Saturday, November 18, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Car


If there’s one exploitation sub-genre that’s been consistently under-represented on the Winter of Discontent, it’s carsploitation. ‘Rolling Vengeance’, back in 2011, was the last time any automotive armageddon rolled through these pages. That season also featured ‘Rubber’, but whether a killer tyre movie with art-house pretensions counts as an entry in the carsploitation cycle is a semantic debate that I’m not ready to have with myself.

Not when I can give over the next couple of reviews to all things motor-revving, tyre-squealing and metal-rending, anyway. Starting this very evening with perhaps the most vanilla film ever to find itself invited to the Winter of Discontent backstage party: Elliot Silverstein’s ‘The Car’. This 12-rated DVD ended up in my collection on account of it going for a song in an HMV sale and my recollection of watching it on TV as kid and enjoying it.

Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since I watched ‘The Car’ on TV as kid. Enough to wash the fucking bridge away. ‘The Car’ is frankly a pile of wank. But, hey, it’s carsploitation and several hundred words taking the piss out of it helps make the numbers up for this year’s Winter of Discontent.


The Agitation of the Mind: work-to-rule since two hours ago.

‘The Car’ starts with a static shot of a mountain range and a long dusty road that quite fancies itself as a bit John Ford. Two minutes’ worth of credits play out over this image, after which Silverstein holds on it for another minute and a half as a plume of dust appears in the background and the growl of an engine in the distance becomes a roar as it approaches. Aha, you think: this is the scene setter where the eponymous automobile comes hurtling towards the screen as if hellbent on ram-raiding the fourth wall. But no. Silverstein cuts before the car even takes on any definition, cuts while it’s still in the middle distance, wreathed in dust.

You could almost believe that Silverstein made the decision to cut in order to disorient the viewer, to monkey with their expectations. But then he plays a similar trick throughout the first half an hour (i.e. a third of the movie) and does his utmost best to depict the car in abstract manner. Maybe the intent was to emulate ‘Jaws’ (made two years earlier) and keep the monster undefined/hinted at for as long as possible before reeling it (pardon the pun) onscreen front and centre for the extended finale. Maybe Silverstein and his creative team – you have no idea how much it pained me to type “creative team” – had their doubts as to how scary the car actually was. (Spoiler: not scary at all.) The story is very simple: there’s a sleepy American town …


… where the only thing that stands between the sheriff’s department and a zero percent crime rate statistic is the refusal of Bertha (Doris Dowling) to file a domestic abuse complaint about her asshole husband Amos (R.G. Armstrong, who grunts his way through the film with a pained look in his eyes, no doubt wondering how he could have gone from working for Peckinpah to starring in this pabulum in only a few years). Amos is a hard-drinking mean bastard with a hair-trigger temper so it’s entirely logical that he earns his living as an explosives expert. I mention that for a reason. Plot point, y’all.

The Amos/Bertha thing is particularly galling for Sheriff Everett (John Marley), who’s been kind of sweet on Bertha since high school. As a sub-plot, it’s sunk by the sixteen-year age gap between Marley and Dowling – an age gap exacerbated by Dowling having aged very gracefully and Marley very craggily – and totally redundant since (SPOILER ALERT) Everett is quickly dispatched by the car so that his deputy Wade (James Brolin) can assume hero duties, Brolin being the first billed actor ‘n’ all.


But before we get to Everett’s death and Amos’s night in the cells (just so he can be conveniently on hand when a demolition expert is called for the final act), we have some ennui-inducing padding to contend with. Such as Wade agonising about taking his relationship with school teacher Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) to the next level and whether his two daughters from a previous relationship will accept her. Such as patrolman Luke (Ronny Cox)’s alcohol problem and whether he can keep it together when things get tough moderately perilous. Such as how the script becomes bumblingly racist while trying not to be every time Denson (Eddie Little Sky), a Native American patrolman, is onscreen, kind of like an embarrassing drunken uncle at a wedding who knows he shouldn’t be saying these things and tries desperately not to but … just … can’t … help … it.

Strip away the padding and the essential narrative is: supernatural car turns up in sleepy town and starts killing folk; lawman tries to stop it. ‘The Car’ would have been improved immeasurably by either (i) a minimum 20 minute reduction in running time, or (ii) more vehicular mayhem courtesy of the car. In fact, for a supernatural force that seemingly exists only to run people over, the car spends a lot of the movie basically pissing about. What it’s doing while Luke is agonising about his drink problem or Wade is kept overnight in hospital after a bruising encounter, who knows. Getting an oil change? Chasing rabbits? Fishing?


Some potentially interesting mythology forms around the car – an evil wind that precedes its appearance; the fact that it can’t run anyone over on hallowed ground – but remains half formed. Like so many of the subplots or character beats that the film expends a ludicrous degree of effort establishing, only to completely forget about a couple of scenes later, ideas about the car’s mythology and what (sorry!) drives it are laboriously incorporated but never developed. What the audience is left with is a lot of bad dialogue and not-much-better acting. Believe me, nobody is good in this film, even the three or four cast members who have proved demonstrably better elsewhere.

In fact, it’s probably the car itself that gives the best turn, even though it had every right to complain to its agent that it just wasn’t getting enough screen time.

2 comments:

Francisco Gonzalez said...

I remember watching this one a while back and enjoying it. The horn blaring always made me laugh though. My friends and I kept immitating its sound as we watched it.

Neil Fulwood said...

I might actually do that next time I watch it!