Every individual holds a movie as a pivotal moment in their love for cinema, and for me, that moment arrived with The Car, a horror I saw many years after its first release in 1977.
It was a cold winter night, and I was still young and alone in the house when I changed the channel on the TV and found the beginning of this dark fairy tale in Santa Ynez, a small town in the desert of the southern United States, where life flows quietly and peacefully and every day is the same.
The sheriff is secretly courting a pretty local schoolteacher, even if everyone knows it; every day, his Indian-born partner argues with the gruff, racist farrier.
Nevertheless, life goes on, and all the children are happy because of the approaching day of the town parade.
In this rural setting, almost trivial in its simple peace, a black car with no license plates and tinted windows emerges out of nowhere like a demon from the highway tunnel, as if it were spat out directly from the mouth of hell.
There is no way to see who is behind the wheel, hidden behind the dark, thick windows above the hood, where the headlights and radiator almost appear to be the ferocious grin of an animal.
Like a fierce predator, indeed, this four-wheeled animal immediately begins killing anyone who crosses its path for no apparent reason.
The sheriff and his men try in vain to stop and capture it, but it soon becomes clear that this menace is more than a common hit-and-run madman.
Increasingly less numerous and reeling from the ferocity of these murders, the policemen organize a last desperate attempt to stop what appears to be a cruel and invincible enemy.
Few and perfect ideas for a myth recipe
Because I was young and readily influenced, time may have changed my perception, and I admit this without hesitation.
However, I clearly remember feeling a deep sense of dread and wonder when I saw The Car, the atmosphere of which is very close to a masterpiece like Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws, a blockbuster movie that arrived a couple of years before this little 1977 horror flick.
In the same way as Spielberg, director Elliot Silverstein gradually unveils the monster, hiding it in the darkness of the night or in the dense clouds of dust kicked up by tires.
Like a menacing creature, the car aggressively targets and damages first pedestrians and cyclists on the road, as if tasting blood before disappearing into the desert, from where it will return even more thirsty for violence.
After feeling the growing people panic, this mechanical beast strengthens its grasp on the city, inducing fear even in the police, who are powerless to stop it.
Besides the dense, ominous tension ever-present in every second, Silverstein also displays some exceptional filming techniques in the high-speed driving sequences, although perhaps many might find this type of “speed-up editing” obsolete.
The shape of this black killer car is absolutely unforgettable by artist George Barris, a well-known designer of custom vehicles for Hollywood, such as Batman‘s historic first car for the television series.
In this case, Barris made eight identical models (all of which were destroyed during filming) by crossing the chassis of a Lincoln Continental under the body of a Rolls-Royce, to which Silverstein then added a terrible horn resounding as croaky as the evil laughter of a psychopath.
And that’s how, with a few simple but ingenious ideas, here comes one of the myths of cinema.
Never give a driver’s license to the devil
The cast includes familiar faces from those days, such as the excellent James Brolin, with the classic look of the rock-solid American hero, as well as being father to the more well-known Josh Brolin, today much better known to the general public as the relentless Thanos of the Avengers cinematic universe.
As best we could not ask for, the police hero fights the killing machine aboard his motorcycle in the spectacular ending climax sequence with increasing adrenaline and fear, finally free to fight after being unable to do anything throughout the whole rest of the story.
At his side, we recall the beautiful Kathleen Lloyd, a lovely and funny teacher who is quite sweet but also combative, who will be the first to openly challenge the evil invader to protect the children while they are refugees in a cemetery.
Otherwise, the character actors do their dirty work, mainly as cannon fodder on the streets, falling like flies under the attacks of the unstoppable machine.
This is not to say that these characters do not have excellent and varied personalities, such as the cop and secret alcoholic played by Ronny Cox, who is the first to realize the demonic nature of this monster who failed to attack the children at the cemetery, because it was precisely holy ground.
A simple sentence that justifies and gives meaning to the rest of the plot without needing further in-depth explanation because all that really matters is the atmosphere of (not) seeing the devil behind the wheel of an elusive and indestructible car.