The Unlikeliest JAWS Ripoff: THE CAR

DUEL + JAWS + Brolin's Mustache = THE CAR

Even though I worship at the altar of John Carpenter and have a near-complete collection of Stephen King novels, my favorite killer car movie is NOT Christine. It's the bluntly (hilariously) titled The Car, a 1977 film that Universal will tell you was inspired by Duel, but owes a ton to another Spielberg movie: Jaws. We've all heard the stories about Universal suing folks who made Jaws ripoffs, but this is almost as shameless as anything the Italians ever did - The Car probably would have used some of Spielberg's footage if anyone could have figured out a way to make Massachusetts look like Utah.

Like Jaws, things kick off with our villain, The Car, (largely unseen and sporting a memorable "theme") setting its sights on a pair of lovebird teens, but since this is competing with all the other Jaws knockoffs it has to double down and kill them both. It then kills a couple others, and ruins the town's annual big event. Then it does something that affects the chief personally, and so he and some others head out to stop it once and for all by blowing it up. Sound familiar? It's working from the same template, and the script by Dennis Shryack, Michael Butler and Lane Slate also goes overboard trying to recreate Jaws' feel-good family dynamic and quirky locals. It largely works, though some of the weirdo tangents (like the guy describing the pieces of his French horn) might wear you out before any of the good stuff comes along.

Unlike Jaws, The Car racks up a pretty big body count, including a bit where he kills four cops at once by kamikaze-ing into their cars during a would-be game of chicken, flipping over them (think the big gas truck in Fast & Furious 4, except with the truck killing Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez). Being that this is a '70s movie, their cars blow up instantly, but The Car just keeps driving as if nothing happened. Its ability to ignore the laws of motion and physics also pay off later, during the film's most shocking bit where he kills James Brolin's girlfriend. As the kind, protective woman who is dating our hero and accepted by his daughters (he got a divorce from their mom), she seems just as safe as any of them, but no! The car somehow drives through her home, killing her instantly, and keeps driving through the other side of the house, already back on the road despite not turning (as the scene plays out, it seems that her house is directly in the middle of the road, so it's odd that this sort of thing didn't happen to her more often).

Since this is car month I guess I should talk about the title character a bit; it's a modified 1971 Lincoln Continental, with the adjustments done by George Barris - the same guy who worked on the TV Batmobile, the Munsters' car, Echo-1 and (!) the Wagon Queen Family Truckster from Vacation. Basically, if you want a car that someone will make a model kit (or Lego set) of someday, you call this guy, and while at a glance this isn't as memorable as any of those, by the end of the film's 90 minutes you'll remember it just as well as the Green Goblin truck from Maximum Overdrive. And even if you don't, the aforementioned "theme" will stick in your head: the four-note (it's the Morse code for X) car horn that plays whenever it attacks, drives off after a kill, or just feels bored is something you'll "hum" for days. It may not be seared into the public brain like the Jaws theme, but it's enough to be recognizable instantly, which is why I'm baffled Guillermo didn't use it when he made his Simpsons Treehouse of Horror opening a while back. Maggie is seen driving the car in a parody of the film's opening scene, and even though she honks the damn horn they just used the standard sound from the usual opening as opposed to the custom one from The Car. Huge missed opportunity!

I first saw the film back in 2008 and was a big fan, which helped considerably a few months later when Shock Till You Drop hosted a screening of it at the New Bev and would-be host Ryan Turek had to cancel his hosting appearance, having me take his place. This was actually before I started my own screening series there, so it was the first time I got up in front of the crowd at a place I loved so much. Incidentally, in my own review I said I hoped they would show the film at the Bev someday, so I got my wish and then some (and Universal is usually the best studio for legacy prints, so it looked terrific). This should be my favorite personal anecdote for the film, but it places a close second behind Kiefer Sutherland admitting it was the film that scared him the most when growing up (at the junket for Mirrors, which will never be anyone's answer for this particular question). Having sat in on a lot of junkets for horror movies over the years, whenever an A-lister is asked this question the answers are always the same: The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby or The Shining. It gets pretty boring, to the point where I wonder if they're just going with safe titles rather than give it any thought, so when Kiefer offered up this rather silly movie, you knew it was an honest answer. I loved him for that.

(His co-stars said The Shining, natch.)

I have nothing else to add, but I'll just say "Cat Poo!" so no one yells at me in the comments for not mentioning it.

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