There’s a killer on the road, and it wants the highway to run red with blood. It could be that semi creeping up behind you, or maybe it’s that black Cadillac over to the left. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and your palms slick the steering wheel with sweat. You look hard in your rear- and side-view mirrors, but you can’t see the faces of the people driving those menacing vehicles. Could they be operating on their own? Don’t those headlights and grill look like an evil, glaring face?
Welcome to the world of Killer Cars, a horror film subgenre. Epitomized by Stephen King’s Christine, these angry autos come from a sublevel in Hell’s parking lot to terrorize mortals with menacing motor-revving and rampant vehicular homicide. These are the polar opposites of Herbie, The Love Bug (or German equivalent Dudu of the Käfer series). There’s nothing cute about a 1958 Plymouth Fury fueled by high-octane bloodlust barreling down on you.
Killer Cars appear to be motivated by demonic powers or intergalactic phenomenon. The Car, Christine, and The Hearse could use a good exorcist at their next tune-up while Killdozer, the motorbike in Murdercycle, and the machines of Maximum Overdrive are brought to life courtesy of meteorites or comets.
Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1972, USA)
Before the term road rage existed, writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) penned the short story "Duel," the tale of a man tormented by a menacing diesel-powered demon. In the Steven Spielberg-directed TV movie, Dennis Weaver stars as David Mann, an everyman making his way down a California freeway only to randomly cross the path of a semi-truck whose unseen driver seems to take great pleasure in messing with him. He drives too slowly in a no-passing zone before flagging Mann to go around him, inviting Mann into oncoming traffic. From there, all bets are off.
License plates decorate the truck. These trophies have been taken cars the truck encountered in the past. If the driver has his way, Mann’s plate will join the collection. The truck goes from toying with Mann to terrorizing him at every hairpin turn. Matheson, who adapted his story for the screen, cleverly paces the action such that this relatively simple tale becomes a tense tale of survival.
Like films such as Death Car on the Freeway or arguably Black Cadillac, Duel straddles the white line between the Killer Car and Road Terror subgenres. There’s no doubt that a man is driving the truck, but it seems it’s the machine whose bloodlust must be sated.
Killdozer (Jerry London, 1974, USA)
On an island off the coast of Africa, a six-man work crew uncovers a meteorite. When one of the workers, Mack (Robert Urich), tries to move it, he’s burned to a crisp and his bulldozer becomes infused with an eerie blue glow possesses the machine, turning it into Killdozer! Clint Walker stars as Lloyd Kelly, the square-jawed site boss. He and his crew strive to outwit Killdozer. The crafty heavy machinery destroys their radio, levels their barracks, and stays one step ahead as it picks them off (somehow never running out of fuel).
Adapted for the small screen by sci-fi scribe Theodore Sturgeon, the story bears uncanny similarities with The Thing from another World. Both take place in an isolated locale where a handful of men fight a creature from outer space. Even the manner of defeating the creature is similar.
The Car (Elliot Silverstein, 1977, USA)
When Satan goes joyriding, there’s no better vehicle to do it in than a tricked-out ’71 Lincoln Continental Mark III. Though, he might have chosen someplace a little more populous than Santa Ynez, Utah.
Such a sleepy town has more than its share of law enforcement. That’s a good thing because they’re about to lose half the staff when the mysterious grey Lincoln comes out of the distant desert to wreak havoc on bicyclists, hitchhikers, cowboys, and anyone else who gets in its way. James Brolin plays lawman Wade Parent. He’s not one for cars, opting instead for a zippy motorbike.
Written by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, The Car feels like a made-for-TV movie with a theatrical budget. Think of Elliot Silverstein’s The Car as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws by way of Duel.
Crash! (Charles Band, 1977, USA)
Disabled in an automobile accident years before, Marc Denne (Jose Ferrer) is a bitter man. That his young wife, Kim (Sue Lyons), walked away from the crash unscathed makes him even angrier. He arranges to have his Doberman pinscher attack Kim in her car, causing her to crash anew. Alas, she’s not dead. Worse, an opportune purchase at a flea market has provided Kim with an evil idol to Akaza, Hittite god of vengeance. When she’s in the idol’s power her eyes turn red, and she has telekinetic power over anything with wheels, including her bitchin’ Camaro.
When Kim awakens in the hospital, she’s one of the many movie casualties of amnesia. Luckily, she’s got handsome doctor Gregg Martin (John Ericson) to look after her. He and police Lieutenant Pegler (Jerome Guardino) are determined to uncover her identity, the only clue to which is the idol she holds. Martin turns to an expert in Hittite artifacts, none other than – you guessed it – Kim’s sinister hubby!
In what amounts to another film entirely encapsulated in Charles Band’s Crash, the Camaro tears ass around the countryside, admirably killing hippies, landlords, and annoying tourists. Any car unlucky enough to get in its path not only flips or flies over, it inevitably explodes into a fireball. It’s as if Akaza learned how to drive from watching Smokey and the Bandit. The convertible growls as it zooms along Route 61. Never needing to refuel, it simply runs on high-octane Hittite hatred!
The Hearse (George Bowers, 1980, USA)
Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere) leaves her friend, Ms. Exposition, and psychiatrist, Dr. Cynical, behind in San Francisco for the quiet little town of Blackford (get it?). Things start off poorly in the new burg when she gets into a fender bender with a mysterious hearse that pulls away before insurance information can be exchanged. The residents of Blackford treat her with various levels of suspicion and outright hostility, especially the caretaker of her late aunt’s house, Mr. Pritchard (Joseph Cotten). He’s so cantankerous, you figure that he’ll be under the rubber mask of some strange creature by the end of the film saying, "And I would have gotten it away with it too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids."
The freshman screenwriting effort from television scribe William Bleich, The Hearse idles but never quite gets into gear. Though the hearse seems to be under its own power, eventually its drivers (Dominic Barto and David Gautreaux) are shown. There’s about fifteen minutes worth of plot to be had in this ninety-five-minute outing. The whole affair boils down to a tale of Satanism and restless spirits, ending in a fiery anticlimax.
Black Volkswagen (Jeremias Moreira Filho, 1982, Brazil)
The titular vehicle in Black Volkswagen may be menacing, but it’s a lover, not a killer. Like any heterosexual male, the Hate Bug is attracted to Diana (future kiddie-show host Xuxa Meneghel). It crashes her engagement party, literally, before stealing her away for a joy ride. Can her bulky fiancée protect her? Will the soulful horse whisperer save her? Will the bumbling comic relief do anything that isn’t accompanied by a cacophony of sound effects? Don’t count on it!
The movie meanders through endless talky scenes that feel like they’re out of a low-grade soap opera, keeping the star of the show, the black Volkswagen, out of the forefront.
Christine (John Carpenter, 1983, USA)
The grande dame of the Killer Car subgenre, Christine was directed by John Carpenter with a screenplay by Bill Phillips. Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, King’s fiction was so hot at the time that the film rights were optioned even before the book was published.
A story of Autumn Red teenage obsession, Christine epitomizes the Killer Car subgenre. Keith Gordon gives a stellar performance as Arnie Cunningham, a geek who finds true love. Trapped in the twisted chrome and rusted steel a caring – albeit evil – heart still beats in the evil Plymouth Fury, Christine. Blood and machines don’t mix in Stephen King’s world. An accident on a Detroit assembly line jump starts Christine’s blood lust. With Arnie’s help and some supernatural aid, she’s restored to her former glory. The line between where Arnie begins and Christine ends soon becomes blurred. She sings her devotion to him via the clever use of ’50s music on her radio, showing her love by taking revenge on everyone who wronged him, including Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander) and his cronies.
Beautifully shot by Donald M. Morgan, Christine remains one of John Carpenter’s best works, and the ultimate Killer Car film.
Nightmares (Joseph Sargent, 1983, USA)
Anthology films seldom, if ever, work. Nightmares is no exception. It’s an uneven compendium of horror tales. "Benediction" is the story of a priest, MacLeod (Lance Henriksen), who’s lost his faith. When he tries to leave his parish, he’s terrorized by a black Chevy truck. The vehicle comes from Hell. In one scene, it burrows out of the ground before shooting into the air for an attack. If that wasn’t enough, the rearview mirror is decorated with an inverted crucifix! MacLeod eventually defeats the demon truck with a propane tank before going back to his congregation, his faith renewed.
Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986, USA)
Unrepentantly cheesy, this is the lone venture into the director’s chair for author Stephen King. Adapted from King’s story "Trucks," Maximum Overdrive was a cable staple of the ’80s. The film stars Emilio Estevez as Bill Robinson, an ex-con trying to make good at the Dixie Boy Truck Stop in North Carolina. He’s having a tough day at work. His boss, Bubba Hendershot (Pat Hingle), wants him to work nine hours but only stay on the clock for eight. Somewhat worse, the Earth has gotten into the tail of rogue comet Rhea-M, causing machines to take on a life of their own, attacking anything with a pulse.
Inspired by Richard Matheson and Theodore Sturgeon, King’s story is a classic cross-section of characters trapped in a location piece. A group of bloodthirsty tractor trailers trap Dixie Boy patrons inside. Recalling the gas station scene of Hitchcock’s The Birds, we watch as the trucks pick off patrons one and two at a time, all set to the strains of AC/DC. King pulls out all the stops (with a story that defies its own internal logic) as if to show up the directors who had sullied his stories. Maximum Overdrive sports a handful of memorable bits, but stalls too often.
Wheels of Terror (Christopher Cain, 1990, USA)
The new MILF in town, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), gets a job driving a school bus for the handful of kids in Copper Valley including her daughter Stephanie (Marcie Leeds). She soon learns that a dirty ’74 Dodge Charger stalks the town’s daughters. They disappear into the passenger’s seat, reappearing days later much the worse for wear. Even when Laura witnesses a kidnapping, Copper Valley’s authorities just don’t buy it.
Shown under the name Terror in Copper Valley when it aired on the USA Network in 1990, somewhere in Christopher Cain’s made-for-TV film hides a subtext about child molestation but it’s obscured by the abuse of slow motion, coupled with an inadequate script by Alan B. McElroy (the creative powerhouse behind Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever).
Perhaps only notable for its absurd ending – the Charger falls into a quarry (a common death for Killer Cars) and lands on a shed full of explosives – this movie should never be viewed again by human eyes.
Trucks (Chris Thomson, 1997, USA)
It’s the rare film that makes one long for the intellectual depths of Mansquito, Raging Sharks, or other Sci-Fi Channel dreck. This co-production between Lion’s Gate Films and the USA Network may lead to physical pain and mental anguish. If these conditions persist, please contact your doctor and/or cease watching Trucks immediately.
Loosely based on the same Stephen King story that gave the world Maximum Overdrive, the films’ plots are similar but Trucks has none of the mirth and all the stupidity of the earlier film. This made-for-TV movie stars limp noodle Timothy Busfield as Ray, owner of a truck stop that he runs with his father’s pal, George (Victor Cowie), and son, Logan (Brendan Fletcher). They’re refugees from Detroit, having left after Ray’s wife died. That means that Ray is a damaged man, who will have to find a new love before the movie’s over. Dollars to donuts that gal’s going to be Hope (Brenda Bakke), a local tour guide.
Like Maximum Overdrive, Chris Thomson’s flaccid effort suffers from logic gaps wider than the Grand Canyon. Initially, it appears that only diesel-powered trucks are affected by the space dust or toxic chemicals (take your pick). Soon even toy trucks are also self-aware. But the most ridiculous scene has to be a hazmat suit filling up with air and attacking two guys with an axe. You’ll either laugh hysterically or cry for mercy. I cried.
I Bought a Vampire Motorocycle (Dirk Campbell, 1990, UK)
An intentionally campy horror comedy, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle begins with a Satanic priest losing his life to a biker gang. He gets the last laugh by transferring his blighted spirit into one of their rides. Little does Noddy (Neil Morrissey) know when he buys the two-wheeled terror that his life will get turned upside down as his new means of transportation tries to kill everyone around him. Fortunately he finds a sympathetic priest (Anthony Daniels) and garlic-chomping policeman, Inspector Cleaver (Michael Elphick), who help Noddie cast the malignant motorbike’s spirit into hell where it belongs. You may wonder how the bike extracts blood from its victims: when the headlamp suddenly turns red, its front wheel forks sport long metal tubes that act as its teeth. That’s par for the course on the rampant silliness of Dirk Campbell’s cursed chopper flick.
Murdercycle (Tom Callaway, 1999, USA)
A meteor crashes outside of a government post just as an unfortunate motocross enthusiast happens to be passing by in the dead of night. The space rock sends out tendrils that trap the rider and transform him and his bike into a black plastic-clad monster that rides around and growls. The audience occasionally sees a point-of-view shot with the rider’s infrared vision. It’s like Predator on a joy ride and it must be stopped!
A group of marines, along with their prerequisite sneaky CIA operative (Michael Vachetti), wussy doctor (Robert Staccardo), and psychic helper (Cassandra Ellis), travel to an abandoned farm to talk, walk around, and take occasional potshots at the demonic dirt biker. Replacing Natasha Henstridge with a motorbike, Murdercycle is highly reminiscent of Species – call it Specious – especially with its lame-ass psychic character who can read minds, hear thoughts, and pick up memories from objects, but still has to ask, "Are you worried?"
Blood Car (Alex Orr, 2007, USA)
The vehicle in Blood Car recalls Audrey 2 more than Christine. Like the plant that feeds on blood in Little Shop of Horrors, the titular vehicle in Alex Orr’s film needs the same thing for fuel. In a world where gasoline costs $32.21 a gallon, Archie Andrews (Mike Brune) tries to make an engine that runs on wheat grass. It works about as well as wheat grass tastes. When he accidentally learns that blood makes his turbine spin – and that the slutty girl at the meat stand puts out for guys with wheels – he retrofits his ride. To keep his motor running, Archie has to sacrifice a few folks to his exsanguinating sedan.
Like its 1982 predecessor, Juraj Hertz’s Ferat Vampire, Blood Car may not fit neatly into the Killer Car subgenre. Neither of these vehicles are driven by a faceless antagonist nor are they possessed by an evil spirit. Nevertheless, the body counts add up thanks to some bloodthirsty cars.
Killer Cars still have a lot of mileage left on them. Three variations on the theme came to the screen in 2009-2011. In Sv Bell’s Crawler (2009), another land mover plagues innocents with 50 tons of terror. This time, the possessed machine reaches out and turns its victims into its pawns with some handy tentacles.
It’d be an interesting experiment to see what would happen if any of the aforementioned evil cars were outfitted with the star of Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010), the tale of Robert, a self-aware tire. A fun, albeit pretentious, experiment in movie expectations, Rubber doesn’t necessarily explain how Robert came to be, but the film demonstrates that it’s best to not mess with him.
In 2011 Eric Valette’s Super Hybrid found its way to home video. The film tells the story of a female mechanic (Shannon Beckner) trapped in a Chicago police garage with a murderous car (shades of James Seale’s Throttle or Franck Khalfoun’s P2). The twist? The car is actually a shape-shifting alien.
The Killer Car just keeps rolling on...