What evil force drives The Car?
“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!” — Anton LaVey
“Bad things are coming with the winds.” So says a Navajo woman who witnessed a brutal murder committed by a mysterious car. Later on, when the car has killed more townsfolk, a police officer remarks that the cop who translated the woman’s statement neglected to mention a key detail of her story: she said the car had no driver.
Jaws spawned a slew of ripoffs in the 1970s and ’80s, including Orca, Grizzly, Claws, The Swarm, Piranha, and Elliot Silverstein’s The Car. Michael Butler, the movie’s co-writer, cited Jaws as his primary inspiration to write about a homicidal vehicle. (Maybe he hadn’t seen Duel, Spielberg’s first feature about a homicidal truck.)
“The requirement was to do a land version of Jaws,” Silverman said. “I had some difficulty with those instructions, because Jaws was the story of a shark in its own dark world that human beings were invading. My instructions were to do a version where the shark, aka The Car, is in our world, and not in a dark, ominous setting, but in the bright, sunlit setting of the desert. That gave me difficulties in establishing a mood and an atmosphere.”
1977’s The Car stars James Brolin as Wade Parent, Chief Deputy of a small town in Utah. Wade’s biggest concern is figuring out how to tell his daughters (Kim and Kyle Richards) about his new girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd). And then “the car” arrives, leaving a series of hit-and-run murders in its wake, sending the town into a panic. In the beginning, the car is a ghost, always obscured by darkness or dust. It’s unmarked, yet eternally dusty. The wind portends its arrival, and it honks triumphantly with every kill.
“He smashed through our cars like he was stomping bugs,” Wade says. “I didn’t even see a scratch on him.” There’s no license plate, no handles on the doors, and bullets don’t touch it. Luke (Ronny Cox) believes that it wouldn’t enter a cemetery because it is hallowed ground. The car goes after teenage sweethearts, a high school marching band, the sheriff, and the police, a hitchhiker with a French horn, Wade’s girlfriend, and Wade himself. It isn’t a horse lover either. There’s no apparent reason for the car’s visit to Wade’s town, and it chooses its victims seemingly at random. At least at first.
Butler’s ideal pick for a car to play the car would have been a ’53 Mercury: “It would be really beat-up and dirty. Pieces of chrome missing, rust protruding through the gray primer.” Instead, Silverstein opted for a 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III, designed by George Barris with a little help from Everett Creac, the film’s stunt coordinator. The car had to look sinister, and it had to be safe. It received a handmade steel grill, 20 coats of black pearl lacquer, tinted windows so that the driver could see out but no one could see in, Goodrich tires, chrome Cragar wheels, heavy-duty suspension, and a 455-cubic-inch engine. The top was chopped, its fenders raised, headlights sunk behind the grill and fender. It has the appearance of a living thing with deep-set eyes. Barris and company produced four cars in total, all made of steel not fiberglass, which cost about $84,000 to create.
The cars were modified for the stuntmen’s safety with a harness and full body roll bars. One was equipped with an air cannon, a telephone pole, and steel cap with dynamite and black powder—when the stuntman set off the cannon, it would drive the pole into the ground, rolling the car several times. Another stunt in which the car takes out several police officers was performed with a ram jet.
“That came from a nightmare I had where a car rolled down the corridor of the place I was living. The timing had to be exquisite. The ram would set the car barreling down the track, and it was designed to hit the sheriff’s cars on the hoods.” At one point, though, the timing was not so exquisite: the ram jet fired accidentally, and the car nearly knocked off Silverstein’s head. “I was convinced that car may have had a vengeance for me,” he said.
The Car was released in May 1977, two weeks before Star Wars (oops), but since the 1970s, its cult following has grown. Guillermo del Toro is one of its biggest fans and owns a replica of the car that his brother built for him. The film may have even inspired Stephen King’s Christine. Some folks considered the movie to be less than a masterpiece and it was panned by critics, but even those who regard it as B-movie fare agree that The Car is fun.
It isn’t particularly frightening or tense, and some of its scares are downright silly. But Leonard Rosenman’s score elevates the story, borrowing from the hymn Dies Irae, much like Wendy Carlos’ and Rachel Elkind’s score for The Shining three years later. Its strengths lie in likable characters, real stunts, Gerald Hirschfeld’s desert cinematography, and James Brolin’s mustache and earnest performance. And it doesn’t hurt the film’s authenticity that occultist Anton LaVey is credited as a “technical advisor.”
The Car is worth seeing for its diabolical villain alone. Duel only hints at a supernatural force behind the wheel of the truck, but by its end, The Car confirms it: Rosenman’s score along with the roar of the car’s engine sound downright demonic. Luke says he saw something after they finally destroyed the car, but no one wants to talk about the snake-like creature that briefly materialized in the inexplicably massive fire. We know that a dark force was behind the wheel all along. Maybe it was the devil himself.