A fundamentally absurd b-movie premise is given total commitment by director Elliot Silverstein and his ensemble cast here, in a 1977 big studio contrivance that still manages to be stupidly entertaining, despite taking its ludicrous scenario utterly seriously throughout. ‘Jaws on Land’ was apparently the high concept Silverstein and co-writers Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Lane Slate were commissioned by their Universal paymasters to deliver, and as critically panned and derided as their efforts were upon the film’s original release, the results stand the test of time, largely because of the painstaking skill and craft involved in the realisation.
The whole idea of a souped-up Lincoln Continental inexplicably materialising (preceded by a swirling, supernatural dust-storm wherever it goes) as the plaything of a demonic force, intent for no discernible reason on mowing down as many innocent bystanders as possible in the film’s anonymous and remote fictional desert town of Santa Ynez, is nakedly preposterous -- yet this is the basic and now familiar summer blockbuster formula dressed in its most essential garb and engineered to deliver adequate portions of action, suspense and soap opera melodrama, regardless of the fact that the set-up and scenario couldn’t be dumber if they tried.
The prosaically titled “The Car” is generally considered to be a perfect example of a ‘bad’ movie; it careened its way into Golden Raspberry Award founder Jon Wilson’s book ‘The Official Razzie Movie Guide’ as one of the top 100 most enjoyable bad movies ever made, and even some of its biggest fans, such as John Landis, claim to like it only because they find it to be a ‘truly dumb’ film. Yet, there’s no getting away from one simple fact that is now especially emphasised in the pristine qualities of the crystal clear HD transfer provided by Universal for this excellent UK Blu-ray debut, made available courtesy of Arrow Video: this film may indeed be dross, but it’s very well-made dross -- and by and large it works a treat as a piece of pure, no-brains-required entertainment. Ninety-five minutes breeze by joyously, at least up until the final act, when it suddenly seems to get rather too bogged down in pointless noise and car chase action to no great effect, just or the sake of it. But that’s hardly a problem unique to this one particular movie… especially these days!
Silverstein, of course, made at least two lauded movies everybody already knows or has heard of (“Cat Ballou” and “A Man Called Horse”) and was an especially suitable choice for this kind of material given that, amongst the oodles of half-forgotten TV work littering his filmography, there are also to be found at least four episodes of “The Twilight Zone from its heyday in the 1960s. The film’s screenplay (perhaps wisely) offers no explanation or rationale at all for the existence of the titular satanic vehicle, but post-production tinkering furnishes the movie with a portentous pre-credits quote from the writings of Church of Satan leader Anton Lavey taken from the latter’s ‘ The Satanic Bible’ (‘Oh brothers of the night who rideth upon the hot winds of hell …’) and Hollywood composer Leonard Rosenman’s score apes the percussive gravitas of Jerry Goldsmith’s music for “Planet of the Apes” while incorporating elements of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, particularly the Day of Wrath’ theme -- which was made even more familiar a few years later by Wendy Carlos’s synthesiser arrangement of the same movement for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.
Best of all though -- and the one thing responsible for turning a daft idea into an inspired one -- “The Car” is blessed with a truly brilliant setting: the Monument Valley-like desert plains and vast canyons of the Utah-Arizona border make for a fortuitously evocative backdrop that conjures entirely apposite ideas of a primordial, post-apocalyptic wasteland surrounding and isolating an otherwise quaint sketch of the kind of small-town idyll that has since become so familiar a trope of late-20th Century American horror thanks to the work of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, and latterly David Lynch. Santa Ynez is the kind of town where everybody knows everybody or went to high school with their sister; a close-knit community in which boy next door police deputies date pretty local school teachers and patriarch Sheriff Peck (John Marley) used to go out with the bullied wife of a quarry mine worker (R. G. Armstrong) who now won’t press charges against her husband for his domestic violence, even though everybody knows what’s been happening behind their closed doors. The town is built around the single road that passes through its centre, like the township in a classic Western. The cast, meanwhile, is dotted with actors who have the half-familiar look of bit part TV series players: James Brolin in moustachioed hunk mode (and looking rather like a Suzuki-riding Lee Majors, whom he starred opposite in TV Western “The Virginian”) never made a particularly huge impact on popular consciousness as a leading man, although he had that requisite ‘70s look that denotes assured masculinity moderated by a soupcon of moral resilience, qualities which seems to have become associated, during this decade in particular, with the acquisition of excessive amounts of groomed facial hair. His co-star Kathleen Lloyd is also that typical slightly-tom-boyish-but-pretty-and-still-feminine-at-the-same-time female heroine that tended to populate ‘70s cinema during what was by then the dawning of the modern, post-Germaine Greer school of feminism.
The soap opera motivating concern here is that divorced Captain Wade Parent (Brolin) is dating art teacher Lauren Humphries, who teaches at the local school where his two young daughters from his previous marriage are being taught. He’s nervous about introducing his new girl to them, but they’re secretly already aware of the relationship and willing to approve of it and welcome Lauren as their surrogate mum. Meanwhile, Lauren’s best friend and teacher colleague Margie (Elizabeth Thompson) is married to Wade’s partner at the station, Deputy Luke Johnson (Ronny Cox), a recovering alcoholic who is learning to put the bottle to one side with the help of his Bible classes.
Silverstein and his cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld miss none of the opportunities provided for them by the Utah setting, for utilising these stunning locations to the film’s best scenic advantage, accentuating images of craggy buttes punctuating vast sandy vistas viewable across a succession of long, straight desert highways with endless horizons, cutting through ancient mesas and awe inspiring canyons to juxtapose the primal emotions such images bring forth with the idea of urban modernity encroaching on the film’s depiction of an oasis of traditional American small town values. This flat landscape, filmed under the unrelenting blue sky brightness of day, becomes an arid stage on which an inescapable menace will plague the likable inhabitants of this small but insignificant town, and where the piercing daylight and the emptiness of the desert means that you can see danger on wheels coming from miles away at the same time as realising there’s nowhere to run or hide from it, despite the vastness of the plane on which the drama unfolds.
Specially built by the Californian company owned by George Barris, the designer responsible for making the Batmobile in the 1960s series of “Batman”, the Car itself is given a sleek but out-of-kilter look: the roof apparently too low for it to be comfortably occupied by any human driver and the doors without external handles. The windows are tinted black but POV shots from behind the wheel are doused in infernal orange. This inscrutable machine’s only purpose is to kill; where it comes from, and why it chooses to pick on the road users and pedestrians to molest and murder that it does is a mystery that is never adequately addressed, but after all of the attempts by the full might of the town’s local law enforcement provisions to cordon off the area and trap the vehicle before it reaches the outskirts of the county result only in more carnage, it is eventually decided that this machine is of demonic origin: a conclusion based on the fact that its seems unable to enter the hallowed ground of a desert cemetery after Lauren and the local school kids who were rehearsing for a forthcoming parade take refuge in it when they are attacked, in a scene shot in a way that evokes the attack on school children finishing class in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.
The plot revolves around the ensemble cast’s various reactions to this supernatural menace, and starts off as a serial hit-and-run investigation by Captain Wade and his folksy colleagues that then turns into an action-packed chase movie during the middle section, as the veteran Sheriff Everett Pick attempts to organise the capture of the vehicle but is instead mowed down in the street, in a hit-and-run witnessed only by an elderly indigenous Navajo lady who claims that the car responsible had no driver! The final act becomes a personal grudge match between the remaining desperate survivors, who must put past differences and parochial problems aside after having by now suffered both the loss of revered authority figures and loved ones alike. This is ‘family horror’ writ large -- clearly taking “Jaws” as the role model, but exhibiting even less gore than even that PG rated model of the sub-genre. Instead, Silverstein puts together a series of set-pieces that depend upon some impressive mechanical effects and stunts calculated to make use of the setting to induce in viewers feelings of acrophobic displacement. He can’t disguise the silliness of it all, but the whole spectacle is delivered with such unpretentious film-making craft and commitment that one can’t help but willingly indulge its absurd, barely fleshed out contrivances.
Presented in a stunning High Definition transfer by Arrow Video, the film looks immaculate, with fantastic clarity and minimal dirt or damage. This quintessentially ‘70s slice of family action drama looks, here, like it was shot yesterday. The extras are headed up by an audio commentary with director Elliot Silverstein, moderated by High Rising Productions’ Calum Waddell. The eighty-six-year-old director seems slightly flummoxed by the concept of a commentary track and seems to be struggling to find things to say at times. He does establish that he’d have preferred to have set most of the film at night in order to establish a ‘spookier’ atmosphere, although that probably would have obscured the landscape which ends up being the movie’s biggest asset. This isn’t the most successful commentary ever recorded but Waddell does his best to keep things flowing and is never without interesting observations or questions to ask, even if they do rather seem at times to leave the aging director sounding slightly confused and perplexed by the whole process!
We also get a couple of newly shot featurettes in which more information on various aspects relating to the background on the making of the film are elaborated. “Making a Mechanical Monster” sees renowned Hollywood special effects artist on films such as “Die Hard”, William Alridge, remembering his association with the picture, which came near the start of his career in cinema; and he also talks about the stunning matte work supplied by Albert Whitlock, whose work on Hitchcock’s “The Birds” had previously put special effects at the forefront of the big budget summer movie spectacle like never before. Alridge also talks about his memories of the difficulties encountered on the shoot as he explains how some of the most memorable sequences, such as the 260 foot-drop death dive from a bridge and the memorable ‘cannon-roll’ (executed by the demonic car at one point in the film in order to take out a row of pursuit vehicles) were achieved. “Hitchhike from Hell” features actor John Rubinstein talking about his brief role near the start of the film, in which he plays one of the Car’s unlucky victims – a young, French horn-playing hitchhiker who gets mown down at the roadside! A theatrical trailer and a ‘Trailer from Hell’ episode featuring John Landis explaining why “The Car” is his favourite ‘bad’ movie (although Guillermo del Toro apparently likes it without irony) round off the disc extras supplied by High Rising Productions and others, but this being Arrow Video you also get wonderful packaging, including a reversible sleeve featuring the original poster artwork and newly commissioned artwork by Joe Wilson; and finally there’s a collector’s booklet in which Calum Waddell interviews co-writer Michael Butler and Cullen Gallagher waxes lyrical on the joys of the film.
“The Car” is not a masterpiece of 1970s cinema by any means, but it is an efficiently made and eminently enjoyable piece of fluff which makes for a perfect afternoon-filler, nice for vegging out to when no cerebral effort is wanted from one’s viewing choice. The excellence of the HD transfer certainly helps bump it up a few notches on the appreciation scale, too.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!