A series of mysterious hit-and-run fatalities plagues the town of Santa Ynez, Utah. Police captain Wade Parent has a description of the car–but none of the driver. But Wade discovers that the situation is even more dangerous when a witness reports that the car apparently has no driver and seems to be operating under its own power. How is this happening? Could it be operated by the Devil himself?

The biggest asset The Car has in its corner is its fictional setting. The filmmakers put a lot of effort into populating Santa Ynez with distinct characters with sound motivations and relationships. The divorced Wade dates–and sleeps with–schoolteacher Lauren Humphries (still enough to cause a scandal in the late ‘7os); he wants to marry her, but doesn’t know how his two young daughters will take it, so he (not very successfully) hides the relationship from them. One of Lauren’s pubescent students is caught drawing nude pictures of her (when she discovers it, she’s flattered that he drew her as a D-cup). One of Wade’s fellow deputies, Luke, is a recovering alcoholic; the witness of the second murder physically abuses his wife; one of the victims was supposed to go to another town to see about a job but instead went camping with his girlfriend.

For the most part, director Elliot Silverstein and his writers pull things off well enough to make the town seem lived-in. James Brolin is perfect for the role of Wade, exuding easy charm and steely determination in equal measure. ’80s-TV fixture Kathleen Lloyd (you may remember her from Hill Street Blues or Magnum, P.I., assuming you’re old enough to have seen either of ’em) is adorable as Lauren but calls on some deep reserves of strength (the scene in which she taunts the Car from a graveyard is easily the best sequence in the entire film). Sure, there’s a couple of bum performances: John Marley, who played Woltz in The Godfather, still seems to think he’s playing Woltz here; and Geraldine Keams plays a police dispatcher who still talks in her flat, monotone police dispatcher voice even when she’s not dispatching police. But for the most part, the ensemble deliver credible performances in service of a strong story. (Well, mostly. I wasn’t satisfied by Amos’s “redemption arc,” but whatever.)

Unfortunately, the name of this movie isn’t The Good Citizens Of Santa Ynez, Utah. The name of this movie is The Car, and it’s the Car around which most of the film’s problems are centered. The idea of the Car being demonic is endearing hokum given too much gravitas and often comes off as pretentious; the film even begins with an epigram from celebrated/notorious Satanist Anton LaVey (who also served as technical advisor, although I can’t figure out for the life of me what he would have needed to advise on). The design of the Car–a heavily customized ’71 Continental–is also problematic in a way I can’t put my finger on. It’s very ugly and fake-looking, but in a way that undermines unease and discomfort instead of reinforcing it. It looks like the sort of car that someone given the task of designing a car for a movie like The Car would design if he didn’t particularly want the assignment and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

As for the action and stunt work, I was really disappointed. I wasn’t expecting automotive action equaling Bullitt, Ronin or Death Proof but the action sequences are almost all badly staged, badly directed and badly edited. Early shots of the Car are extremely tight, but not effectively so; I’m sure this was intended to build tension, but instead it looks like the filmmakers are deathly afraid of giving away the fact that the Car obviously isn’t unmanned even though it’s supposed to be. The attack sequences are cobbled together clumsily–more than one victim would have surely survived if he or she hadn’t just stood around waiting to get run over.

There’s only a couple scenes where the Car seems even remotely menacing, and it’s the “taunting” sequence with Lauren I mentioned above. The driver whips the Car around maniacally, giving the impression of some sort of wild, rabid animal. It’s the only scene where it seems to have any personality whatsoever, the devilish force everyone fears it is instead of a simple plot device. The Car needs more scenes like that one.

My rating: 4 of 10.

United States. 76 minutes. Directed by Elliot Silverstein. Starring James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, Ronny Cox.

the car poster

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