It rolled into the world in May of 1977. It's Friday night. The movie maybe reached your town in June. It parked itself at the drive-in movie theater before summer's end....
We begin, as in Jaws, with some anonymous young victims falling prey to the monster. They’re cleaner-living than those kids on the beach; they are healthily biking along the highway when death calls. This is no amoral force of nature: the car is pure evil, threatening everyone in the town it visits. It especially wants the good ones, the young ones. Later, it will stalk a band of elementary school children. They will escape by standing on hallowed ground, where evil fears to tread. Long, sleek, and black, it haunts the roads, for the Forces of Darkness have incarnated in a George Barris custom car. Why a demonic force would assume the form of a customized vehicle and pick off people, one at a time, in an obscure village remains a mystery. Nor does the monster take on metaphoric significance, so please don't seek some deeper meaning. We have a driverless car. It's evil. It kills people. And it's attacking a small southwestern American town.
The highly unusual turn of events draws the attention of the local sheriff, Wade Parent (James Brolin), a hip guy with two little girls, Burt Reynolds hair, a 70s porn 'stache, and a motorcycle. His girlfriend (Kathleen Lloyd), a liberated, short-short wearing teacher from the local elementary school has been sleeping over, but for all her feisty attitude and liberated sexuality, she remains a wholesome mother-figure to her man's daughters. She's willing to stand up against anything that threatens children, even satanic automobiles. The members of this little family represent the high point of the film's acting. Brolin and Lloyd have chemistry and they give decent performances throughout. The little girls, played by Kim and Kyle Richards do a better job than many of the adult actors; both will have long-lasting careers.
Coincidentally, the town is about to hold their annual parade, which will presumably draw everyone out in the open. Our motorcycle-riding sheriff and his deputies represent the only defense. When a significant death occurs, their battle becomes personal. Differences must be put aside. The town redneck must work with Wade's Navajo deputy (the film features a few positive, non-stereotypical portrayals of Native people—still a rarity in films not expressly about Indians). Together and under the lead of the youthful sheriff, they shall stop the Car.
What follows borrows heavily from Jaws and Duel, sprayed with elements from The Exorcist. The result is entirely derivative, although combining those particular films represents a kind of originality.
The film features some decent stunt work, and fun chase scenes that only loosely observe the known laws of physics. Many of the scenes where the Car stalks its victims have been shot through a red filter, from the automobile’s point-of-view. This does not work so well. When the Car hunts near Lauren's house, however, the director plays effectively on the fear one might have alone at night. More than any other, this scene demonstrates this movie's ability to transcend its idiotic premise.
For all its silliness, this is actually a fairly entertaining thriller that embodies another time. The sun is about to set on many local drive-ins. That film about the shark has inaugurated the Age of the Summer Blockbuster, while Straight-to-Video waits around the next bend. They made The Car for its moment and yet, unlike many lower-budget films from this time, it remains watchable. A sizable cult following recalls it fondly. It succeeds in being the sort of film a thirteen-year-old boy would've liked to make1, and if you watch it with the appropriate expectations, you likely will be entertained.
Written by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack, and Lane Slate.
Directed by Elliot Silverstein.
The Car designed by George Barris
James Brolin as Wade Parent
Kathleen Lloyd as Lauren
John Marley as Everett
R.G. Armstrong as Amos Clements
Elizabeth Thompson as Margie
Eddie Little Sky as Denton
Bonus Seventies Movie Check-list: The Car
1. Though I suppose the thirteen-year-old boy would have added nudity and a few more fart jokes.