Clinkers as resounding as "The Car," now sputtering about several area threaters, might be avoided if the film executives reponsible for approving their production were immediately subject to certain penalties. For example, they might be compelled to reimburse deluded exhibitors out of their own pockets for any advances extracted on the implict understanding of supplying a presentable attraction. Or they might be required to defend their handiwork before crowds of derisive customers.

It's impossible to believe that "The Car," a bumptious horror melodrama about a driverless demon vehicle that terrorizes a Utah town, ever impressed anyone as an original or venturesome project. It's a blatant, pitiful attempt to recycle elements from superior scare vehicles - Steven Spielberg's television movie "Duel," which made a good deal of money for Universal in theatrical release abroad, and Spielberg's "Jaws," which has earned the company rentals of $200 million in less than two years.

Under the circumstances, Unversal should be the last distributor which finds it necessary to bankroll a rip-off like "The Car," which should probably be called "Fenders." There's no telling how many sounder, wittier scripts, including stories in the same genre, might have been overlooked or rejected in order to waste time and rejected in order to waste time and resources on this feeble in-house imitation.

Poor James Brolin! After all those dutiful, stultifying years as protege to Marcus Welby, what is his big-time movie reward? "Gable and Lombard" followed by "The Car." In the latter Broling and Ronny Cox, cast as the lawmen who must protect their loved ones and community from a motorized demon, wear permanently pained expressions.Cox is meant to be feeling guilty because he's taken to the bottle again, but it's easier to believe that he's just realized how awful his material is. Brolin punctuates his scowing inner torment with breathing exercises that expand his chest incessantly if not quite heroically.

The cast members might be wise tostart cultivating gags about their work in "The Car," since it's likely to remain the low point of their careers. At least one hopes so. The director, Elliot Silverstein, seems to have dedicated his career to making fools out of all the people who predicted great things from him after "Cat Bailou." He can't seem to handle anything skilfully in "The Car."

What could he have instructed the actors assembled for the denouement, in which Brolin supposedly lures the car to a fiery doom? Did he really ask for the hilarious set of bug-eyed, cringing reactions documetned on the screen? How can you set up a spectacular visual shock, like the shot of the car's headlights approaching out of the distance straight toward a living room window, the heroine and us, and then defuse it by switching to oblique angles right before the moment of impact? Every would-be scarifying highlight in the picture is undercut by disjointed editing maneuvers or inexplicable trick effects.

Of course, the premise is not exactly foolproof. If something as tangible and mechanical as a customized limousine (designed by George Barris, the noted customized limousine (designed by George Barris, the noted customizer who was one of Tom Wolfe's subjects in "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," on the chassis of a Lincoln Mark III) is going to be on a supernatural rampage, a certain cleverness or finesse would be desirable in both the writing and directing departments.

There's nothing under the surface either, no pattern or primitive fear mechanism guiding the car. What you see is what you get, and it deserves to be thrown back.