Something is hurtling along the desert highways of New Mexico, something big and deadly. Two cyclists are racing each other for fun when a huge car, its horn blaring, looms up behind them, squashes one cyclist against a wall and knocks the other off a high bridge, killing both. Later that day, a young man is hitchhiking when the same car appears and nearly runs him over; when he responds with a shouted insult, the car reverses and runs him over for real - another victim of the murderous automobile. Local cop Wade Parent (James Brolin) is just waking up, with no idea of the danger the day will hold as the car tightens its grip of terror on the community...
Opening with a quote from Anton La Vey, and scripted by Michael Butler, Dennis Shryack and Lane Slate, The Car looks like what someone would have come up with after seeing the success of Duel and Jaws, and combined the two, with a spot of The Omen added in for good measure. The result plays as if it were a Stephen King story that had been adapted, and indeed King wrote a killer car tale of his own later on. The horror of the killer vehicle is contrasted, in the King manner, with the trials and tribulations of plain old ordinary folks, some serious, like the wife-beating subplot, and some more light hearted, like the preparations for the town's parade.
Wade is a typical King hero, a reliable, divorced single parent who has a successful romance with schoolteacher Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) which he wants to go further. His two daughters are taught by Lauren, so all is going well until the car shows up and commences mowing down various luckless pedestrians - but who's driving? When the sheriff is killed, one of the witnesses notes that there was no driver inside, and another cop, secret alcoholic Luke (Ronny Cox) lets his superstitious nature get the better of him when he voices his opinion that the car is possessed by, yes, the Devil himself.
The car was handsomely designed by George Barris, and is a hulking brute of a thing, with massive bumpers, headlights like balefully staring eyes, and the tremendous presence of a juggernaut. Oh, and no door handles, which makes you wonder how the Devil got in? The proof of its satanic origin comes when it interrupts the parade reheasal, announcing its entrance with an off-camera wind machine, so the kids and organisers take refuge in the consecrated ground of the cemetery. The car tries to follow them in, but can't, and angrily growls its engine outside the gates. The vehicle doesn't only run people over, either: at one point it sneaks into Wade's house and tries to poison him with exhaust fumes.
Proof that you can get away with plenty of plot absurdities if you explain them away with the supernatural, the film nevertheless contains good sequences if you can suspend your disbelief. Never mind about why the Devil would waste time bumping off small town folk in a customised sedan when he could be blowing up a nuclear power station or whatever, just enjoy the dusty chases, which see the car spectacularly evade capture, at one point flying over the roofs of two police cars, destroying them in the process. And there's an unexpectedly callous development two thirds of the way through, which adds gravity to the drama, even if it is ridiculous. Single-minded it may be, but The Car is effective enough within its limitations, and the monolithic villain is its best asset, with its parping horn indicating that it would rather you didn't get out of its road. Music by Leonard Rosenman.