Tuesday, March 13, 2012

THE CAR (1977) (shown January, 1994)

     Welcome back! Now that the K.A.C. has been packed away for another year, it's time to continue our nostalgic perusal of films we've shown at Conjure Cinema and the stories behind them. 1994 was ushered in with a bang ... a loud, demonic bang in the form of ... THE CAR!

     Before I talk about the feature, let me tell you why this showing almost put an end to Conjure Cinema! Up to this time, we had been hosting the monthly film parties in our home - I had a home theater set-up in the basement of our house, with the front half of the room containing couches and chairs for people to sit on and the back containing my different equipment and film storage, etc. One of the films I had from the earlier estate sale I had managed was a 16mm print of THE CAR. I remembered this title fondly from it's original theatrical run and announced it on our calendar. About a month before the actual show, I pulled out the print to run it, checking for splices that might need repairing, etc., only to find out it was a CINEMASCOPE print! 

     That alone didn't concern me, as I have run films in all formats and sizes, from the small Super 8mm and 16mm, all the way up to 35mm and the joys that entailed (which I'll chronicle another time) when I served as a projectionist for a local Boston movie theater. No, what concerned me was the print itself ... to explain: Cinemascope films (or Scope, as they're called by projectionists) need a special anamorphic (widescreen) lens to project properly (seen at right - the lens on the left is an anamorphic scope lens vs. a regular lens on the right). A common example today is any DVD you buy which is listed as "widescreen" and has the black bars above and below the picture to approximate the actual film ratio when the feature was shown originally during it's theatrical run, vs. "flat" (aka "pan and scan"), which is the boxy, square dimensions of an old TV set. So, with the proper Scope lens, the picture would come out on my screen in a LONG rectangular shape, similar to the picture above! Sounds simple, right?

     Not quite.

     When I initially ran the first reel of the print, the first problem I saw was the screen was not going to cut it. A 5 foot square diameter screen was NOT going to hold a 12 foot rectangular image, no matter HOW I tried! Now any SANE person would have said, "Hey, gang, tonight only, we're going to watch the film on an old white sheet!" Not me ... I searched around and actually found for sale a portable Scope screen - rectangular, VERY wide, folded, with ultra-sturdy rubber bands on the four corners to anchor it in place. Problem solved? Ummm, no. I ordered the screen, then realized I had nowhere TO anchor it! So then I had to put in four BIG hooks at the various corners, top and bottom, to stretch the screen out and hold it in place. All I kept thinking of as I hung this monstrosity was Andrew Robinson at the beginning of HELLRAISER saying, "Jesus wept", before being flayed alive (image here for the gore hounds in the audience: http://i817.photobucket.com/albums/zz96/Kroolbourne/hell2002b.jpg ).

     Soooo ... uber-stretched Scope screen, check. Anamorphic 16mm lens, check. Scope print of said 16mm film, check. All set to go! What a shame I didn't FULLY watch the film before showing it to my audience - why? Because I would have remembered something I learned the HARD WAY back in college (when I ran a 16mm scope print of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) - namely, SCOPE PRINTS ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO FOCUS !!! You have three choices with a Scope print: you can have a) the center of the picture in focus with the left and right edges out of focus, or b) the edges in focus with the center out of focus, or c) EVERYTHING OUT OF FOCUS, but all in "approximate" focus. Most times in a large auditorium you go with option C. In a small basement theater with the audience no more than 6 - 10 feet from the screen, you go with option D --- stand next to the projector for the ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE FILM and curse for 90+ minutes as you try to find ANYTHING that will stay in focus!

     And that's what I did for fun ... now on to the film itself!  Made in 1977, THE CAR is the coda of the "car chase/road rage" films that were all the rage in the 1970s, which began with VANISHING POINT and continued on to the original GONE IN 60 SECONDS and DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY. It is more properly related to the 1975 Hell on Wheels riot RACE WITH THE DEVIL (see my March 15th, 2010 entry).

     The film opens with the following quote from Anton LaVey, head of the Church of Satan -  "Oh great brothers of the night, who rideth out upon the hot winds of hell, who dwelleth in the Devil's lair; move and appear." Anton was a busy beaver back then, with quotes and/or appearances in this, THE DEVIL'S RAIN, ROSEMARY'S BABY, etc.

     We move on to Santa Ynez, Utah - a sleepy desert town where nothing much happens ... until one day. Out of nowhere arrives THE CAR. It's first victims are two teenagers on mountain bikes, alone on a high bridge with no escape. The Car brutally runs them over, with a demonic shrieking of its horn that sounds for all the world like a hellish laugh.

     The next victim is a hitchhiking drifter (John Rubenstein) who is run over at the town line, in front of the home of local bully/drunkard/explosives expert (how's THAT for a combination?) Amos Clemens (R.G. Armstrong). The police are called out to get Amos' statement and he tells them The Car ran over the hitchhiker FOUR TIMES - twice forward, twice back. Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley) delegates the investigation to his deputy Wade Parent (James Brolin), while he looks after Clement's abused wife Bertha (Doris Dowling), who he had dated in high school. There's so little left of the hitchhiker that the fellows from the ambulance have to get out a shovel ...

     Back in town, Everett has his staff set up roadblocks to catch the killer, to no avail. Wade, a single father with two young daughters, is dating schoolteacher Lauren Humphries (Kathleen Lloyd) and warns her to keep an eye on the school kids until they wrap this case up. That evening, Bertha Clemens is seen in the Sheriff's office, with Everett trying (unsuccessfully) to get her to swear out a complaint for abuse against Amos. Since she refuses to do so, Amos is free to go and stands outside yelling at her to get in the truck and go home, as he's going to stay in town and get drunk. Everett and Wade watch this performance from the door of their office, until Bertha and their son drive off. The Sheriff heads out to confront Amos again, when from the shadows The Car blasts forth, deliberately swerving around Amos (professional courtesy?) and killing Everett.

     The police are in an uproar now, with Wade reluctantly taking over as Sheriff and vowing to bring this beast in. All law enforcement crews are on alert, both in Santa Ynez and surrounding towns, but The Car seems to vanish after every killing! An elderly Navajo woman who witnessed the Sheriff's killing tells them there was "no driver in the car" ...

     The next day at the school, Lauren and her co-worker Margie (Elizabeth Thompson, very reminiscent of Lara Parker in RACE WITH THE DEVIL) are running a practice with the school marching band. Sure enough, a demonic wind springs up, followed by the throaty roar of killer exhaust pipes looking for more victims. Everyone panics and Lauren and Margie get the kids off the parade grounds and into a nearby cemetery. The Car circles the walled-in enclosure, trying to find an opening, stopping at the gate and beginning a deadly cat-and-mouse waiting game, hoping for the kids to panic and try to make a run for safety. Lauren calls the driver out, heaping scorn on him for what a "brave" man he must be to go after litle kids, calling him a "chickenshit" and worse, making The Car start it's infernal horn-blowing, which gets louder and louder - it also attacks the gate of the cemetery, knocking over (but not totally collapsing) the entrance. The sound of approaching police sirens are heard in the distance, and The Car spins out, with the police in hot pursuit. The children cheer over the rescue and Lauren is the Hero of the school ... for now.

     The pursuit goes into high gear on the desert highway, with the police becoming the pursued rather than the pursuers and The Car bringing death and destruction with each encounter, including an INCREDIBLE stunt where two patrol cars are racing side by side to force The Car off the road. Instead, at the last possible moment, The Car goes BROADSIDE across the highway, flipping end over end and crushing both police vehicles. 


     After killing a number of his deputies, The Car has it's first face-off with Wade. Leveling his automatic at it, he gets off a few shots (to no effect), then he proceeds to the side of The Car, where the door opens a crack. As he comes around, the door catches him a brutal blow and knocks him out (why it doesn't kill him as well is anyone's guess .. aside from the fact that we wouldn't have a FILM any more, I mean). Wade gets patched up in the hospital and gets the rest of the bad news: a number of his men killed, The Car still on the loose, plus a call from his daughters telling him about Lauren's cursing out of The Car at the cemetery. Wade calls in his deputy Luke, a recovering alcoholic (Ronny Cox), who was supposed to call and cancel the marching band parade. Luke admits that he was too upset and is back on the sauce, and forgot to call. Wade tells him to get it together and tries to plan their next move.

     Wade wants Lauren to stay at his place and sends her with a deputy to get some things from her home. The deputy swings by his house just to make sure his family is all right before going to Lauren's - she tells him to go back and look in on his folks and come back in half an hour, while she packs her things. As soon as he's gone ... you guessed it. The wind picks up, the lights come on and the horn starts blowing - Lauren calls Wade while looking out her living room picture window, knowing what those sounds mean and telling him how scared she is. Wade screams at her to get out of the house, but it's too late ... the horn gets louder and louder and the the headlights come on full - just as The Car comes plummeting THROUGH the plate glass window and obliterating Lauren. It is going at such a high speed that it continues on through her ENTIRE HOUSE, leaving a gigantic swath of destruction in it's wake! Wade is sickened and in shock, having just heard the death of the woman he loves over the phone.

     At the house, Luke makes the connection that the reason The Car didn't attack everyone in the cemetery is because it is on hallowed ground - and the reason it came after Lauren (and the hitchhiker before her) is that she cursed it! Hey, even Satan has feelings ...

     All thoughts of capturing the Auto of Abominations are put aside; instead Wade and the remaining deputies now decide to fight fire with fire (so to speak). Getting hold of Amos, they load up all the dynamite he has and proceed to set the charges in a canyon in the desert, with the idea of burying The Car under tons on rock. Wade goes into his garage that evening to work on his motorcycle, only to find The Car already there waiting for him. It blocks the door and jams the windows, then revs up the engine, spewing carbon monoxide throughout the garage (yeah, I know, why not just run him over? Once again, NO FILM if you do that!) - Wade bursts through a window, The Car bursts through the door and Wade goes back INTO the garage and gets his bike. Using his police-band radio on the motorcycle, he warns the deputies that he's bringing The Car to them NOW and to have that dynamite ready! Of course, they are nowhere NEAR done, so they tell Wade to somehow get them more time, leading to a chase between motorcycle and ten tons of Detroit's ... er, Hell's finest!

     The chase gets to the box canyon and Wade wipes out - a rope is dropped to him to climb and The Car batters the side of the cliff, trying to knock him off. Seeing that's not going to work, it peels out of the canyon and up the adjoining road, hoping to kill him and the other men on top. Wade and Luke wait at the cliff edge as The Car comes racing headlong at them, throwing themselves apart at the last second. The Car goes careening over the edge of the cliff at full speed, horn howling all the way. Wade screams for the dynamite to let loose and when it does, burying The Car, the driver is at last revealed in all His Infernal rage!

     Santa Ynez is saved, the threat is over ... or IS IT? Over the end credits, we see a familiar "wheels-eye" view of a nameless big city, implying that The Car has moved on to bigger and better hunting grounds!

     After ninety-six minutes of constantly trying to focus this film, I felt like demons had taken over parts of MY body, namely my poor arms and eyesight! :) Knowing I would NEVER put myself through that again under ANY circumstances, I promptly sold the print and banished it from my household, sending it forth to torture some other unsuspecting projectionist. YOU, however, don't have to go through the tortures of Hell to see this cinematic cheese-fest - it's available on a (beautifully in-focus) widescreen DVD release that is well worth your time!

     A couple of final thoughts: when my friend Lynn saw this at Conjure Cinema, she was somewhat unnerved by the sound of the demonic horn ... so I wished her goodnight, knowing she had a long ride home and proceeded to record the sound of the horn, then called her house, letting the answering machine pick up. Sure enough, when she got home, she saw the blinking light and played it back, all the while looking out her picture window ...  :)  Yep, that's the kind of friend I am!

     Last but not least: you would think after this experience I would have washed my hands of any and all things Cinemascope, wouldn't you? Well, yes and no ... I did rid myself of any and all Scope prints and the anamorphic lens, but the "glutton for punishment" side of me read not too long after this incident of a Super 8mm Cinemascope arrangement out of England! How was that even possible, I asked myself, when Super 8 film was already HALF the size of 16mm? I had to know and sent away for the Scope reel and lens - and was promptly sorry I did. Take a good, long look at the picture on your right ... THIS is how a Scope film is shown via the miracle of Super 8 film! Notice anything missing? If you answered a PROJECTOR, you're absolutely right! Unlike in a 16mm projector, where you pop out the regular lens and pop in the anamorphic one, in the crazy world of Super 8, you place the anamorphic lens (on it's separate stand) IN FRONT OF THE REGULAR PROJECTOR !!! Think you're going to be able to focus not one, but TWO lenses at the same time to get anywhere NEAR a clear image ? Think again! When I saw the final result, my heart sank as I sat in the dark ... looking at a fuzzy image and hearing not the soundtrack, but the sound of a fairly sinister automobile horn - which I could swear was laughing at me.

NEXT TIME: We crave an audience with the dreaded Ayesha, "She Who Must Be Obeyed", as we dare part the veil and look upon Hammer Film's 1965 version of H. Rider Haggard's immortal (no pun intended) tale, SHE!

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