The Film: 4/5
What starts out as a quiet day in the sleepy Utah town of Santa Ynez will end in a nightmare of demonic vehicular homicide. From seemingly out of nowhere a black car with tinted windows arrives in the community and begins mowing townsfolk beneath its wheels at high speed. The first to die are a pair of lovesick teens out for a bike ride. Then the car claims the life of a Vietnam veteran hitchhiking through the town (John Rubinstein). The local police headed by Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley) and Captain Wade Parent (James Brolin) are baffled by the killings and take necessary precautions to protect the citizens of Santa Ynez from harm. When the car attacks a school marching band as it is practicing for an upcoming parade and menaces some teachers and students - among them Wade's girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) and daughters Lynn Marie (Kim Richards) and Debbie (Kyle Richards) - Wade and the other cops start to realize that whatever is driving this mean, murderous machine isn't exactly human. With the help of Santa Ynez's only wife-abusing demolitionist (R.G. Armstrong) and enough dynamite to reduce Mount Everest to a speed bump, Wade hatches a plan to destroy the evil automobile once and for all.
I've actively avoided watching The Car for many years for reasons you might find understandable. I can recall catching a few minutes of the movie on a local UHF TV station one dismal Saturday afternoon many years ago. It was mostly footage of the titular killer machine cruising along through the isolated Utah desert landscapes. Even as a kid who valued empty-headed thrills over intellectual stimulation I passed on watching any more. Besides, to call the title generic is an epic understatement. The Car. Whoa, that sure gives me chills (imagine that sentence spoke in a tone of withering sarcasm). Not as eye-catching as Killdozer or Death Proof. Hell even Christine had a cooler ring to it. "Beware of the Car....you might get stuck behind in traffic!" With a title like that you have to work some serious overtime on the marketing campaign to convince people that it's supposed to be a scary movie. Universal Pictures needed something to fill the gap between Jaws and its inevitable sequel and The Car fit the bill nicely. Bankrolled by the studio where you can ask for Babs on their tour to the tune of $5 million, the movie grossed over $30 million at the box office in the 1977 summer that would be dominated shockingly by the first Star Wars, which opened the following week. Despite being able to hold its own against George Lucas' space juggernaut briefly The Car quickly faded from memory only to build a larger audience through television airings like the one I previously mentioned and video rentals and sales. Now thanks to Arrow Video The Car roars back to life on Blu-ray. How does this movie hold up 35 years since its first release?
Going into my first viewing of The Car with nothing but low expectations was the right choice because after it was over I was pleasantly surprised. It ain't high art, no sir, but it sure knows how to entertain us. Director Elliot Silverstein - working from a screenplay by The Gauntlet and Pale Rider scribes Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack as well as TV movie workhorse Lane Slate - takes the absurd premise of a driverless automobile killing people sometimes at random but other times with an agenda pretty seriously. What could have turned into high camp theatrics is actually kept pretty down to earth by Silverstein's professional direction (enhanced by some bright and expansive widescreen compositions by cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld) and worthwhile performances of a cast who thankfully brought their A-game to the derivative material. James Brolin is always good for underplaying a stoic hero role as he does here and he has good chemistry with the feisty and gorgeous Kathleen Lloyd as his fearless fiancee and B-movie princesses and future Paris Hilton aunts (and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) Kim and Kyle Richards as his precocious daughters. Brolin never got enough credit for his acting even though he has never really given a bad performance in a movie I've seen (his Pee Wee Herman is masterful); he reminds me of the working lead actors from the early days of the Hollywood studio system. Never up to the level of Brando or Pacino but great in his own special way when given the right role, James Brolin can be one suave dude and a fine actor to boot. His late 1970's facial hair was magnificent too. Ronny Cox (Deliverance), John Marley (The Godfather), and R.G. Armstrong (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) are characteristically great in their supporting roles.
But the real star here is the car itself. Looking menacing as it cruises the streets and highways of Santa Ynez for its next kill, this demented lovechild of Detroit steel and the Prince of Darkness has unmistakable screen presence. Silverstein puts the mean machine through its paces in a series of mind-blowing practical stunts that put it near the top of the killer car movie sub-genre. The car does some insane Death Proof-style flips that take out some pursuing police cars in the process and in one scene drives right through a house to claim a victim and emerges on the other relatively intact. The set pieces are tense and exciting, from the opening attack on the two teen cyclists that sends one hurtling off a bridge more than two hundred feet from solid earth to a finale that is literally explosive and fiery. Mindless excess is rarely this unpretentious and fun.
Fair warning, readers: I'm about to break out a crapload of automobile references in this section of the review. Here goes.... The Car has been restored to near-pristine showroom condition for its Blu-ray premiere courtesy of Arrow Video. The movie had been previously released on Region 1 DVD by Anchor Bay in 1999 and then by Universal in 2008, and thankfully Arrow has chosen to present it in its original 2.35:1 theatrical widescreen aspect ratio. The 1080p high-definition transfer taken from a 35mm interpositive looks sleek and practically exhibition quality. Every speck of dirt and sand covering the expansive Utah desert vistas and the characteristic lines in the actors' faces come through sharp and clear. There are no signs of visible print damage, plus the grain content is very low without the transfer looking like the victim of excessive digital noise reduction. Hirschfeld's moody cinematography really comes alive during the chilling night scenes.
Our sole audio option is an English PCM 2.0 stereo track that was transferred from the 35mm optical soundtrack negative, but it's a really, really good one. In fact I would wager to say that at times it's a little too effective. It's a very solid sound mix during the quieter scenes. Of course once the car goes on its extended killing spree the sucker positively comes alive. The engine revving alone nearly broke my speakers. This is where a 5.1 sound mix might have balanced these more excessive components out with the rest of the audio track rather than necessitated occasional manual volume adjustment. The music score by Leonard Rosenmann (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) that sounds like it was performed by an orchestra built out of a car engine is the second best beneficiary of the juiced-up audio. According to the booklet included with this release the restoration work was carried out by Universal Studios. English subtitles are also included.
Calum Waddell moderates a new audio commentary with director Silverstein that was recorded at the his California home. It doesn't surprise me to report that the 85-year-old filmmaker isn't a bountiful wealth of information regarding the production of The Car. Good thing then that Waddell is on hand to ask plenty of questions to jog Silverstein's memory; their commentary is more of a genial conversation about broader topics pertaining to the film rather than a screen-specific chat track but it's still interesting enough to make this worth a single listen.
Arrow has also included two fresh interview featurettes that shed a little light on The Car and its cult legacy. Special effects technician William Aldridge is first up on "Making a Mechanical Monster" (27 minutes). Aldridge - whose credits include three of the Die Hard movies, Road House, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, The Fifth Element, and countless awesome others - didn't receive a credit for his work on the movie but he accepts that as part of the studio system's fading golden days. The Car was the movie where he began his career and he shares some interesting stories about how certain visual effects and stunts were accomplished, from a 265-ft. high fall jump at the beginning of the movie to the more outrageous automotive "gags" (as FX pros like to call them). He also talks about his working relationships with Silverstein and Brolin and filming in the Utah desert.
Even though he only had one scene before becoming a fetid slice of road pizza, actor John Rubinstein talks fondly about his brief time working on The Car in "Hitchhike to Hell" (10 minutes). He was on the production 1-2 days and came away with a few intriguing anecdotes regarding the filming of his death scene. Good interview, but nothing special.
Arrow has not only included the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) but the Trailers from Hell version with introduction and commentary by filmmaker John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, National Lampoon's Animal House). Landis doesn't offer any facts during his commentary, only meager praise for The Car being a stupid yet enjoyable movie. Director Silverstein talks about directing The Car in an Easter egg video interview (2 minutes) that can be found by pressing Enter on the main menu's car icon.
Arrow Video has included their customary reversible cover featuring new artwork from Joe Wilson and a collector's booklet with a new essay on The Car written by Cullen Gallagher and a new interview with screenwriter Michael Butler conducted by Waddell. The booklet is illustrated with archival stills and art.
Regardless of being no heir apparent to Jaws, The Car delivers 96 minutes of solid, high-octane thrills with just the right mixture of action and horror and precious little glut. It gives me a lot of hope for the human race when Arrow can show this humble B-movie the respect it has long deserved with a terrific audio and video presentation and a handful of decent extras. Buckle up and brace yourself.