You know what scares the hell out of me? No, not the thought of a Sarah Palin presidency. (I find that particular idea more vomit-inducing than frightening.) Give up? Well, I’ll tell ya. Ordinary, inanimate objects coming to life and trying to kill me, that’s what. Ever since I was knee-high to a chainsaw, my dreams have been haunted by images of household appliances and vehicles, possessed by some otherworldly force, making every possible effort to dismember me. And I’m not just talking about demonic dolls here. Sure, who wasn’t scared shitless by that famous clown-doll scene in Poltergeist? But dolls are tiny and made of easily destroyed materials. What gets my engine of fear revved up are cars, trucks, lawnmowers and other metal objects of mayhem. Those things are not only lethal—but you just know that death by demon-driven bulldozer would freaking hurt (Killdozer, anyone?).
Cinematically speaking, the highly underrated Maximum Overdrive (still one of the best horror-movie soundtracks ever) and the slick storytelling of Christine are the most easily recognizable entries in the “cars come to life” subgenre of horror. (What can I say? Stephen King must have the same nightmares as me.) But my personal fave is an often overlooked gem from the late ’70s titled The Car.
I first saw The Car on HBO back in the day, and boy did it scare the hell out of me. Unfortunately, when the urge to watch it struck again, I found myself at a loss. For the longest time, I was unable to find a copy of it available to purchase or even rent. Not because it was a highly sought-after rarity (which it eventually became). But because my freaking moron cousins insisted on calling it The Devil Car my entire young adulthood, leading me on a wild goose chase to track down the wrong damn movie. When I finally realized what the movie was actually called (and thanks to Universal, who finally released it on DVD in 2008), I was able to get a copy of my own and dig right in. And boy howdy was I glad I made the effort, because The Car kicks some serious ass.
A creepy (if vague) quote by none other than Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, gets things rolling as we are introduced to a pair of perky teenagers racing their bikes down a lonely desert road. Of course, it doesn’t take long for a mysterious black sedan to show up and promptly mow these poor little bastards down. Directed by Elliot Silverstein (who cut his teeth directing episodes of “The Twilight Zone”), The Car is set in a small New Mexico town, where local sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin, back when he was super cool) keeps the peace. As Sheriff Parent deals with his mundane daily duties, he finds out that a sinister car has been racking up a nice little body count on his home turf. Road blocks are set up and a manhunt begins, but as the death toll rises it becomes apparent that the car is being propelled by some sinister force. Could it possibly be ... Satan?
The supernatural element of The Car’s motives are brought to light when Sheriff Parent’s cute girlfriend (television mainstay Kathleen Lloyd) seeks shelter in a graveyard with a group of kids. The Car refuses to enter the graveyard, but blasts its horn and spins doughnuts to menace the hiding townspeople. Yeah, that may sound tame. But it would scare the hell outta me! What’s really interesting about The Car is how almost every single honest and good person in the film meets a gruesome end, while the town pricks all seem to survive. After a deadly game of cat and mouse—including a scene in which The Car jumps through an entire house—we get a final face-off, where the cops enlist the help of the local wife-beating drunk to help them. I won’t tell you exactly how it ends, but I will say that it involves cars ... and crashes.
Excellent cinematography, characterization and solid performances easily elevate The Car above the level of schlock that seems to permeate modern horror. Apart from being parodied in an episode of Futurama (“The Curse Of The Were-Car”), The Car gets little love from mainstream audiences, which is a shame. Unfortunately for horror buffs, Universal did a pretty lame job on the DVD. Sure, we get a digitally remastered print presented in scope and the original theatrical trailer, but that’s about it. I could have gone for some behind-the-scenes footage, a “making of” and a director’s commentary track. But no dice. If you can, track down the out-of-print edition released by Anchor Bay.
While I certainly dig the film, I always thought the tagline of “What Evil Drives ...” was kind of a letdown. I would think evil would drive a flame-belching, child-raping, Satan-fueled monster truck from hell. You know, the exact opposite of the God-driven goodness of the Popemobile. But instead, we get a mean-looking black sedan with tinted windows and a foghorn. Intimidating, yes. But hardly evil incarnate. Maybe the Hummer was in the shop. (Universal Studios, $19.98)