Sunday, May 5, 2013

What Actually Drives "The Car"?

I am not normally frightened by most horror movies though I am thoroughly entertained by them.  I have always been able to remind myself that what is being seen on-screen is not real and, as such, can separate myself from it so I can enjoy them objectively.  I find true-crime documentaries on cable--or the stories on CBS's "48 Hours Mystery" program--much more disturbing because the villains in those stories actually existed in real life.  However, there is one horror movie that I must admit has always creeped me out and when I tell you what it is, you'll probably laugh because most people think it's a camp classic and don't find it to be scary at all.  It's the automotive "Jaws" (1975) ripoff that Universal released two years later called "The Car" (1977).

I think the reason I find "The Car" creepy has to do with the fact that one night many years ago when the movie was airing on TV, my father asked me to go across the street to our neighbor's house to ask my mother, who was over there chatting with her friend, a question about an issue that had arisen because he didn't have their phone number to be able to call over there and ask my mother his question over the phone.  As I was crossing the street, I started getting nervous that "The Car" was going to leap out from the shadows out of nowhere because I had just watched a scene from the movie where that very event had occurred.  When one car suddenly started up, its headlights flashed on, and it started driving down the street towards me, I ran all the way to the neighbors house and kept ringing the doorbell until they answered it.  I was only about 10 years old, I think, but it was one of those moments where you suddenly put yourself in the subjective position of the characters in a horror movie and understood the fear they were experiencing at the very instance, which is probably why I still find the movie creepy.

From an objective perspective, I do think "The Car" is a rather creepy movie even though it is PG-rated and has no explicit violence or gore.  The premise of a car possessed by the Devil that goes on a killing spree is disturbing in that no one is really safe.  Unlike "Jaws," where all you had to do was stay out of the water, "The Car" can get you anywhere, as exemplified by the "Did I Just See That?" moment in the movie where the film's ostensible leading lady Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), the school teacher who cursed at the car when it chased the school children, parents and teachers into the cemetery, is mowed down in her her own living room by The Car when it jumps several feet off the ground and crashes through her house in order to kill her.  (For a period of time as a kid, the movie made me convinced that it was better to live in a two-story house, so that you could always hide on the second floor in case The Car decides to crash through it.)  At that moment, you realize that the narration in the trailer "There's nowhere to turn...nowhere to way to stop 'The Car'" was not mere hyperbole because we are more likely to deal with automobiles in our daily lives than with a great white shark.

I completely acknowledge that "The Car" isn't a particularly deep or sophisticated movie in that its characters aren't very interesting individuals and only serve as plot devices in terms of how they relate to The Car.  But that's OK because not every movie has to be a nuanced character-driven piece for it be also be ridiculously entertaining.  "The Car" works on a primal and visceral level because it taps into our continuing love/hate relationship with the automobile.  We sincerely love cars because of the convenience, status, freedom, and mobility it brings to our lives, but I believe to some degree we also hate cars because of the expense, responsibility, stress, and physical danger that automobiles can also represent due to the maintenance costs, traffic congestion, and potential mishaps (when they are mishandled by careless and irresponsible individuals) that are associated with owning or driving them.  "The Car" taps into the sense of awe and wariness that we, as a society, feel towards automobiles.

Some people have complained that "The Car" never adequately explains the origins or motives of its titular vehicle, but I think this actually gives it an air of mystery that works in its favor.  It would be much less frightening to learn that The Car actually had a human driver in it who had a personal vendetta against the small desert town of Santa Ynez, Utah.  If there was a tangible, human element to The Car, then the scope of individuals that it was targeting could conceivably be narrowed.  However, by giving it an unexplainable, supernatural element, then anything could happen and anyone could easily fall victim to it.  What I like about "The Car" as a movie is that The Car is treated in the story as one of the principal characters.  It's never treated as an impersonal, mechanical object, but as an individual with knowledge, instincts and emotions.  The actual human characters in the movie, such as James Brolin as the hero of the story Captain Wade Parent, never refer to The Car as "it" but always with masculine personal pronouns such as "He," "Him," or "His."

And The Car is a fascinating character both from a visceral and emotional perspective.  It is a large, imposing, black vehicle, with two doors (which give it an air of sportiness and simplicity) and a combined front end grill, bumper and headlight design that gives the impression of a fierce, frightening face.  Its black color allows it to stand out from its surroundings during the daylight, and concurrently also allows it to blend into the scenery at night so that it can leap out of nowhere and kill and frighten with a maximum degree of efficiency.  Its dark, smoked/tinted windows prevent one from not only seeing who might be driving it, but also make it impossible to know what the interior of The Car looks like, thus heightening the mystery surrounding it.  The Car is characterized with a low and smooth-sounding engine that is off-set by its frightening and taunting staccato-sounding horn, which is as piercing as one from a semi-truck.  The Car can supernaturally change wind patterns within its vicinity and turn a peaceful day into one characterized by fierce gusts as unsettling as the Santa Anas.  Once seen, heard, and experienced, The Car can never be forgotten.

Even more importantly than the visual impression it makes is the personality and moods The Car demonstrates as it terrorizes the community.  For a vehicle that is such an effective killing machine, The Car also demonstrates a surprisingly degree of patience, ingenuity and decisiveness in terms of who and how it kills.  It never simply shows up in the middle of the town square out of nowhere and indiscriminately mows everyone down.  It slowly and decisively makes its presence known by first terrorizing and killing the bicycling couple who are cycling in the canyon, as well as the young musician who is hitchhiking on the side of the rode.  In so doing, The Car has has sent a foreboding warning to the town that this is only the beginning and that more death and destruction is on its way.

I think it's the scene where The Car runs down Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley) in the middle of the town at night right in front of the Sheriff's station that we begin to truly understand its modus operandi.  As you may recall, Sheriff Peck is crossing the street to join his colleagues for drinks at the local bar when he notices town drunk and physically abusive husband Amos Clemens (R.G. Armstrong) arguing with his wife down the street.  He notices a darkened vehicle parked several yards away as an elderly Navajo woman (Margaret Willey) is minding her business and walking past it alone on the sidewalk.  Out of nowhere, the darkened vehicle comes to life, drives past the Indian woman, completely disregarding her as a potential victim, swerves past Amos Clemens, who leaps out of its way, and makes its way straight at Sheriff Peck, who it mows down ruthlessly, as it drives away triumphantly blaring its horn.

This scene demonstrates the degree to which The Car has carefully chosen its victims.  The Navajo woman was probably disregarded because she was too easy a target for The Car to have any pleasure running down.  Amos Clemens was spared because he was an amoral, arrogant drunk and bully--someone whose continuing presence in the town The Car might likely approve of given his destructive and anti-social attitude.  Only Sheriff Peck was not spared, as he was a pure-hearted figure of authority in the town--a Methodist--who would likely be the one to mount an effective resistance to The Car.  Moments earlier, Sheriff Peck confides in Wade Parent that Amos Clemens' abused wife Bertha (Doris Dowling) was his high-school sweetheart.  It's clear that seeing her married to such an abusive brute tugs at the Sheriff's heartstrings as he is still in love with her.  Distracted thinking of her as he watches her fight with her husband from afar while crossing the street, the Sheriff's sense of situational awareness fails him as he is unable to realize The Car is dangerously close-by.  As with the bicycling couple and the young hitchhiker, The Car waits for opportunities where its victims are isolated, alone, and at their most vulnerable before it chooses to strike.

The Car's similarity with Amos Clemens is demonstrated when The Car terrorizes the women and children, including his wife and son, practicing for a school parade out by the local race track.  The Car proves to be just as much of a bully as Amos, by taunting its potential victims by stirring up the wind, blaring its horns from a distance, and then circling the track at least once before finally bursting through the barricades and showing itself clearly for the first time.  The Car is briefly distracted from mowing down the women and children, by the horse wranglers who are trying to buy them more time, and then chases everyone into an old cemetery.  It's at the cemetery that Lauren curses at The Car, in order to distract it long enough for her colleague Margie (Elizabeth Thompson) to run for help, and sets up her own death later that evening when it crashes into her house.  In singling out Lauren, The Car proves to be an oppressively patriarchal figure, indignant at being confronted by an assertive woman who had enough courage to stand up to it, and decides to retaliate against her at a time when she was as isolated and vulnerable as the other victims.  The irony is that Lauren and the other women and children were actually the safest they would ever be while hiding in the cemetery, as it was "hallowed ground" that the Satanic Car would never cross into.

In the end, The Car's refusal to mow down Amos Clemens as well as Wade Parent (when it knocked Wade to the ground unconscious with its door after it confronted Wade in the middle of the road) leads to its apparent destruction by Wade, Amos, and the other Sheriff's deputies.  Just as The Car refused to kill Amos Clemens in the middle of the street, The Car also refused to run Wade over after it knocked him unconscious.  I think it's because The Car probably felt it was unsporting to run down a worthy opponent like Wade when he was unable to defend himself.  The Car took more pleasure from battling Wade and chasing him while he is on his motorcycle when they were both on equal footing and he was ready for the challenge.  This hubris on the part of The Car allowed the men in town an opportunity to drive the evil out of the Community.  Wade finally comes to the realization that The Car cannot be destroyed by conventional means and turns to Amos, a munitions expert, to rig a nearby canyon with explosives so that The Car can be blown to bits after Wade lures it there.

The Car may have been defeated in Santa Ynez, but the end credits of the movie strongly suggest that The Car was reborn to terrorize Los Angeles, the City of Angels, a town filled with good people like Wade, Lauren, and Sheriff Peck, but also proportionately filled with more impure souls like Amos Clemens.  I always wondered what a sequel to "The Car" set in L.A. would have been like had it been successful enough to warrant it.  It would have been interesting to see what sort of tactics The Car would have resorted to in order to terrorize a larger metropolitan community--with more traffic, citizens, and police presence to contend with--and how the more sophisticated inhabitants of the city would have reacted to it.  However, we'll never know because "The Car" was not a box office hit at the time.  It's only been in the decades since then that a cult following for it developed that applauded the absurdity and sense of excitement that the movie had to offer.  That's a shame because, despite its gaps in logic, "The Car" remains an action-packed, suspenseful, and off-beat movie that still has the ability to give me the creeps decades after I first saw it. 

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic breakdown and commentary on this movie! I also saw it on its original theatrical run and have loved it since. Good point on the car itself believing in a patriarchal system.


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