Everyday I brave the deadly gauntlet that is Austin traffic. Beholden to my Nintendo-honed reflexes, I gamble my well-being with every lane change; every turn of the wheel. Recently, as I sat grinding my teeth and stagnating behind a line of semis, I pondered the immeasurable joy I would experience if one of these idling vehicles suddenly gained sentience and decided to mow down any object or carbon-based fool in its path. Of the innumerable sub-genres of horror to choose from, like a glorious buffet of cinematic slaughterings, one of my absolute favorites is the killer car movie. So I decided to to slide behind the wheel of five of my favorite entries and see if I could squeeze a few more miles out of them. Buckle up beasties, it's gonna be a bit bumpy.
I honestly needed no further motivation to see this film than to discover its origin as a Stephen King story about killer vehicles. What I like so much about Maximum Overdrive is that, contrary to any of the others on my list, the autocide is not isolated to one demonic car. It's more or less an carpocalypse wherein every motor vehicle on the planet rises up against their human oppressors and leaves a sea of bloody asphalt in their wake. I am willing to bet that even if you haven't seen this film, you would recognize the iconic harlequin-adorned truck that leads the uprising. It is incredible! The human element of the film is fairly tepid and there's not too much to like there, but the motorized conspiracy outside is outstanding and great to watch. This is ultimately an interesting twist on the siege horror film wherein a bunch of dopes are quarantined in a single location and forced to beat back the tide of evil foaming at the mouth to get in (or foaming at the grill in this case). Look for the ads for this film in which King, who also directed this film, states--in regards to the other film adaptations of his novels--"if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself!" Really Mr. King? So Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, and John Carpenter are all incompetent and YOU are the better director? Interesting.
If there is one thing that genuinely scares me when I'm driving on the interstate, on a purely phobic level, it's driving alongside semis. These leviathans of the highways wield a staggering level of unspoken power. So when I watched a film about an everyday Joe whose minuscule slighting of a truck driver lands him in a white-knuckle nightmare, I was understandably affected by it. Duel is a brilliantly simplistic film that champions the Hitchcock approach to suspense while adding a incredibly timeless flavor. The way the truck is portrayed as a supernatural villain, particularly by never once showing the driver, is phenomenal. There are a number of subtle little touches throughout the movie that emphasize the menace of this big rig; the license plates proudly displayed on the front bumper like trophies of past kills. Hell, this was the first film by some snot-nose nobody named Steven Spielberg (though technically made-for-TV) and the script came from a Richard Matheson short story published in Playboy. How can the result not be sweet road-raging bliss?!
This is my absolute favorite of the bunch. The plot is bare-bones, and yet it's every other aspect of the film that lends a high-art quality to what has been unfortunately relegated to forgotten genre runoff. James Brolin plays a cop in a small town out in the desert of...Utah? Arizona? Sorry, can't remember. A devilish black Lincoln, seemingly spawned from the desert itself, begins mowing down residents in a blood-thirsty agenda of evil. That's about it, the rest of the film is all about them trying to stop it more than ascertain its origin. What is so fascinating about The Car is its similarities to Jaws. No, the mayor does not refuse to shut down the beautiful beaches of the land-locked American west in the face of looming threats of vehicular homicide. But there are shots wherein the car is used in precisely the same capacity and even has its own approach music to alert the audience to the impending danger. This car stalks prey like a shark and the situation becomes so dire that the put-upon cop must risk his life in a fool-hearty plot with a crazy old man. What really makes The Car so special, and so much better than it has any right to be, is Gerald Hirschfeld's cinematography. He eloquently captures the barren desert as the perfect landscape for outright terror. The wide-open expanses of the wasteland are shot in a way as to be as foreboding and mysterious as the ocean; again, Jaws. The really crazy thing is that The Car precedes Jaws by four years, so it's coincidental but still interesting.
Christine is the touching story of boy-meets-girl. That is, if the girl were a two ton Plymouth Fury with a taste for killing and the boy was were devoted slave. Another Stephen King adaptation but this time directed by a man I consider to be a pseudo-deity: John Carpenter. A young boy buys a suspiciously cheap, terribly beat-to-hell Plymouth from a creepy old dude. That car turns out to be pure evil and begins to transform the nerdy milquetoast into a devious, nasty bastard. My favorite thing about Christine is watching the car heal itself whenever anyone tries to destroy it; sort of like Wolverine on wheels! The film does a really great job of anthropomorphizing the Plymouth into a playfully malevolent force of rage. The script is a bit clunky but we get some signature Carpenter moments of stillness. I also love the use of the Ritchie Valens song as Christine's siren song of death.
First off, I will confess to have only seen The Wraith for the first time this past weekend. However, it was the kind of sheer 80's awesomeness that tickles my inner child, but oh so appropriately. The basic concept is that a pack of feral teenage(ish) punks maraud the highway and force unsuspecting chumps to race for pink slips. Their leader is a feathered-hair sociopath who has an all-consuming, utterly unhealthy obsession with a gorgeous young girl named Keri; so much so that he murdered a boy with whom she was involved when he realized he himself could not have her. Sounds like a 50's drag-racing film right? Oh, that is until a Dodge Turbo Interceptor beams down from outer space and the alien driver begins murdering the vehicular outlaws one by one. This movie is gloriously over-the-top but also undeniably cool. It has a competent, entertaining revenge element and while it may be more Sci-Fi than horror, the way the car takes out the rabble is calculated and deliciously violent. In a cheesy 80's master stroke, the film also wraps by giving you the why, but never the how. You have to applaud a genre film, with a concept like this, to have the balls to explain nothing at the conclusion; coolness that defies explanation.