Shudder Classics is an ongoing series from 25YL. Our writers have been given free rein to pick a film from the Shudder library that they feel is a classic and tell us why. Join 25Yl horror editor Valerie Thompson as she looks at one of the most devilish evil cars films of all time, The Car.
Since their inception, cars have been the literal vehicles for legends, folklore, and tall tales. Maybe it’s the all too real connection people share with their favorite mode of transportation or maybe it’s the standard obsession with inanimate objects that control daily life—either way—automobiles have become the stuff that dreams (or nightmares) are made of. While many will cite films like Christine or Duel as the mark of motoring horror, consider a cult classic that defies the rules and features one of the most intimidating vehicles around…The Car.
By the ‘70s, road trip horrors were in full force. It was easy to be frightened by the cannibals or serial killers who might make life a living hell as some unsuspecting teens or suburban family tried to take an often predictable jaunt across the country. Of course, the real terror came from the vehicles themselves. Flat tires in the middle of the night, breakdowns in desolate places; this was the inevitable nightmare fuel for those weary travelers.
Unlike the chainsaw-wielding madman, they were also very real possibilities. While people have a chance against similar flesh and blood adversaries, it gets a bit harder to stand up against tons of metal without a mind or heart. It all leads to an inevitable question; What happens when the “madman” is actually a metal monstrosity?
If there is any movie that paints the picture of automotive mayhem, it would be The Car (1977). This cinematic delight serves as a complete package of phobias and doubt set in the guise of a long, sleek Lincoln body. The black tone far from gleaming in the sunlight, instead the matte finish presents a dull surface akin to the expansive western background that highlights most of the film. Deeply tinted windows hide the identity of who (or what) could be behind its murderous inclinations.
The film starts, not with a backstory or origin of the car’s creation, but among utter ambiguity; it doesn’t give away those details because the mystery of what this machine is far outweighs anything shown. This darkly oriented vehicle chooses its moment to appear—at least to viewers—in the moments of a double murder involving two cyclists. It defies reason and gives no clue as to motives or rationale; true mayhem never needs those petty things. All this maniacal vehicle leaves behind is a glaring sound of its earworm-worthy horn—as if taunting the victims who were unlucky enough to be having a good day.
If there is an element of the car that truly stands out, it would be that all too jarring horn. Is it a warning, a mockery, something else? Far removed from the novelty horns that call out some ridiculous set of notes, this means something more; it is a language in of itself being spoken by something sinister. While the notes sound unfamiliar, there is a presence that somehow makes it easy to understand. Much more than that, it is an announcement that this brand of evil has arrived. No escape, no submission, no chance to ignore its presence, the car is speaking to anyone who is unfortunate enough to encounter its devious intentions.
This mechanized creation, much like the typical bully, doesn’t do well in taking what it dishes out to unsuspecting people. As well-meaning Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) stands up to the machine while stranded upon hallow ground, any viewer can see the genuine frustration building in an otherwise inanimate object. As it moves about the boundaries of a secluded cemetery, the sound and fury hiding just under the hood make their presence known. When the teacher escapes, it is hard to dismiss the idea that this vehicle is now holding an otherworldly grudge that will only be satisfied by blood-lust.
The meeting leads to one of the film’s best (and arguably most memorable) scenes involving a showdown between the woman and the machine. As the vivid circular headlights appear through her window, it stands that one or the other are heading for a reckoning. At this point, it should be noted that the geography that makes this whole standoff possible may not be as well thought out. Does the car veer off a curve and use some unseen ramp? If not, how does it accelerate with such force and angle to land in that exact position? Is there a road behind the house that seemingly leads directly to the back door? Maybe it creates roads not already in existence to propel its demonic engine through even impossible situations? In the end, none of this really negates the fact that Lauren is gone, a loser against an opponent that would never stand to be defeated. The bully triumphs, if only for a little while.
If anything, this is more than a vehicle, it is a four-wheeled demon that defies everything a person can know about this world. The car makes its intentions known clearly before the first frames of dusty western atmosphere jump across the screen. This machine is powering itself on pure hell-fired demonic energy; it is the fuel that guides its attempts at controlling everyone and everything in its path.
If there was any doubt of what sits behind the driver seat, the ending itself revels in the visions of an otherworldly beast. Wade (James Brolin) and the other surviving officials successfully end their menace by sheer explosive power. In the resulting flames, the outlines and visions of something from the beyond leave everyone in shock. No doubt, Wade will continue his beliefs as others in the town will whisper about the rumors of what really happened. It’s an inevitable cycle that only acts as another campfire tale.
No one can keep a demonic car down; the end credits are a jolt followed by a jab to the senses. Everyone watching realizes that the possibilities are now endless. It could be reincarnated through the metallic remains of a vehicle sent from the scrap heap. Maybe the devil himself merely brought another one to life on the streets of Los Angeles. Or, another possibility stands to reason that there is more than one car out there—waiting to prey on its victims. For time travel fans, it may just be a prequel of the car’s life before heading out to the confines of desert dwellers. No matter the explanation, the sequence is fuel for the imagination.
If there is one movie that elicits a range of reactions, it would be The Car. From fear to laughter, everyone who sees the film has a very strong opinion about the vehicle from Hell. More than anything, the film transcends every viewer’s expectations. It is a folktale for the ‘70s that deserves to be passed along from generation to generation. Look at it with love, look at it with sheer grimacing, just look at it. After all, what was that light outside of your window? Was that an engine revving? No, it couldn’t be…could it?