Big 'ol Hunk of Evil Detroit Rollin' Iron Terrorizes James Brolin & Kathleen Lloyd !!
"Is It A Phantom, A Demon or the Devil Himself ?
"There's Nowhere To Run, nowhere to hide, no way to stop..."
One of the many off-shoots of 70's horror is the "killer vehicle" sub-genre which had its roots in Steven Spielberg's 1971's made for TV thriller DUEL and was kicked into high gear with 1974's JAWS (ironically also Spielberg) which brought the menacing animal (or thing) into popularity. Another piece of this puzzle is 1974's KILLDOZER , which is based upon a 1944 short story by Theodore Sturgeon (and might be considered ground zero for the possessed mechanical thing genre) - and arguably reached its zenith with Stephen King's CHRISTINE in 1983 and the subsequent John Carpenter movie adaptation.
The film opens ominously with a quote from Anton La Vey's THE SATANIC BIBLE and Le Vey is also has a credit as "Technical Advisor", which probably translates to the producers throwing some money at 'ol Anton to give themselves some satanic street-cred & publicity. Like most movies of this ilk and time period THE CAR was labeled a JAWS knock-off (“JAWS on wheels!”) and is one of those movies that a lot of people have heard of without actually seeing, as its mere title (and the premise that title puts forth) has turned into a parody of 70’s horror.
There is some talk of Indian mysticism (“evil winds”) and veteran character R.G. Armstrong as a wife abusing lowlife is hinted at in the beginning of the film as being linked to the car, but neither of these theories are expanded upon. Plus there’s a bit of philosophical meandering about, with critic Jim Knipfel writing “If Ingmar Bergman had made a horror movie about a murderous automobile, he would have made THE CAR” (!?). Although it seems doubtful that’s what director Elliot Silverstein and the writers were trying to accomplish (and even more doubtful in regards to the finished product), there is a sense of the supernatural & wonder of the unknown present here instead of just the crude exploitation that you’d expect.
After a wonderfully atmospheric opening sequence of two young bicyclist being stalked and killed by the car we’re introduced to Sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin), a single dad of two young girls who’s romantically linked to local school teacher Lauren (the very busy & cute Kathleen Lloyd from THE MISSOURI BREAKS) with their relationship shown in a way too long initial sequence - which does however illustrate the sometimes schizophrenic proceedings of the plot. After a French horn playing hitchhiker (John Rubinstein) is knocked-off by the killer automobile the local sheriff’s office (which seems to consist of an inordinately large amount of personal for a small Idaho desert town) begins investigating and is headed up by familiar face John Marley (probably best known from THE GODFATHER as the producer who ends up with a horse head in his bed).
In another one those unconnected subplots Marley’s character is shown to have a past relationship with Amos Clements (R.G. Armstrong) abused wife and soon afterward he's chalked up as car fodder which puts Brolin in charge of the investigation (which mostly consists of him racing around on his motorcycle and starring bug-eyed at the car). Ronny Cox appears as an alcoholic deputy and there is some rather oddball humor inserted into a scene with Lloyd and her class trapped in a cemetery by the car (which for a reason never fully explained it cannot enter - although there is some talk of "hollowed ground"), with her shouting insults at the car while it gets more & more pissed while almost throwing temper tantrum in the process. Plus with stuntman and all around movie heavy Roy Jenson (who in a few years would battle a possessed hand in DEMONOID) and Kim Richards (NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR & THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF BEVERLY HILLS), who along with her real life sister Kyle play Brolin's children.
The solid black driver less car (a 1971 Lincoln Continental Mk III customized by George Barris) is used to great effect in the attack scenes - whether just getting a glimpse of flickering chrome on the desert horizon or the headlights appearing outside a window at night (with a slowly rising wind heralding its arrival) and the weird orange glow that's shown from the interior. Plus there's some pretty good stunts and special effects including the car rolling over a couple of speeding police cars
One of the things that made JAWS great was that even when the shark was off screen, everybody was talking about the shark. THE CAR goes a little off track at some points with unrelated plot detours and at times because of its lack of those 70's staples blood & nudity it plays out like a TV movie - but its still a solid little movie with some of the little quirks adding to its charm. In a nice surprise this was released on region B blu-ray from Arrow in a packed special edition with interviews, a documentary & director commentary (although this review and screen captures are from the U.S. DVD). In one of the more bizzare movie tie-in toys ever released Kenner marketed an "action" game of THE CAR (which I would love to find).