Last year, I had the privilege of visiting the North Hollywood shop of custom car builder George Barris. Barris created the ‘60’s Batmobile, the Munsters coach, the jalopy from the Beverly Hillbillies, and many other legendary vehicles. He also was very proud of the black Lincoln Continental he created for The Car.
For many years, The Car was a long forgotten horror film from the ‘70’s that was roasted by the critics, and it quickly came and went in the theaters. But many fans like myself grew up enjoying it on television, and Guillermo Del Toro is known to drive a replica of the Lincoln from the film. When Del Toro produced last year’s Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode, he even had The Car chasing down Millhouse in the opening couch gag (driven by Maggie, natch).
John Landis saw The Car when it first came out in 1977, and in an episode of Trailers From Hell, he said, “This is a picture that is truly dumb, and I really enjoy it, but I enjoy it because I think it’s bad…I enjoyed it tremendously in the theater. Some people quite like it. It’s well photographed by Gerald Hirschfeld in Panavision.” (Hirschfeld was also the cinematographer for Young Frankenstein.) Ultimately Landis concluded, “The Car…dumb, but fun.”
The seventies were a big time for rip-off films. There were tons of movies that ripped off The Exorcist, Jaws and Star Wars, and The Car was essentially Jaws on wheels. The eponymous sedan is all black, and it’s possessed by something evil because there’s no driver. James Brolin took on the Chief Brody role as a sheriff in New Mexico, looking like Burt Reynolds when he was at his sex symbol peak, and had to destroy the car before it claimed too many victims. Classic B-movie stuff.
Screenwriter Michael Butler came up with the idea when Jaws was all the rage at America’s theaters. One day in his study he thought, Why not do a movie that treats and automobile the way Jaws treats a great white shark? Butler called his writing partner, Dennis Shryack, who loved the idea, but he had an ethical problem with it because he didn’t want to make a movie that showed people how to kill other human beings with their car. Butler and Shryack discussed their idea with their agent, and the moral quandary they had with the story. Then their agent gave them a great idea: “Why does there have to be a driver in the car?”
"The requirement was to do a land version of Jaws."
Butler and Shryack tossed ideas back and forth, and Butler wrote a draft in four days. After some tweaks and several weeks of revisions, the script went out and it sold in 48 hours. Rumor has it The Car was one of the biggest spec script sales of the time, and while Butler couldn’t confirm this, he did say, “It was certainly more money, cumulatively, in one fell swoop, then I had ever made in my entire life.”
Butler and Shryack were surprised it had a big sale, and they thought it would wind up with somebody like Roger Corman, the famed B-movie producer. Yet Universal, the home of Jaws, apparently wanted a similar movie to Jaws in development, much like Alien quickly got the green light at Fox after Star Wars was released.
The Car was directed by Elliott Silverstein, who helmed Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse. Silverstein also directed several episodes of The Twilight Zone, but he admits The Car was not his type of film. “It was not the kind of movie I usually would have chosen, but if offered me the opportunity to try something I hadn’t tried before,” he says. “The requirement was to do a land version of Jaws,” he continues. “I had some difficulty with those instructions, because Jaws was the story of a shark in its own dark world that human beings were invading. My instructions were to do a version where the shark, aka The Car, is in our world, and not in a dark, ominous setting, but in the bright, sunlit setting of the desert. That gave me difficulties in establishing a mood and an atmosphere.”
In the script, much like the shark in Jaws, you barely saw the car, and if Butler was able to pick what kind of car the devil would drive, he would have chosen a ’53 Mercury in gray and rust colored primer. “It would be really beat-up and dirty,” Butler says. “Pieces of chrome missing, rust protruding through the grey primer.”
George Barris picked a 1971 Lincoln Continental, and as Silverstein recalled, “I worked with George in laying out the requirements of the car. I wanted it look like a full back, narrow windows where you couldn’t see in, and an ominous look. Black seemed to be the color. The decision as to what the chassis and the body would be, that was George Barris’s in order to fulfill the requirements I laid out for him. It was very, very heavy, it had to be to carry all the supporting steel.”
The car could certainly go fast, speed wasn’t a problem, but the weight of the car made some stunts difficult.
While much of the plot and dialog in The Car is pretty silly, there are some terrific moments in it, like the opening scene, where two bicyclists are rammed off a high bridge, which was reportedly the highest free fall stunt of its time. There’s also a scene where the car hides in the dark, then flies through the window of a house, running over a woman in her kitchen.
The car could certainly go fast, speed wasn’t a problem, but the weight of the car made some stunts difficult. As cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld recalled, “In one scene, the car was supposed to flip, and they had an air cannon inside it. There was a three foot piece of telephone pole, ten or twelve inches in diameter, and three feet long.” When the car was supposed to flip, the stunt crew would discharge the air cannon, and the force of the wood going into the ground would make the car flip.”
In another scene, the car flips into the air, then wipes out a bunch of police cars when it lands. This was done with a ram jet, and it was laid horizontally across tracks. “That came from a nightmare I had where a car rolled down the corridor of the place I was living,” Silverstein says. “The timing had to be exquisite. The ram would set the car barreling down the track, and designed it to hit the sheriff’s cars on the hoods.” One time the ram jet went off accidentally, and the car flew right over Silverstein’s head. “I was convinced that car may have had a vengeance for me!”
The Car was released on May 13, 1977. It received scathing reviews, and it didn’t last long in a summer dominated by Star Wars. But again, it developed a fanbase from television, and it also finally became available on VHS and DVD in the late nineties through Anchor Bay once there was finally some demand for it.
Michael Butler says, “The fact that this movie has acquired a cult following of some magnitude, a following that includes at least one of my sons, is just wonderful. From my point of view, I’m not sure that it’s been earned, but I’m really glad that the thing has legs. That’s nice.” Silverstein is also surprised The Car is still remembered after all this time, telling us, “I suppose I’m more or less pleased it’s had some continuing value.”
And with so many great horror movies being remade into crap, The Car could be an infinitely better movie today. “There was a rumor in 2012 that somebody at Universal was going to do something with it,” Butler says. “They didn’t want to call it a remake, they didn’t want to call it a sequel, but they wanted to buy our rights because they wanted to do something with it. But we had some conversations with some very smart producers who wanted to do something with it. You could turn it into a comedy.”