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Hipster Holy Grail: Death Car on the Freeway (1979)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Death Car on the Freeway is a made-for-TV movie that claims to be about a psychotic driver who stalks women on the freeway and murders them by ramming into them with his enormous van.  And while that's certainly how it begins and ends, it's mostly actually about a young woman's struggle to be a professional, self-sufficient journalist in an industry dominated by condescending men.  Either of these plots by themselves would make for an entertaining little movie, but smushed together it just feels like a slog.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5 (AGM)

The Plot Summary

The film opens on the freeway, where a young woman tries to change lanes and ends up cutting off a van.  The van driver is never seen, but he goes into a violent rage and tries to run her off the road, almost killing her.

The woman reports it to the police and learns that her encounter is one of many in a recent spree of aggressive driving incidents on the freeway.  Some reporters are happy to share her story with the world, but the police are less than thrilled.  Lieutenant Haller (Peter Graves), the officer in charge of investigating the spate of violence, doesn't seem to be taking it too seriously.  He basically dismisses it by telling people - especially women - that they just need to be better drivers so as not to piss other people off.

This inspires an up-and-coming reporter, Jan Claussen (Shelley Hack), to turn the tragedy into an opportunity.  She starts an ongoing investigative piece on the incidents, which eventually takes her to an interview with another survivor of an attack, Mrs. Sheel.  Sheel remembers two important pieces of information about the attack: the driver who attacked her was also driving a van, and he was playing really loud bluegrass music when he tried to run her off the road.  This quirk ends up earning him the nickname "The Freeway Fiddler."

As Jan keeps digging, she keeps finding that the Fiddler comes up again and again.  She shares this information in her reports and creates something of a low-level sensation out of the Fiddler's exploits.  Unfortunately for her, Haller doesn't seem to think there's anything to it, so he doesn't bother to push for any serious investigation.  Worse, Jan's boss is annoyed with her and doesn't seem to take her work very seriously, either.

But she perseveres and makes a splash in the ratings with her series.  At one point she enrolls in a defensive driving class in order to learn some better techniques to use on the road, ostensibly so her lessons can be filmed and used as a piece to run with the rest of her reports.  But as it turns out, this is basically just a plot device so we're not surprised when she knows how to pull off tricky maneuvers later.

In between her investigations there are a couple more Fiddler sequences where you see the van strike down another victim.  Most of the movie, however, follows her struggles with her sexist boss and her overbearing boyfriend who insists that she owes all of her success to him.

...and eventually the Fiddler tries to ram her off the road, but Jan uses her new skills to dodge him and his van blows up. The End.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I'll get this out of the way up front: this is a tedious movie.  There's a lot of down time where not much is happening or things are happening slowly.  Investigative journalism sounds like it should be exciting, but if this movie is any indication, it basically boils down to asking the same questions to a bunch of different people.  In a word: monotonous.

This is one of those movies that you have a hard time remembering immediately after you've seen it because everything just blends together.  It feels like there's a clear beginning and a clear end, but everything in between can be rearranged randomly and you'd have the same movie.

The problem is that there are two compelling threads here, but they're trying to go in totally separate directions.  You have a good horror / thriller premise - a deranged lunatic tries to kill innocent women with his van - and a good character study / dramatic premise - a young woman fights against the patriarchy of her industry.  But you can't be true to your intentions of making an argument for gender equality if you fill your movie with violence against women, but you can't be all that exciting if you keep cutting to footage of your protagonist taking notes and feeling depressed by her job.  It just doesn't work.

There's a smattering of enjoyable stuff.  Most of the scenes on the freeway are kind of fun even if the action isn't shot all that well.  You get a few decent explosions here or there when the Fiddler strikes.  And there's a repeated musical cue that is never not funny where you'll see a woman talking in the foreground, and then the camera zooms in a little until you see a van loom ominously behind her, and the soundtrack goes, "Duhn-DUHN!" as if the van is sentient and was listening to them the whole time.

The rest of it is sadly drab and lifeless.  Although I have to admit, I did appreciate that they tried to do something to draw attention to the treatment of women.  That ended up being one of the only good points, and I think I'll need to go on some kind of tangent to explain why.

The Part About Misogyny

It was apt timing that I watched this movie when I did.  I was fresh on the heels of yet another pain in the ass Internet diatribe from a Male Rights Activist who was interrupting an otherwise interesting message board thread with his inability to not be a piece of shit and needing to voice that in some capacity.

Wait, wait, I'm sorry, I'm being too dismissive.  I need to be a little more open to other people's opinions, even if those opinions are coming from spineless wonders who spend more time crying about their uselessness than they do giving the world a reason not to shove them all in a landfill and set it on fire.

Crap, sorry, I'm losing focus again.  It's just hard to treat the MRA philosophy as anything other than a vacuous pit of excrement.  You ever hear a multi-millionaire whine to a groundskeeper about how hard life is for the rich?  No?  That's because most multi-millionaires aren't blithering idiots who waste everyone's fucking time with 200 proof bullshit juice.

Let me start over.

We've got a serious problem on our hands.  There's a ton of men out there who somehow have it in their heads that even though life is pretty fucking sweet if you're a dude (man, is it ever), they've got it rough.  You see, once in awhile somebody with a valid complaint about a legitimate social injustice - like, say, an underpaid woman - will give voice to their frustration.  And then one of these Droopy Dog MRA motherfuckers hears that and goes, "Aw, man, you just ruined my day by complaining."  So they get upset about it and try to somehow 180 the whole situation by creating this fictional world where they're the wronged party, like a kid with Narcissistic Personality Disorder ruining his sister's wedding.

And then whenever anybody else (like me, for example) calls them out on their bullshit, they get huffy and invent phrases like "Social Justice Warrior" and "PC Police" and act like we're also ruining their lives.  As if calling somebody out on being a massive fucking shithead means that you can't possibly also have a sense of humor or believe in freedom of speech.  And now suddenly you find yourself drawn into an argument with somebody who's really angry about his "freedoms" and who insists you're part of a conspiracy against him and trying to silence his anger.  And all of this vitriol and blather and hatred completely ignores the original point, which is that it's hard for women to do virtually anything because there's a lot of subtle and accepted sexism wherever you go.

So basically, Male Rights Activists are the human equivalent of warts on a turd.  You don't really argue with them, you just try to pretend you didn't see them so you can make it through the end of your day without vomiting.

Now, then.  Death Car on the Freeway.  It's an extremely dull movie, but I did appreciate that it presented a concise cross-section of the ways that misogyny can pervade a woman's life.

The most obvious is the antagonist who drives the titular death car van.  He is driven into psychotic rages specifically by women for no real good reason.  So, that's a pretty cut and dry representation of violence.  Then you have Lieutenant Haller, who represents the overwhelming apathy that most men have toward said violence - he shrugs off the entire thing and even goes so far as to blame the victims for getting themselves into trouble.

But then the movie goes and turns Jan's boyfriend into a douchebag, too, and that's an interesting take on it.  Jan's boyfriend is the Nice Guy misogynist.  He reminds her how much he's done to make her life better and insists that he's on her side that he's there to support her - and then he's aghast when she refuses his advances or doesn't want to simply submit herself to being his trophy wife/girlfriend.

It's a nifty little hat trick that the movie pulls off: the violent, the apathetic, and the horribly misguided.  But it does so with a good degree of subtlety.  It doesn't come out and shout, "This is how badly women are treated in America."  Instead it just gently suggests that maybe women don't want to be run over, and maybe people should pay attention when they are.

If the movie played with that idea a little more, this could have been a really terrific satire.  That earns it an Almost Good Movie.  You know what that means: it's time for a remake.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

There's two layers at play here.  One is the goofball good-bad layer of cheese, which you kinda expect since it's both a made-for-TV movie and since it came from the same production team that brought us City Killer.  Unfortunately, unlike City Killer, its nonsense is mostly believable and never attains the same laughable depths.  So, there's only a few points for irony.

The other layer is the level of social commentary.  Death Car on the Freeway is a film that remains relevant today only because men continue to be extremely shitty toward women.  It taps into the disgusting pulse of mainstream misogyny that continues to beat even in the 21st century, and when you realize a movie from nearly 40 years ago is saying virtually the exact same thing about it that we would say now, you really start to cringe.

From a hipster point of view, though, that's golden.  You can watch this and be like, "Oh, what's that? You just released some independent documentary about how women are mistreated in Hollywood?  That's nice.  I saw this movie from 1979 that talks about the same thing.  Looks like I won this contest, huh?"

It's kind of a technicality, but it counts.  So I'll award Death Car on the Freeway a whopping 50 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

Death Car on the Freeway is floating around on various streaming sites.  I watched it on Youtube, but if that link goes down, just Google it.  It's out there.

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