stands out from the simple fact of being a “Jaws” facsimile and if you are preparing for a marathon of motor murders, The car this is exactly what the mechanic ordered.