TV Terror Guide: Death Car on the Freeway (1979)
It’s been a while since we’ve had a 70s TV movie with so many familiar faces, although they’re mostly underutilized. Leading the cast is Charlie’s newest angel, Shelley Hack, as aspiring television reporter, Jan. She’s supported by her boss, Frank Gorshin, and her colleague, Barbara Rush. She interviews victims Dinah Shore and Morgan Brittany. She spars with police lieutenant Peter Graves, as well as separated husband, George Hamilton. She also encounters Harriet Nelson and Sid Haig during her investigation. Sadly, she does not encounter hospital patient Abe Vigoda in his one scene.
There’s one more character, though. Her driving instructor, Mr. Blanchard, is played by the director of the film, Hal Needham. Wait, that Hal Needham? Yes, it’s the man who previously gave us Smokey & the Bandit (1977), Hooper (1978), and The Villain (1979) and would subsequently give us Smokey & the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), Megaforce (1982), and Stroker Ace (1983.) That means there are a lot of stunts in Death Car on the Freeway… cars crashing and exploding… things like that. Surprisingly, though, there’s more body on this chassis than his credentials at first indicate.
In fact, for a movie centered around cars (and a particularly pesky van), the movie is oddly anti-car. During her investigation of “the Freeway Fiddler,” a madman who targets single women and runs them off the road into the aforementioned crashes and explosions, Jan accuses automobile manufacturers and advertisers of being complicit in the crimes. She claims they target the sale of the fastest, most powerful cars to men with language that incite violence. In a late-70s climate where women still struggle for independence, this is a threat.
It's an interesting idea, as is the overall women’s lib theme of Death Car on the Freeway. It seems quaint now, but the struggle was real for women like Jan, who fights to emerge from the shadow of a husband that tells her repeatedly she’s not strong enough and she’s too nice to succeed on her own. Ray Jeffries (Hamilton) is particularly dismissive. He doesn’t listen to Jan and can’t accept her desires, to the point of being downright cruel about it. He faces off with her one or two times too many in the movie. If Jan is going to achieve her professional freedom, she needs to move forward with that divorce.
This is all immensely entertaining, and I’m saying that as someone who isn’t a fan of Needham’s output, although I love me some Jackie Gleason repeatedly cursing, “Sumbitch!” The stunts don’t overpower the story and are integrated well into it. Plus, they’re really good… as far as I can tell. Hack is a serviceable lead, although I was reminded that she’s not Farrah Fawcett-Majors (or Cheryl Ladd, for that matter.) Luckily she’s surrounded by that all-star cast, if, of course you count Abe Vigoda.
Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch Death Car on the Freeway as well as all the great movies from this series.