Saturday 11 April 2015

The Car

Hob Gear

The Car
USA 1977
Directed by Elliot Silverstein
Arrow/Universal Blu Ray Region 2

Well this was a jaw droppingly amazing and unexpectedly well made film. Given the subject matter and the fact that it’s been around for nearly four decades, I’m amazed I didn’t cross paths with this movie on television anytime sooner.

This film first properly came onto my radar when a limited edition of Leonard Rosenman’s score was released about a month ago. Now I always find Leonard Rosenman’s work a bit hit and miss, perhaps more miss than hit if I were being honest. This is not because he tends to write mostly either atonal music or full on 12 tone serial music (both of which I love) but because I mostly find his writing in these kinds of styles a bit dull compared to, say, masters like Schoenberg and Ligeti.

Another reason I am less enthusiastic about him is because he always... always... uses a particular musical phrase in pretty much every score recording I own by him and, in this last respect at least, the score to The Car is no exception. It’s a kind of musical progression, almost a mini fugue, which I’ve heard him slip in on scores like Beneath/Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, Fantastic Voyage, Lord Of The Rings (the proper movie version), Star Trek IV and so on. The liner notes by Jeff Bond on this score release refer to this “signature effect” as a “brass tone pyramid” and so I guess that’s the technical name for it... and I understand that Rosenman probably just saw this as another weapon in his arsenal for creating mood and atmosphere... but I still spend my time listening to any of his soundtracks waiting for him to drop the damn thing in and then gritting my teeth.

However, I listened to the sound samples put up by Intrada Records and the score sounded pretty good and to my liking... especially as it has lots of quotes of the musical phrase known throughout musical history as the Dies Irae, one of my favourite quotations. So yeah, I ordered the CD and I had a listen and then, of course, well... I had to see the movie it came from, didn’t I? Luckily, Arrow have put out a truly sumptuous Blu Ray transfer of the movie which is not costing the earth and so, as usual, the music was my primary path to seeing a film.

And what a film it is.

The premise pitched to the director was that Universal wanted another gi-normous hit of a movie in the style of their big Spielberg success Jaws... but they didn’t want to run to the expense of filming on the ocean and in big water tanks again so they decided to replace the shark with the titular vehicle and set it in a small, desert community town. And as silly as that sounds... due largely to the seriousness and gravitas given by an extraordinarily creative director and a cast consisting of great character actors such as James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley and Ronny Cox, to name a few... the movie really does work at much more than the level of the absurd but satisfying B-movie premise that is its main DNA. That DNA consisting of a driverless, demonically possessed Black 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III car with a customised lowered frame... giving it a black, lean, animalistic feel which works really well for it.

The film opens up with the credits set against a long static shot of desert landscape in blue. Not sure if the eventual change to... um... less blue... is meant to signify “sun up” but it doesn’t matter because, coupled with Rosenman’s score, the screen was filled with vibrant colour and I was hooked. Then, after the credits roll, we see a trail of sand rising up in the far distance, almost like Michael Bentine was puffing out smoke on one of his old Potty Time models (for anyone as old as me who remembers that show) and this kicking up of the sand and dust is our visual approach to The Car sorted out. It’s something the director actually does quite a lot during the film, bearing in mind most of it is set during daylight... start off with an extremely long shot and then show a symptom indicator that “the car is coming” such as clouds of dust or bright flashes of light from the windscreen to help us focus in on the little spec of the screen which will eventually grow in size to the horse-powered horror as it gets closer to the camera. It’s quite a brilliant way of doing it actually and the director has a lot of this kind of slow approach happening while things are going on in the foreground too... which gives you a kind of “the car is watching and ever present” feeling to certain sequences of the movie.

Then we see our first victims of the film... two teenage cyclists... and the speed of the car is coupled with shots from inside the windscreen, which is blacked out in front but which gives us a kind of yellow saturated filter view of the external environment that the director employs extensively to give us a “car’s eye view” of things as it roars past the world. It’s one of a few things the director does to kind of imbue the car with a certain calculating intelligence and organic presence.

Another such trick is a beautiful shot where the camera is on some kind of rig and is going along deep focused on one of the speeding wheels in profile. When victim number three insults the car as it goes by... we stop with it and almost feel it considering its next action... before circling back to commit its third homicide of the movie.

This is all great stuff and the director uses a lot of these kinds of personalising shenanigans to both build up The Car as an intelligent, thinking manifestation and also to really start gripping you with the suspense when he starts to pour it on. Scenes with the actual car for the first half of the film are few and far between, once we’re done with the three murder set up, that is. It’s a very smart approach because it then becomes a character piece with the main lead (Brolin), his girlfriend (Lloyd) and the police force who start to become aware that they’ve got a problem on their hands. And so it becomes a “how to stop the car” kind of movie and everybody is talking and focussing on it so that, in the scenes where the car does actually appear, usually from the corner of a screen or as some kind of reveal (there’s a beautifully done and terrifying surprise “up close and personal” reveal of the car just before the final chase sequence which I won’t spoil for you here), it’s all the more effective because its presence has been long heralded by the human population of the movie.

Now, it has to be said that, although it’s extremely well done and I will definitely be watching this at least a few more times in my life (if I live that long), there are some really unintentionally funny parts to the movie, too. Like the constant, silent male bonding which seems to be going on at the drop of a hat whenever any of the police are worried. Seriously, if there’s anything wrong, the central characters show that there’s never anything so wrong that a gruff, silent nod and a pat on the back or shoulder won’t put right. Seriously, I’d hate to work for this community’s police force. I’d ask if anyone would want a coffee or maybe just drop a pencil and I’d be greeted with a barrage of manly nods and my back and shoulders would be red raw with reassuring body blows within the space of a day. So this was getting just a little too much for me to watch in some places but, that being said, the acting in this is fantastic so I wasn’t too concerned.

What did concern me is that everybody seems to be driving those unbelievably dangerous, 1970s movie cars. Seriously, these things the police department issue over there are truly lethal, it would seem. All it takes is for a car to have one or two of it’s wheels leave the ground or slightly scrape something and the whole thing goes up in a ball of flame. Woah. I’d be frightened to get in one and sit down hard. Turn on the ignition too quickly and the whole thing might go up. No wonder the police are not able to hold their own against The Car when they’re sent out in these death traps. I can imagine it now. “Hi boss, my turn to drive... although I’ve got a dreadful cough today.” “No! Don’t cough!” Cough... Booom!

So yeah, seriously, never perform an emergency stop in one of these things.

But, other than these two overused clich├ęs of male bonding and sub-standard 1970s motor vehicle manufacturing, the movie is truly unique. Even when it shows a trail of blood going up the side of a fence and a lone, spinning wheel belonging to one of the cyclists at the start... it never really crosses the line over into absurd and it keeps the tension pretty well. Scenes such as the car coming up on a parade practice where these huge banners are up on the road and you can only see it by its wheels whizzing underneath the level of the banners are really effective and shots like this will stay with you after the end of the movie.

Also, the character arcs do not go where you’d quite expect them to go in this thing... sometimes it’s the good guys and gals who don’t survive the picture while other, shall we say less than sympathetic characters, go unpunished for their sins and without any real moral judgement from the camera eye... it has to be said. But that’s kind of refreshing, to tell you the truth. Less predictability in a movie can only be a good thing, methinks. Although, I have to say that Ronny Cox, on realising The Car wouldn’t cross through the gates of a cemetery and on to consecrated ground, makes a pretty wild leap to the assumption that... oh yeah... it must be a demonically possessed vehicle they are dealing with. He said what now? Oh wait... that’s actually the case here. Oh well... bit of a leap for a conclusion but, whatever, it works for me I guess.

Truthfully, even though it should probably be considered a B-movie, I have to say that this is one of the most solid and well made B-movies I’ve seen in quite some time. And, for the record, Rosenman’s score to this movie is superb. Irritating at certain “signature” areas, for sure, but one of his more accessible and enjoyable works as far as I’m concerned. So I’m really pleased I picked up the soundtrack album when I did. Definitely a movie I’ll be revisiting and recommending to people and certainly a score which will be getting a fair few spins on the CD player over the next few months. I’m guessing this movie was probably a lot of the inspiration behind Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine, so it’s also interesting to watch on that level too. Either way, if you like completely loopy horror concepts and you don’t mind that they’re occasionally done well, instead of just being something you can laugh at, then you should probably shift your DVD or Blu Ray player into high gear and get yourself a ride with... The Car.

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