When is a killer car movie not a killer car movie? When it’s NIGHTSCAPE, from first-time writer/director David W. Edwards. The ‘sentient homicidal vehicle’ milieu is a small but thriving subgenre, which includes a couple of classics (Steven Spielberg’s DUEL and John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE) and a number of far-from-classics-but-still-a-lot-of-fun (Stephen King’s TRUCKS, Eric Valette’s SUPER HYBRID, Elliot Silverstein’s THE CAR). It’s to this last example, filmed in 1977, that NIGHTSCAPE most closely adheres, but only in terms of its vintage. Edwards does a remarkable job of dating his film, to the extent that those not in the know could easily mistake it for a genuine product of the seventies, an ethos that extends not only to the look and feel of the production, but to its surreal, trippy art house sensibilities.
Kat (Emily Galash), a drifter, finds herself in the company of a down on his luck self-professed ‘driver for hire,’ and a mysterious cowboy on the hunt for a phantom car he believes to be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse...
Anyone hoping for a simple story of a killer car gobbling up hapless hitchhikers will be disappointed by NIGHTSCAPE. I enjoyed the film a lot, and there’s a great deal to recommend it, but it’s also meandering, impenetrable and frequently dull. On the plus side, it’s bursting with good ideas, and is far more philosophically minded than most horror films (even if the rambling redneck/beatnik conversations start to grate after a while). Edwards’ influences are manifold, and he manages to pack in everything from HP Lovecraft to William S. Burroughs, by way of Jack Kerouac, Japanese body horror, early Carpenter and Cronenberg, and Sergio Leone. His evocation of drive-in grindhouse is flawless, and his disturbing visuals (which are just cheap enough to fail to convince, which I’m sure is the point) are the equal of his strange and twisted conceits. The villainous vehicle itself defies description, acting as a portal to another dimension, a demonic infection, an end-time prophesy come to life, and a metaphor for... I’m not entirely sure what.
There’s no way NIGHTSCAPE should work. It’s European art house pretension filtered through a quintessentially American frontier sensibility, as imagined by David Lynch. That it almost works, and in places comes so close to greatness, is testament to Edwards’ skills as a filmmaker. Sadly, NIGHTSCAPE’s many shortcomings, and its ultimate failure, are also Edwards’ responsibility. After a strong start, the narrative soon devolves into procrastination and diversion. There’s no plot to speak of – the story lurches from one oddball set-piece to another, some of them fascinating, some painfully dull. There are flashes of genius on display, and no shortage of compelling ideas, but the absence of cohesion, and the film’s tendency to disappear up its own narrative exhaust pipe, make it a struggle to stick with. It’s a shame, as when it’s good it’s very good indeed.
The ending, or lack thereof, is the final nail in the coffin. Thematically, and in terms of characterisation, the dénouement works, but that doesn’t make it any more satisfying. It feels wrong to criticise a film for being idiosyncratic and different, but sometimes a little convention can be a good thing, and NIGHTSCAPE is simply too offbeat and wilfully contrary to court mass appeal. The premise is sound, Galash gives a fine central performance, and when he chooses to Edwards can bring the chills with the best of them, but his languid pace, meandering narrative, and surreal, often tedious digressions, limit the appeal of what could have been a superior retro creature feature.