When people talk about killer vehicle movies (and they do), John Carpenter's 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's Christine usually heads the list, with Maximum Overdrive and maybe even Killdozer making their way into the discussion at some point. Plus I've always suspected there was some kind of demonic motivation behind Herbie in The Love Bug. Personally, I remember seeing The Car before any of these. The TV spots tantalized me during the film's 1977 release, and I eventually caught the movie on television in the early '80s. Now we've got a brand new DVD from Universal to fill the void left by the out of print version from Anchor Bay.
James Brolin stars as Wade Parent, a single father who works as a cop in a small southwestern town where the only type of criminal you usually find is a jay walker. He's been romancing a local school teacher named Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), and he's just about got his two cute-as-a-button daughters (one of whom is played by Kyle Richards, who played Lindsey Wallace in the original Halloween) convinced that it's about time Dad got hitched again. Now, however, we've got bodies piling up, thanks to a mysterious black car of indeterminate design (although one poster over at IMDB reports that it's a modified 1971 Lincoln) with no license plates and opaque windows. The first victims are a pair of bicyclists and a hippie with a French horn who's so annoying that, despite being run over four times, could easily have done with a few more swipes.
The members of the police department are rattled by these violent crimes, particularly Wade's friend Luke (Ronny Cox) whose two-year ride on the sobriety wagon comes to an abrupt halt. Things go from bad to worse when the sheriff is run down in the middle of the street, and an eye witness swears there was no driver in the car. Wade is now in charge, and the conflict becomes even more personal for him when a group from the local school, including Wade's daughters and Lauren are attacked by the car. They take refuge in a nearby cemetery, and the evil car shows its true nature when it is unable to trespass on hallowed ground.
The Car has all the hallmarks of '70s TV, including day for night shooting, under cranking for high speed chases, cars that explode if you just look at them funny, and dialog that is skull-crushingly awful. In fact, if it weren't for a few curse words, you could almost believe this was made for the small screen. When I saw The Car years ago I remember liking the fact that nothing is ever explained. We're never told where this demonic car comes from or what its motivation might be, and I liked the mystery. Now I find myself wishing the details were better fleshed out to keep the movie from being so... well, boring. When a horror flick doesn't bother to give its characters any depth I'm the first to complain, but The Car goes too far in the opposite direction, bogging down the story with Wade's relationship with his kids, long stretches of the officers looking defeated, or the goings on at Lauren's school. Do we really need to know that some kid is drawing naked pictures of Wade's girlfriend? Luke has just started drinking again, and that fact is trotted out a number of times, but nothing ever comes of it. The concept is pretty sound, but the execution is deeply flawed. Horror remakes get a bad rap these days, but The Car is ripe for reinterpretation.