By Graham Gough
The possessed vehicle sub-genre is a strange beast, a disgruntled and mostly aggressive child of the road movie and horror fest. These films are less about characters trying to escape their mundane or horrible lives and more about characters seeking escape from driverless, demon-fuelled automobiles which will stop at nothing to consume them. There’s one good reason why few have delved into this dingy world: aside from a few honourable mentions such as The Love Bug, almost all films about possessed vehicles are rubbish. However, as an intrepid explorer of all things trash, I think it’s important to take a trip down the road less travelled.
US TV’s The Twilight Zone featured the first story about inanimate objects with minds of their own; A Thing about Machines (1960), in which household appliances and cars terrorise an angry Luddite. Coked up to the nines, Stephen King brought malevolent household objects and vehicles to the big screen in his one and only directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive (1985). Holed up in a North Carolina truck stop, a motley crew led by Emilio Estevez are laid siege by juggernauts made sentient by a trailing comet. The film’s message finds its ultimate expression when an indignant waitress confronts a group of driver-less trucks, protesting, “We made you!” Trash classic Killdozer (1974) also sports a similarly malevolent premise in which a team of construction workers attempt to outwit a possessed bulldozer which is clearly much more intelligent than they are.
The Twilight Zone’s interest in vehicles with a touch of menace reached its zenith with You Drive (1964), in which a cowardly hit-and-run driver is tormented by his car. Possessed by the man’s subconscious guilt, his car follows him around town beeping and being a general nuisance. By no means a classic episode, You Drive managed to lay the foundations upon which the sub-genre’s greatest achievement would roll over with a deafening roar: Duel (1971).
Steven Spielberg’s Duel was conceived by Twilight Zone favourite and author of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson. Dennis Weaver stars as conservative, moustachioed travelling salesman David Mann, pursued by a faceless truck driver and his 16-wheeler. Seamlessly combining elements of the monster movie with horror, the cat-and-mouse chase unfolds across an increasingly uninhabited and bleak American landscape, in which the truck becomes a nightmarish embodiment of Mann’s fears.
If Duel was a dry run for Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Elliot Silverstein’s The Car (1977) was a cynical composite of both. Small town police officer Wade Parent (James Brolin in hirsute mode) finds his idyllic community terrorised by a mysterious black car. Under the surface lurks a tale of domestic violence, infidelity and alcoholism in which the victims are mostly punished for their perceived amorality or proximity to the edge of a cliff. Despite competent direction and some great character actors, including R.G. Armstrong and Ronny Cox, the reliance on narrative devices and sped-up footage makes The Car a second rate effort at best.
The only possessed vehicle film that can keep pace with Duel is John Carpenter’s Christine (1983). Another Stephen King adaptation, Christine deals with the sometimes disturbing love of a man for his car. Nerd car enthusiast Arnie (Keith Gordon) picks up a battered ’58 Plymouth Fury and turns ‘her’ into a hot little number. Unfortunately, she also happens to be a murderess hell-bent on burying Arnie’s tormenters and his big-haired pouty girlfriend (Alexandra Paul). As Arnie falls for Christine, he undergoes a physical and mental transformation from geek to ‘50s greaser. Instead of the car representing his fears, Christine enslaves him, sucks him dry and then moves on to someone else.
The intoxicating effects of being behind the wheel are also explored in quirky Czech horror Ferat Vampire (1982), in which a blood-sucking race car is at the centre of some strange Skoda-based conspiracy. A thinly-veiled attack on capitalism, Ferat Vampire is short on actual blood but it does have some wonderfully oddball touches, including a shocking dream sequence in which a bonnet is peeled back to reveal a fleshy engine.
Minus the political subtext of Ferat Vampire, metaphysical Australian horror Road Kill (2010) also explores similar territory. Violently removed from the road by a huge, Duel-style truck, a group of impossibly attractive characters jump behind the wheel while their antagonist is caught napping. They soon discover that the hellbound heavy vehicle isn’t powered by petrol but the nubile flesh of soap star wannabes. It’s only marginally better than it sounds. Continuing the theme of cars powered by super-unleaded human, Super Hybrid (2010) features a shape-shifting alien squid that can inexplicably change into a car. In this low-budget ‘masterpiece’ the hapless cast are picked off Alien-style by the extraterrestrial monster through a good old fashioned hit and run or by somehow encouraging its victims to step inside its featureless interior.
If you’re looking for something a little more ambitious/pretentious, the post-modern, fourth wall-busting adventures of Robert, a rampaging tyre with telekinetic powers, might appeal. With Rubber (2010), director Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr Oizo) is less concerned with possessed inanimate objects than he is with the ways in which Hollywood movies manipulate and cajole viewers into particular ways of reading films. If the film philosophy doesn’t interest you, there’s lots of Scanners-esque, head exploding action to fill the void.
The cars in these films want to destroy us, consume us, or use us as fuel. The idea that we no longer control them is where the real horror exists, that they will use our love against us and that, through supernatural or alien means, they seek to control us. Duel aside, the impact of possessed vehicle horror films is negligible but there are plenty of trashy delights to enjoy. The films are here to remind us not to build close relationships with our cars and to watch carefully for signs of demonic possession. So, next time you’re dazzled by the headlights of a car coming up behind you on a dark night; don’t automatically assume it’s the driver showing you a little road rage.