Traffic Is Hell: Remembering The Car

The simple pleasures of an underrated 1970s demonic horror oddity.

The Car is one of those odd horror films that emerged in the late 1970s. Not quite a low-budget movie, not quite a major release, these films – Nightwing seems like another – emerged through major distributors but made relatively little impact on initial release, eventually finding an audience through TV screenings. And that seems rather apt because The Car, made in 1977, feels rather like a superior TV movie. I’m not dismissing it by saying that – but the high concept, the production style and the PG-level content (there are a couple of ‘shits’ in the dialogue but nothing stronger, and no gore or nudity) all feel like one of the more impressive made-for-television movies of the era, albeit one with more spectacular stunts and set-pieces than you would generally find in the lower budgets and faster production schedules of television.

Notably, it’s a TV movie that seems to be the main inspiration for the film. While the film has often been compared to Jaws – and there is little question that this film exists because of the huge success of that film and follows the narrative template of that film and its assorted copycats like Grizzly and Tentacles surprisingly closely, it’s really another Spielberg film, Duel, that this film evokes. Like that film, it features a relentless killer vehicle – though here, the supernatural elements that Spielberg’s film merely toys with are made more obvious. There’s no real ambiguity here – this really is a Car from Hell, driverless, indestructible, unstoppable. Why Satan would choose to unleash a customised Lincoln Continental Mark III on small-town America is something that the film remains suitably ambiguous about.

The Jaws connections are there of course, all over the place – this is, after all, the story of a small town terrorised by a mysteriously determined and single-minded monster from outside. This film’s Chief Brody is Captain Wade Parent (James Brolin), who has to rally his unlikely band of police officers and volunteers after the killer car has mown down Police Chief John Marley. By this time, the mysterious car has already killed a pair of cyclists and an annoying hippy, and soon it is terrorising the local schoolchildren, turning up to wreck a parade rehearsal before killing more cops and – in the film’s most impressive moment in terms of both shock value and visual construction – a character that you really don’t expect to die.

The car itself is made as ominous a threat as is possible for a vehicle to be. It helps that America was still fully in the grip of its love for ridiculously oversized cars – this story wouldn’t really work with a Mini – and the blacked-out windows give the monster a sense of real menace, acting as black, soulless eyes – much as you would find in a shark, appropriately enough. Despite this and rather impressively given the mechanical nature of the monster, it has a degree of personality too – the front grill and headlights are smartly framed to look like a face and the car has both a temper and a cunning to it. It’s a more believable character than the human killers in many a slasher movie, to be honest.

The supernatural elements of the story are what sets this apart from other Jaws knock-offs and they are worked in quietly – the first hint we get that this might be more than just a crazy guy behind the wheel comes when the kids hide in a cemetery and the car is unable to follow them (because it’s consecrated ground). It’s a twist handled well, and thankfully the film avoids too much discussion of the demonic (and even more thankfully doesn’t have a car exorcist show up, as tempting as that must have been).

This isn’t a particularly stylish or slick production, The whole thing has a matter-of-fact feel about it (again, like many TV movies) – it’s not flashy or visually indulgent at all. It just gets on with it and I suspect that it is this, as much as the fact that people struggle to take a demonic car seriously, that has continued to see the film widely dismissed by critics. But for me, this is one of the film’s more impressive aspects – it takes what is, by any standards, a fairly ludicrous and potentially laughable story and plays it with a completely straight face, defying you to find it ridiculous. What’s especially impressive is that although the movie works in a lot of unnecessary guff to flesh out the characters (Parent is a single father in a relationship with a local schoolteacher and she is trying to get his kids to accept her; another cop is struggling with alcoholism; a local woman is the victim of domestic abuse) none of this gets in the way of the story. It’s fascinating and impressive that despite the fact that chunks of the film consist of men standing around in a police station looking at wall maps, the film doesn’t feel at all slow or padded. In fact, it’s astonishingly well-paced, moving from incident to incident quickly and never sagging.

The Car is not an overlooked masterpiece by any means. It’s not especially original – as well as lifting its template from Jaws and the concept from Duel, it also arguably riffs on movies like Killdozer (the TV movie about a sentient killer bulldozer that is still held in a lot of affection by people of a certain age). Stephen King’s 1973 short story Trucks – which would later be filmed with varying degrees of fidelity in 1986 (as Maximum Overdrive) and 1997 as a TV movie – was also a potential influence; King’s work was already being snapped up by film producers when this movie was shot so it’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that writers Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Lane Slate were aware of it. And stories of evil cars and other vehicles were not exactly unknown in comic books and pulp fiction. In short, no one should claim that this was a dramatically original idea – but then, what in horror is?

Nevertheless, this is a fine example of no-nonsense, thoroughly entertaining Seventies horror that has held up remarkably well – maybe better now than when it was originally released. In a world of ‘elevated’ horror and filmmakers determined to show how much smarter they are than everyone else, there’s a joy in seeing a movie where everyone just gets on with it and, for the most part, delivers the goods. The film has proven to be popular enough to warrant a 2019 sequel – The Car: Road to Revenge – that no one seems to have seen.



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