A story has hit the news headlines today when a young actress was driving along the freeways of Los Angeles and found herself harrassed by another driver. More than harrassed, in fact, as the large blue-black van he was in tried to run her off the road, leading her to crash her vehicle at the side of the flyover and nearly tumble straight off it to the highway below - she is lucky to be alive, though the authorities appear to think she was exaggerating and this was a simple accident. However, a reporter for television, Jan Claussen (Shelley Hack), has been taking notes, and realises there could be a story in this...
In between his big screen car crash epics stuntman turned director Hal Needham made a small screen car crash epic in the shape of the self-explanatory Death Car on the Freeway which took the premise of Duel, gave it a feminine twist and turned it into a vehicular serial killer flick to be enjoyed by the TV viewers of America, and later the rest of the world. If it was not for those car (or van) escapades this would come across as a curious choice for Needham, as there was a trendy feminist theme running through the plot with our heroine struggling to be heard in a man's world and the murderer becoming emblematic of the wider issues women had to face in the nineteen-seventies.
This was a bit of a stretch seeing as how they had to exaggerate sexism by turning it into the source of a homicidal grudge, but at least you could understand what they were getting at and percieve a positive message of female emancipation as intended. Hack, best known today as a latecomer to the original Charlie's Angels run, proves plucky enough to cheer for while remaining rather vulnerable, sticking up for the lone women drivers who are the victims of the killer van by telling their story, all the while fighting to be taken seriously by the men in her profession. Those scenes were arranged plainly and without fuss as a TV budget would allow, but the stunts were where Needham's obvious interest lay - he even had a supporting role as a "defensive" driving school owner.
It was impressive to see the cars in the drama powering along actual highways presumably surrounded by actual road using members of the public, though you had to believe they at least staged some of the more outlandish crashes without the common driver being around, for safety reasons. Nevertheless, that curse of any car in American action television of this decade, the very real possibility that they would explode even if they were not a Ford Pinto, was pressing very strongly on the manner this unfolded, as many of the altercations ended in a fireball. Now the maniac has a taste for forcing women off the road, the cops (led by Peter Graves) start to take an interest, though naturally it is Jan who does most of the investigating.
The cast were familiar to anybody who watched a lot of television as Frank Gorshin appeared as Jan's understanding boss, but didn't get that much to do, the venerable Abe Vigoda had a bit as a hospital patient who is nice to a potental victim, just to have us realise what a nice girl she is (or was), and Barbara Rush was a newsreader feeling threatened by the up and coming Jan who she thinks is after her job, the industry providing so few opportunities for ladies. It was also good for trash fans to see Sid Haig show up as a rough biker pointing Jan in the direction of someone who can identify the Fiddler, as the murderer is named thanks to his liking for crazed violin music blaring out of his speakers as he mows down someone else, while the overall sense of intimidation continues. That included special guest star George Hamilton as Jan's overbearing estranged husband who threatens to suffocate her ambition when he wants to orchestrate her career, but what you'll most recall would be the spectacular, if improbable, finale. Music by Richard Markowitz.