Former stuntman Hal Needham scored two hits out of the gate as a director, because Needham’s buddy Burt Reynolds starred in Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Hooper (1978). Yet Needham’s first picture without Reynolds, the Wild West comedy The Villain (1979), was a dud. Perhaps that’s why Needham downgraded to TV movies before reteaming with Reynolds for the inevitable Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). The first of Needham’s telefilms, Death Car on the Freeway, is as laughably obvious as its title. Pitting an intrepid TV reporter against a psychopath who uses his vehicle to kill people while they’re driving, Death Car on the Freeway is enjoyably vapid made-for-TV dreck, with a parade of familiar actors enacting simplistic scenarios against a backdrop of automotive violence and explosive stunts. Always stronger at choreographing mayhem than guiding performances, Needham suffers for the casting of Charlie’s Angels beauty Shelley Hack in the leading role, because she offers only her usual robotic line readings. Similarly, the story is so formulaic and predictable that there’s never much suspense, except perhaps when Needham steps on the gas to simulate vehicular jeopardy. Still, with its lip service to women’s liberation and its stubborn insistence on showing a car wiping out every 15 minutes or so, Death Car on the Freeway never pretends to be anything but disposable entertainment.
Hack plays Jan Claussen, a Los Angeles newscaster looking for a hot story. She connects two seemingly unrelated incidents and dubs a public menace “The Freeway Fiddler” because survivors recall hearing bluegrass music emanating from his van. (Yes, the film’s title is a misnomer, because the subject is actually a death van on the freeway.) Jan clashes with the usual opponents—an ex-husband (George Hamilton) who doesn’t believe in her potential, a stubborn cop (Peter Graves) who resents that she spotted a crime pattern before he did, and a kindly boss (Frank Gorshin) who can’t protect her from advertisers wary of the anti-automobile stance that Jan takes during editorials. And, yes, you read that right. Somewhere along the line, Jan morphs from a reporter to a public crusader, and she inexplicably determines that car ads linking speed with virility are the reason the Fiddler started attacking people. Better to ignore the plot twists while gawking at the cool chase scenes and the random guest stars. Others appearing in Death Car on the Freeway include Harriet Nelson, Barbara Rush, Dina Shore, Abe Vigoda, and Needham himself, who acts the small role of a defensive-driving instructor.
Death Car on the Freeway: FUNKY