I don’t have a car and there’s not a drive-in near me, but I think it’s great that the drive-in movie experience is making a comeback in response to the pandemic. Nature finds a way. In honor of this great revival I offer you a drive-in double feature: two horror movies about a car. In fact, about the car.
THE CAR (1977) is directed by Elliot Silverstein (CAT BALLOU) and written by Dennis Shryack & Michael Butler (THE GAUNTLET, CODE OF SILENCE, PALE RIDER) and Lane Slate (DEADLY GAME) and it’s a killer car movie before CHRISTINE. Its faceless villain is a cool looking matte black 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III customized by George Barris, designer of the Munster Koach, Knight Rider and maybe the Batmobile (rival Wikipedia editors seem to have added conflicting information on that). Anyway it kinda looks like a hearse and has a big, distinctive grill. I could see the Tall Man from PHANTASM cruising around in this thing.
One day, for no specific reason of which I am aware, The Car starts terrorizing the residents of a small desert town. It starts on a mountain pass, where it runs two bicyclists off the road. Just the idea of them riding around on those roads in normal traffic seemed scary to me, even if there wasn’t a haunted, kill-crazy, self-driving car in the area. But there is! It taunts them by driving right next to them and then forcing them into a wall and off a bridge.
And The Car could’ve easily moved along and nobody would’ve ever known what happened to those kids, but maybe it’s a killer car that wants to be caught, because its next crime is in front of a witness. This is an example of the pleasing oddness of this movie: a hippie dude is sitting on the side of a dusty road playing his french horn when he sees a mean old bastard named Amos (R.G. Armstrong, Pruneface from DICK TRACY) chasing his poor wife Bertha (Doris Dowling, THE BLUE DAHLIA) down the street. After a bit of hesitation, the horn player tries to intervene, and then they get into an argument about his horn playing. Realizing he’s not helping anything he packs his instrument into its case and tries to hitchhike out of there.
Unfortunately The Car is the next vehicle to pass. It doesn’t stop, he yells at it in frustration, so it turns around, comes back and runs him over a couple times.
It’s such a weird incident and it kind of throws you off after so many horror movies where it’s the bad guy who gets it. I think the fact that Amos gets away with the way he treats Doris is partly because of when it’s made, but it also paints a realistically bleak portrait of domestic violence. Everybody knows about it without doing much, Doris is afraid to press charges, and the cop who tries to get her to does it with the ulterior motive that he’s her ex and wants her to get back together with him. She’s stuck.
Young handsome James Brolin (SKYJACKED) plays the hero, Wade Parent, who has his own odd introduction: his girlfriend Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd, IT LIVES AGAIN, BEST SELLER) is waking him up while his two daughters are outside of the door giggling about her having spent the night. There’s a somewhat nuanced dynamic here: they want him to get back together with their mother, but also think Lauren is cool and want her to stay around.
I didn’t figure out at first that he’s a sheriff’s deputy. This is smart because it makes us accept him as a person with a complex home situation before he’s an authority figure investigating a, uh, crime or whatever. We also spend some time with Lauren at the school where she teaches, where we learn her and her co-worker/friend Margie (Elizabeth Thompson, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!) are modern sexually liberated ladies, and get to hang out often because Margie is married to Wade’s partner Luke (Ronny Cox, STEELE JUSTICE).
Of course they first investigate this death as if it’s a hit and run driver – a human being operating a motor vehicle. Wrong! They’re frustrated that Amos didn’t see the driver, can’t identify the make or model and can barely even describe it. But The Car keeps running over people and then chases the entire school marching band during a rehearsal. They take shelter in a cemetery and the teachers really go above and beyond what they’re being paid for, standing up to what they think is an unseen driver, trying to goad him into showing himself, not necessarily understanding that he stopped because this is consecrated ground, and he’s one of those newfangled cars forged in demonic hellfire, running on unleaded eye of newt, witch’s brew and melted down heavy metal records (speculation). I don’t know what it’s called, I think it’s like the Warlock 2000 or something like that, but whatever it is I gotta assume it is 100% theologically legit because according to Wikipedia Anton Lavey of the Church of Satan was credited as a technical adviser. (You might have to play it backwards to see it, because I couldn’t find his name in the credits.)
Anyway, I like that the teachers start yelling at The Car and some of them aren’t used to cursing so things they yell include “You punk, psycho idiot horse’s ass!” and “CAT POO!”
They start to notice some other unnatural things associated with The Car, such as a “strange wind” that blows Wade over and knocks him out when he tries to open the door. Also, there are no door handles. SO HOW WOULD SOMEBODY GET INSIDE? Let that sink in. Obviously the last act involves a bunch of car chase stuff – the stunt coordinator is Everett Creach (GORDON’S WAR, THE DRIVER, HOWARD THE DUCK, NEAR DARK). The silliest part and also my favorite is when the Car crashes and rolls over some cop cars and looks like it’s getting totally wrecked and then lands neatly and drives away magically undamaged. Satanically undamaged.
I noticed that the theme by Leonard Rosenman (BARRY LYNDON, PROPHECY, ROBOCOP 2) sounds an awful lot like THE SHINING, which of course came a few years later. It turns out it’s because they’re both quoting the same traditional Gregorian melody, “Dies irae” (“the Day of Wrath”). And/or because Stanley Kubrick’s favorite movie of all time was THE CAR.
There’s definitely a strong feel of the era – a little bit like a ‘70s TV movie, but one of the good ones. I like the sunny atmosphere and serious pacing. I think I’ve seen it referred to as “JAWS with a car,” which is a reasonable description of the tone, but it also makes me wish it was more of a straight up ripoff. Like, there should be somebody in the Richard Dreyfus shark expert slot, like a mechanic or an engineer from an auto manufacturer or something, to offer his expertise on The Car. And of course there should be a Quint, a guy who has hunted cars before, but never one this big. Only a Volkswagen or something. Maybe a character from THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS? I haven’t seen that one. I should see it.
I’ve been enjoying the films of Dick Maas this year, and it strikes me that (although this came first) it has some similarities to his approach. Like THE LIFT, it’s a mystery about a machine coming to life and killing people, treated very seriously, and with characters who are pretty funny and likable (and horny). It seems a little less aware of its absurdity, and its solution seems to be supernatural rather than science fictional, but I’ve come to really like this approach of taking a completely ludicrous premise and saying okay, yes, it’s ridiculous, but moving on, what can we do with this? (For a more surreal, sweaty, fever dream approach, check out Tobe Hooper’s killer-laundry-press epic THE MANGLER.)
In the end they come up with a big plan that involves (SPOILER) matador-ing the motherfucker to drive off a cliff and setting off a shitload of dynamite. They pull it off and then they all see some sort of giant demon face in the fire of the explosion. Wade says it’s all over and Luke says, “But in the fire, didn’t you see — I saw—“
Wade puts his hand on his shoulder and says, “It’s over, Luke.”
I don’t think so, Wade! Denial doesn’t solve anything. I’m with Luke on this one. And Luke and I are correct. According to Wikipedia, “The film concludes, with the car prowling the streets of downtown Los Angels, clearly having survived.” It’s talking about footage shown under the credits, so I took it as like an outtake or flashback or something, it definitely didn’t occur to me that it was supposed to mean The Car survived. But it did. In 2019 The Car returned in an official sequel, THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE.
The craziest thing about ROAD TO REVENGE – not including that somebody completely out of the blue decided that the world was looking for a part two to a fairly obscure killer car movie from 42 years ago* – is the approach they chose. You’d think the idea would be to rehash the same basic plot in 2019, with more modern (not as good) look and pacing, either a modern car or the original one being chased by modern cars, maybe some nods to the stylistic choices of popular car movies of today like THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS or some shit. Instead they made it a cyberpunk sequel. It’s as much like a low rent JOHNNY MNEMONIC as it is like THE CAR. Its villain is a dude called Talen (Martin Hancock, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE) who looks straight out of GHOST IN THE SHELL with his cyborg eyes and fancy white leather coat. He does cybernetic surgery on street gangs who act as his army called “The Night.”
I love that we live in a world where the movie about James Brolin fighting a car from Hell is in official continuity with this story where there’s a vicious gang of assassins consisting of a wicked punk lady with wrist-mounted blowtorch (Nina Bergman, DOOM: ANNIHILATION), a top-hat Ozzie Osbourne rock star type dude with a middle finger that turns into a drill (Keith-Lee Castle, SEED OF CHUCKY, Dracula on Young Dracula), a guy who dresses like a vampire with frilly shirt and everything (not sure who the actor is) and a big leather jacket guy with one robot arm (stuntman Ivan Iliev). Also there are some random old west style cowboys around.
It’s a low budget movie, so they don’t bother with a whole BLADE RUNNER type city. At the beginning they combine a red light district type stripper display, a 2049 style hologram and that tried and true B-movie staple, the graffiti-alley-with-flaming-oil-barrels. Otherwise they’re mostly on normal roads or at a strip club. In one part there’s a mystical prophet guy with a virtual reality helmet. In an attempt at Verhoeven type satire there’s both an out of control gang problem and a fascist police state. The D.A. (Jamie Bamber, Battlestar Galactica?) prosecutes a guy and as soon as he’s pronounced guilty a glass booth pops up in the court room and explodes him to death.
The hero is the D.A.’s off-again girlfriend Daria (Kathleen Munroe, THE VOID), who he tries to win back over dinner and then completely loses by driving fast through the bad part of town in his fancy Lazarus-1 prototype car, saying, “Only way we can cut through this filth this quickly.” He also says “Nobody likes an angry woman, Daria” and then threatens her with some possessive bullshit when she tells him off.
So we’re very much not rooting for the guy when the aforementioned gang ambushes him at his office looking for “the chip,” even though he unexpectedly puts up a good fight and yells “YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOU’RE FUCKING WITH!” before being thrown out a window and splattering on his fancy car.
Now, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be supernatural again or science-fictional or a hybrid, but the Lazarus-1 becomes The Car. It’s a more modern, less hearse-y car, but does have a similar grill. Because it was that asshole boyfriend, it follows his ex Daria around in between tracking each of the gang members and running them over. There’s a funny part where Daria is getting it on and the camera pans down and there’s the car and its lights turn on. Jealous.
The male lead is burly, rude homicide detective Rainer (Grant Bowler, KILLER ELITE, SWELTER) who investigates Daria and is a jerk but slowly wins her over and they fall in love. That’s ridiculous, but he kind of grew on me too, and he has a big lug quality that stands out from standard leading men. There’s a cool part where he goes to the apartment of some informant ( at first I thought it was his ex-wife) and a teenager answers the door and shoots at him but he grabs his wrist and pulls the gun away. Then he asks the mom some questions, hands her the gun and says, “Keep that kid on a leash.”
There are definitely some dull stretches, and even when it turns into a stunt show there’s a cheapness to it – a bunch of cars and motorcycles driving around with the characters dubbed in talking to each other over the radio, no shots of them inside the vehicles, like they only had time for second unit. But there’s a high quality shock where some cops pick up Daria but she figures out they’re not actually cops and overpowers them, making them get out of the car and get down on the ground, at which point The Car comes zipping by and just flattens both of them. By far the most impressive thing about the movie is the graphic bodies and heads being run over. Good job on that shit, for sure.
The big connection to the original, maybe, is late in the movie when Ronnie Cox actually shows up. But he doesn’t act like he’s the same character, and is credited as “Waits,” not Luke Johnson. He’s some kind of junkman who finds the new Car totally wrecked and is excited because it’s a rare concept car or whatever and he has the perfect car to use for parts to repair it… yes, under a tarp somehow he has what looks like the original Car. He combines them and is shocked that it runs him over and I don’t know if now it’s the dead D.A. or the dead car demon or half ghost car half demon car or A.I. or who the fuck knows. But it’s on the road to revenge. That much is clear.
How/why did this sequel come about? I don’t know, but director G.J. Echternkamp wrote, directed and edited DEATH RACE 2050 in 2017, so you could say he specializes in completely unexpected way-after-the-fact sequels to car-related cult movies of the ‘70s. Maybe he’ll do SUPERVAN RELOADED or DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY: FUTURE WARS next. The script is credited to Michael Tabb (WEREWOLF: THE BEAST AMONG US) and Echternkamp (FRANK AND CINDY) & Matt Yamashita (SHARKTOPUS VS. PTERACUDA, SHARKTOPUS VS. WHALEWOLF). I like his choice to revive a ‘70s movie in the 2010s but taking place in the future but with an aesthetic that seems kinda stuck in the ‘90s but not in a nostalgic way. You don’t get many of those. I hope they do one for ORCA now.
*I say this like it makes no sense, but of course it does. If this was, like, REVENGEMOBILE or something I wouldn’t have even considered watching it. But having the THE CAR branding on it got me. They knew what they were doing.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.