America has always had a love affair with its automobiles, but for some reason we seem to fear them, too—deeply and intuitively, not just because of traffic accidents or dependence on foreign oil. This week’s Drive Angry features vehicles driven by evil guys, but what about those movies where the vehicles themselves seem possessed of some inhuman menace? Listed below are the six greatest movies that play on that fear by giving a whole new meaning to the words “vehicular homicide.”
Stephen King’s writings have been the basis of countless movies and TV episodes, but he only stepped behind the camera for one film: Maximum Overdrive, in which the world’s machines, led by an army of belligerent tractor-trailers, rise up against the human race. Despite King’s reputation, the movie is less a horror flick than a campy, self-parodying comedy, as evidenced by the scene in which a little league coach is killed by a can-launching vending machine. Still, Maximum Overdrive is hard to beat in terms of sheer volume and diversity of vehicle-based violence. And while it may not have put Kubrick to shame, it’s at least better than its 1997 remake Trucks.
How are there not more horror movies involving evil, ghostly hearses? Seems like a concept the genre should be glutted with, but we’ll have to make do with this eerie French-backed production about bickering family members who find themselves pursued by the aforementioned black coach during a long night drive through the woods. The hearse itself only shows up a few times—just enough to remain a creepy background presence without overstaying its welcome—so the real automotive horror here is the experience of being lost late at night on an unlit country road, a situation many of us are all too familiar with.
The Car certainly isn't the best evil vehicle movie, but it is probably the purest incarnation of the concept. Its four-wheeled antagonist, a customized Lincoln Continental Mark III with a creepily anthropomorphic front end, has no human driver, not even an implied one who never shows up onscreen. Even the demonic force which seems to be possessing the titular sedan isn't examined in any detail; the Car is just a car, one which starts running down the residents of an isolated desert town for no apparent reason beyond pure dickishness. The mayhem that ensues isn't at all scary, but it does provide some goofy B-movie fun.
To be fair, the tractor-trailer truck that pursues Paul Walker, Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski in this thriller (which was co-written by J.J. Abrams, pre-Lost) isn’t inherently evil, per se—the actual evil resides in its driver, a deranged hillbilly who goes by the CB radio handle of Rusty Nail and is voiced by an uncredited Ted Levine, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. Still, since Rusty Nail appears onscreen only briefly, he and his rig end up seeming more or less synonymous, producing a villain with the personality of a madman and the brute power of a speeding 18-wheeler. Not something we’d want to see approaching in our rearview mirror.
1975’s Jaws made Steven Spielberg’s career, but Duel, his feature debut, plays very much like a dry-land version of the master filmmaker’s shark-based shocker. In this case the giant, inhuman antagonist is not a fish but a tractor-trailer truck hell-bent on running poor Dennis Weaver’s 1971 Plymouth Valiant off the road. As in Joy Ride, the truck’s unseen driver is technically the real villain, but this time around we neither see the guy nor hear his voice, making the truck itself even more inscrutably terrifying. The film’s desert setting provides a stark, minimalist backdrop for the showdown; the audience’s focus is kept almost entirely on the car, the truck and the open road.
Stephen King loves him some evil cars. Maximum Overdrive showed him tackling the subject with an over-the-top, campy tone, but Christine, based on King’s novel and directed by horror legend John Carpenter, plays the concept relatively straight. The story revolves around a nerdy teenager who becomes obsessed with restoring a dilapidated 1958 Plymouth Fury (clearly Plymouth’s most evil model, at least judging from the name), only to find out that the car has a murderous mind of its own. Besides featuring some sweet special effects, including scenes in which the Fury spontaneously repairs itself after being damaged, Christine is the most explicit example of the underlying fear behind all evil-vehicle movies: We like to think that we extend our own personalities into our cars, but it just might be the other way around. Or, to be more concise: Who’s driving who?