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Black Cadillac
cast: Josh Hammond, Randy Quaid, Shane Johnson, Jason Dohring, and Kiersten Warren

director: John Murlowski

88 minutes (15) 2003 Mosaic VHS rental
Also available to rent on DVD
[released 19 May]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Black Cadillac is a probably the best film so far from director John Murlowski, earlier responsible for such forgettable entries as the Hulk Hogan dud Santa With Muscles (1996). His previous two films Contagion (2001) and Terminal Error (2002) both dealt with different sorts of viruses, being respectively of the biological then computer varieties. Black Cadillac in a way continues this theme, although this time the 'virus' is more ubiquitous: that of fear. It is a neatly done, surprisingly effective road chase movie, the basic premise of which is familiar from as far back as Spielberg's Duel (1971), and probably before: a faceless killer sits behind the wheel of an unstoppable vehicle, and spends most of the film hunting down the heroes in a relentless, tense vendetta. The difference here is that Murlowski swops the sun-bleached roads of Spielberg's celebrated debut for something much more immediately sinister: the freezing, pitch black back woods of Wisconsin.
    Apparently based on true events, Black Cadillac begins ominously, from the viewpoint of an anonymous driver who tours his growling vehicle threateningly towards a roadhouse. Thus the main thrust of the story is set; the Cadillac will be a vengeful, anonymous thing, either prowling for victims or in hot pursuit of them. Anonymity is its strength and, in more senses than one, the plot's motor; as soon as the stalker is humanised and its malevolence explained, tension is dissipated. Fortunately Murlowski postpones any necessary revelations until the end of his film.
   Inside the disreputable roadhouse are three youths: Scott (Shane Johnson), a Yale man, his kid brother C.J. (Josh Hammond) and their friend the less experienced Robby (Jason Dohring). Soon we discover some essential differences between the three. Scott is very handy with his fists, promptly demonstrating this by getting CJ out of a scrape; he is also a womaniser. CJ, his face badly scarred by some previous unspecified incident is more laconic, a loner with his own 'agenda'. He shortly plans to make is own way in the world as a romantic drifter, perhaps by working the Great Lakes. Robby is the most immature of the three, and enjoys his first sexual experience that evening. The three leave the roadhouse, elated after escaping from a commotion triggered by CJ so easily, and speed off into the frozen night. Soon however a pair of headlights appears in the rear mirror, and the terrifying chase begins...
   Along the way they pick up Charlie, an off-duty policeman (an excellently ambiguous performance by Randy Quaid), whom they initially suspect is the object of the Cadillac's attention. Abandoning him by the roadside, he apparently becomes the black car's first victim. "Did it just get darker?" asks a fearful Robby after the shots ring out. Now the three lads are on their own in the chilly forest, suspect that they are to be next as witnesses to the policeman's death, and alternate as they go between bickering, self-reliance, fear and personal revelation. From here on in, as any good film of this sort ought, Murlowski's story strips matters down to the bare essentials: a road game of terror and harsh logic as the two cars, and their occupants, try to out drive and out guess each other, nerves stretched to the limit.
   Occasionally the film lets itself down. Once or twice it re-uses the same stretch of road to speed the cars along, an economy perhaps forced by a tight shooting schedule; at other times while it is obviously cold enough for breath to condense as characters converse, shortly afterwards it is not. But these are only minor distractions. What really matters is the chase and the sense of panic and claustrophobia which builds as the narrative proceeds. By shooting long scenes within Scott's increasingly battered Saab's interior, Murlowski creates an effective ambience of fear growing between the young men, unsure of what they have done. He even adds in a religious element (their pursuer marks 'Your sins will find you out' in the ice on their windscreen as the trio take a short rest in a cafe), suggesting that the wrath that pursues them is of almost biblical proportions. The surrounding gloom of the frozen forest seems to echo the moral quagmire into which they feel they have emerged. As we discover, none are entirely blameless, but who is the cause of their predicament? And what should be done with the transgressor when discovered?
   Such is the success of this middle part of the film that the reason behind the Cadillac's persistent pursuit of the trio, when finally revealed, seems rather mundane. Black as a coffin, and with overtones of divine retribution, the car has been a potent force propelling the action very satisfactorily. When this motor has gone, it is a tribute to the young cast that things do not go badly awry at this point, and that the final confrontation between them and their persecutors has drama remaining to keep proceedings interesting.
   All in all this is a very efficient film, with a skilful, mainly youthful cast who make us forget some of the moral stereotypes involved.
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