31 Days to Scare ~ Drive-In Double Feature: The Car (1977) & The Hearse (1980)

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Each year when I set out to do this series I make an effort not to repeat myself within these 31 days.  It’s difficult when there are so many worthy titles to choose from and a number of quality studios that produced a wealth of films that are waiting to be watched.  Still, once I’ve done a vampire flick I attempt to keep it firmly crossed off my list, but if I find myself in the company of another movie with fangs that I just have to include, I’ll allow it only if it has an interesting angle I can work with.

What I like more than anything is to do a deep dive into the movies that are rarely resurrected year over year and dust them off for a new audience.  I know everyone has their Halloween favorites and you can still have your night-of watch list ready to go but there’s always room to expand your horror horizons beyond your comfort-zone neighborhood Michael Myers is stalking.  Now, often there’s a reason these films gather dust and are only available to watch via YouTube or pricey BluRays released via boutique labels.  Either they were never good to begin with or time hasn’t been kind to them, rendering whatever scares they held in their initial release null and void.  Still, it’s these titles that prove fascinating to watch and think about what viewers must have felt sitting in a theater (or a drive-in) watching these quirky wonders unspool in front of them.

Today I’m giving you what I’m calling a Drive-In Double Feature and the title serves two purposes.  The first is that I can imagine both of these schlocky titles on a neon-lit marquee at a rural drive-in during their first run and the second is that both are vehicle themed…so it’s a way I can get around the whole “not repeating myself” business and feeling not an ounce of shame.  So put your car in park and sit back for today’s 31 Days to Scare Double Feature: 1977’s The Car and 1980’s The Hearse.

 

The Car

The Facts:
Synopsis: A powerful, seemingly possessed car terrorizes a small desert town, and the local sheriff may be the only one who can stop it.
Stars: James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, John Marley, R.G. Armstrong, John Rubinstein, Elizabeth Thompson
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Rated: PG
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Two years after their release of JAWS changed the landscape for movies forever, Universal Studios was, like every other studio in Hollywood, doing their best to find a similar property to scare the bejeebus out of audiences.  With production on JAWS 2 not quite ready and soon to be headed for major waves and a number of other projects failing to achieve true liftoff, there was little reason for Universal not to gamble on giving the greenlight to a film that must have sounded totally bonkers on paper.  A mysterious black car arrives out of nowhere in a nothing Utah town and starts terrorizing the townspeople with no apparent rhyme or reason.  The only people that can stop it include a sheriff, a gruff drunk everyone in town avoids, and an idealistic deputy struggling with addiction that believes in a higher power.  Does this set-up sound at all familiar?  Is it any wonder Universal was tempted to bite?

Yes, of course The Car is a blatant rip off of JAWS like a number of lesser-than imitators were at that time and, like those swiftly made efforts, it follows it’s muse so closely that it fails to come up with many unique ideas of its own.  However, unlike its copycat brethren, The Car manages to be incredibly silly yet take itself seriously and not come off like it isn’t in on some kind of joke.  It’s entertaining as all get-out and while it’s too long by a solid 15 minutes I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have several impressively staged action sequences and one truly fall out of your chair shock with mouth agape.  I had set myself up to be slightly amused by people running away in fear of a mean ‘ole car but found myself feeling rather invested in it all, even when it teeters into mysticism and religious tropes that feel out of its grasp.

Fans of The Shining will note from the start the use of Dies Irae throughout the film, especially in its ominous opening credits.  That music is so tied to that 1980 Stanley Kubrick film you’ll need to remind yourself The Car came out three years before.  It does set a mood from the beginning, though, as director Elliot Silverstein stages the first attack on two young bikers on a picturesque canyon route.  Filming from the car’s POV and accompanied by Leonard Rosenman’s stinging score, this opening is incredibly effective and led me to believe The Car would be more than it’s silly premise would have had me believe.  Unfortunately, these opening moments are about as intentionally serious as the film is going to get.

From there, we meet Sheriff Wade Parent (James Brolin, The 33) a second-generation lawman and single dad trying to keep his relationship with school teacher Lauren (a plucky Kathleen Lloyd) a secret from his two young daughters (played by real life sisters Kim and Kyle Richards, the latter of which would appear in Halloween the next year).  The relationship drama takes a backseat when the car takes out a drifter and then targets a crowded event which is the source of an extended bit of mayhem which tips us off there’s more to this car than meets the eye.  The more the town tries to predict the next move the car will make, the less predictable it becomes and the greater its attacks feel personal against the people out to stop it.

I genuinely liked the majority of the characters that drift through the film and even the car itself finds a way to display some kind of personality.  There’s a certified menace to the black beast that shows up when people least expect it when everyone isn’t busy trying to make it so much like the shark in JAWS.  Watch for a shot where the car is running parallel to a dune and you can just barely see it’s top fender…looks an awful lot like a fin skimming the surface of the water.  Brolin has just the right attitude for the role and doesn’t seem to be irked that he’s often upstaged by the car, though his scenes with Lloyd are a bit on the goofy end of things.  Their opening intro felt like the first scene of a discarded Neil Simon play.

How much terror one can derive from a big black car that you can see often see coming from a great distance thanks to the dust-up on the Utah plains is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.  Still, a small part of you will have to admit that when all the elements combine to firer on all cylinders it works better than you’d expect.  My hopes were raised by those opening moments so be forewarned that while it’s not totally downhill from there, it decreases in excitement (save for that one big unexpected turn of events ¾ of the way through) after the car claims its first victims.


The Hearse


The Facts
:
Synopsis: A schoolteacher moves into her deceased aunt’s home in a small town, only to find herself plagued by supernatural occurrences and unexplained hostility from the local townspeople connected to her aunt’s past.
Stars: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Perry Lang, Donald Hotton, Med Flory, Donald Petrie, Christopher McDonald
Director: George Bowers
Rated: PG
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Horror movies can truly be feast or famine not just for viewers but for actors as well.  Take the star of The Hearse, Trish Van Devere.  In 1980, Van Devere appeared in two theatrically released films, both in the horror genre.  The first, The Changeling, was released in March and has gone on to haunt many a Top 10 list of creepiest and scariest films of all time.  I certainly have a high regard for that film and recommend it strongly to you this Halloween season.  Not three months later, Van Devere would have a leading role in The Hearse, but the lasting impact of this one would not be as comparable.  To go from classic to crap in short order is unfortunate but it’s not all Van Devere’s fault.

Divorced San Francisco teacher Jane Hardy (Van Devere) has chosen to spend the summer out of town (where is never truly specified), fixing up her aunt’s old house that was left to her by her mother.  Arriving in the town of Blackford late at night with apparently no solid notice of her pending arrival, the growly probate lawyer (Joseph Cotton) isn’t happy to see her…foreshadowing the attitude of everyone she’ll meet in town.  There’s also the case of the mysterious hearse and its disfigured driver that nearly t-boned her as she entered the town and seems to be following her as the days go on.

As she settles into her aunt’s house, she ignores some pretty major signs that all is not well in the dwelling and not just the, let’s just say what it is, ugly décor.  Blackford also appears to be a hub for creeps, the sheriff is a leering goon and the otherwise benign pastor has a ghastly laugh that will either send chills up your spine or have you bursting out laughing right back.  Befriended by a love-struck teen (Perry Lang) who mostly likes her but also wants to impress his horndog friends (including a young Christopher McDonald from Grease 2), Jane instead falls for the biggest weirdo of them all, Tom (David Gautreaux). Appearing out of nowhere and playing a character with an air of mystery that’s so obvious you want to reach in and shake Jane to open her eyes and see what’s going on in front of her, their courtship is scarier than a number of the jump frights staged by Bowers.

One of the pieces of the puzzle here I never could quite get over was Jane’s ties to the house.  She never lived there and it doesn’t sound like she visited it.  It’s not one of those classic movie houses that someone inherits where you feel like they were given a real gift…this place looks like something you’d bulldoze and start over again.  Overall, Jane is just one of those characters that’s self-reliant just long enough for her to go out on her own and then she suddenly becomes too timid to do anything more than run out of her house anytime she sees something that frightens her.  In addition, after she finds a diary she starts to read it aloud to herself.  I never understand that in movies – why they do that.  Who are they reading to?

The movie is just very dumb and despite a few interesting jumps, is a yawner of the first-degree.  Its slow-pace and lack of a strong leading lady also adds to the drag.  You can tell Van Devere is trying but lack of budget or a decent script holds her back from making anything happen with the piece.  Why the script has her experiencing these horrific visions and being terrorized nightly only to return to the very scene of the crime as if nothing happened is the film’s biggest mystery.  I have a hunch that had this gotten a rewrite from a writer more in tune with crime fiction or with lengthy experience in constructing suspense, this may have been passable.

Produced and released by Crown International Pictures, which was known for their inexpensive films that catered to crowds of the teenage boy variety, The Hearse is a bit of a more adult departure for them, which is likely a problem at the outset.  A PG rated horror film with little in the way of blood and no gore or nudity was a gamble considering the market was being flooded with Halloween knock-offs and the original Friday the 13th had debuted a month before The Hearse drove into theaters.  Even if the script from William Bleich had a bit much punch and less paunch, director George Bowers would have faced an uphill climb to sell his feature on mood alone.  You’re never truly happy to see a hearse drive by but you’ll especially want to avoid The Hearse if it appears as an option in your queue.