Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Kieran Fisher and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s.
One of the oddly accepted aspects of human existence is the reality that each year sees over one million people killed in traffic incidents worldwide. Cars are essentially weapons in the wrong hands, and legitimate accidents aside, wrong in this case means anything from incompetent to intoxicated to flat-out malicious. All of those options are dangerous, but none more so than the driver who gets behind the wheel intent on causing harm. Thankfully, they’re mostly present in the realm of fiction, and perhaps surprisingly, one of the better examples out there is a television movie from the late 70s with the far from subtle title, Death Car on the Freeway (1979) which absolutely 100% influenced a certain Quentin Tarantino movie.
When: September 25, 1979
Everyone’s hurrying somewhere in Los Angeles, but one young actor late for a Barnaby Jones audition is about to find something more pressing. A blue van blasting fiddle music takes aim on her small car, and after several tense minutes of chase and smash he leaves her tipped precariously from a freeway overpass. She’s not the first and won’t be the last, but it takes another young woman to distinguish a pattern. Jan (Shelley Hack) is a reporter struggling to make her mark, but while everyone thinks she’s full of it she goes on to find more evidence proving that a van-driving serial killer is stalking the city’s streets. The more she reports about it, though, the more attention she gets — and soon the killer himself is turning the wheel in her direction.
There’s a lot to love in Death Car on the Freeway, and the most immediate and visceral is the direction of legendary stuntman turned filmmaker, Hal Needham. He followed the one-two punch of Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Hooper (1978), both big hits, with this television flick, and if you’re wondering why my gut says it’s because his 1979 theatrical effort (The Villain) was a big fat bomb earlier in the year. Whatever the reason, though, the result is a TV movie that delivers suspense, fantastic vehicular action, and plenty of explosions.
Needham captures the action through copious helicopter-shot footage and matches it all really damn well to the drama down below as he cuts between the different angles and interiors. Much of it plays out amidst busy traffic making for some thrilling, nerve-wracking slams, side-swipes, and crashes. And this being the 70s, you never quite know when a car is going to explode whether it be on impact or while sailing untouched through the air.
While the action and terror are the flashy highlights, William Wood‘s script is equally deserving of praise. It predicts the road rage phenomenon by suggesting that the killer is initially acting out only after other drivers cross him in traffic by honking, cutting him off, or gesturing rudely. Wood shifts that smartly into society’s tendency toward victim-blaming and actually has both a psychiatrist and the police chief (Peter Graves) suggest as much — the cop even blames the victims directly stating that between them they have numerous traffic violations over the past few years. As the victims are all women, dubbed “reasonably attractive” by one observer, it becomes clear that the killer is purposefully targeting female drivers only, and it’s Jan who redirects the blame away from them.
The Fiddler, as he becomes known and which is not at all hilarious, is never glimpsed — a nod to Duel (1971) perhaps? — and we only ever see his POV and his gloved hands gripping the steering wheel or popping in an 8-track cassette to blare some country music. He’s clearly crazy, as evident by the shot of him so angered by a TV news report that he spray paints the screen, and as Jan investigates she gets closer to a profile that sounds eerily like today’s incel weirdos.
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) obviously has its own thing going on, but its Stuntman Mike is really just a flashier take on The Fiddler. Both are angry men who target young, attractive women on the road, and both fetishize their vehicles to the point of using them as phallic weapons ramming their victims to death. Death Car on the Freeway actually sees its protagonist question that impulse as Jan takes automakers to task for marketing cars with aggressive terminology, but it balances that suggestion with gear-heads sharing their love of cars while distancing themselves from the sketchier guys among their ranks.
If all of that’s not enough to make you want to watch Death Car on the Freeway, there’s also a reporter named Ace who says “This is Ace Durham on the Ventura freeway” which means this flick inspired both Death Proof and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)! George Hamilton co-stars as Jan’s ex who continually dismisses her aspirations and instead suggests jumping into the jacuzzi and heating up the waterbed, Frank Gorshin is Jan’s handsy boss at the news channel, and Jan even takes a defensive driving class from Hal Needham himself. Toss in Sid Haig, Dinah Shore, Abe Vigoda, Morgan Brittany, commentary on the perils of sexism, and more, and you have a terrifically satisfying slice of TV terror that could have only been birthed in the 70s.
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