Yesterday I had the spectacular joy of watching The Car [’77], Elliot Silverstein’s gloriously demonic ode to exploitation, though it assembles many of its steel parts from the horror genre. In it, James Brolin plays Wade, a small town sheriff who must put an end to the murderous rampage of a mysterious black car (a custom 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III), which carries with it an abrasively unsettling horn. The car itself is dark and ominous, running down anyone who happens to get in its way.
It’s a rare-gem of a film, one that carries an unsettling nature with enough moments of pure jaw dropping insanity that it’ll catch you staring wide-eyed in its flickering high beams. Underneath all the raging steel are characters you hold a strong fondness for, most notably Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), a local no-nonsense teacher who, in a scene that mirrors Leone’s spaghetti westerns (set in a crumbling old cemetery), stands up to the satanic car in order to protect her students. Everything about the film reminds me of exactly what it is that made me fall in love with movies, firing on all cylinders while holding its door open for simple, raw and layered characters.
Now admittedly, my expertise in evil car films is rocky, as I’ve never seen the likes of Duel [’71] (I know, I know) or Nightmare’s [’83] vignette, The Benediction. Still, it got me thinking about the unspoken forces that embody these everyday objects, turning them into weapons of the road. Whether it’s an unmanned car driven by the unseen darkness of the devil, or the demons of man preying off the fear from a weapon on wheels, there’s something wickedly fascinating about the expanse of the path traveled, and what devilish behavior it hides.
Without stalling (engine joke) further, here are my top three favorite evil car films.
3. Joy Ride (2001)
When college students Lewis (Paul Walker) and Venna (Leelee Sobieski) head home with Lewis’ recently prison-bailed brother Fuller (Steve Zahn), they become the target of a surly lunatic and his 18-wheeler, who uses his truck (a 359 Peterbilt) as a wrecking ball. It’s a taut thriller that came at a necessary time, when much of country was left scared, anxious and alienated. It’s a moment in history that left millions looking for an escape from news of impending war and retaliation for the attacks, which preyed on the fear of everyday citizens who felt collectively vulnerable. For many, it’s what made director John Dahl’s throwback to the road films of the 70’s and 80’s (films like Duel and The Hitcher) so effective, driving right under the skin and toying with vehicular terror. Not only does it remain a deeply chilling horror film, but it continues to allow audiences an escape from the horrors of real life while strapping their fear to the hood of their car.
2. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to the 2007 exploitation double feature Grindhouse, comprised of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof, is many things. It’s a throwback to the exploitation days, where cinema was as raw as the backs it cut-up trying to shoot scenes covered in grit and grime. It’s a nod to the blacksploitation films of that era, delivering powerful women of color – Sydney Poitier, Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson – who for the most part, don’t take shit from anyone. It’s also a pedal to the metal slasher flick with a psychopathic killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who owns one scary car. While there isn’t anything overtly supernatural about this tale of revenge, it does feature a souped-up 1971 Chevy Nova with one mean skull on its hood, which by the laws of Hollywood stunt work, marks the driver unkillable behind the driver’s seat.
1. Christine (1983)
John Carpenter’s ninth film in an often unparalleled streak – let alone career – continues to be an all-time favorite of mine from a director who’s put out hit after hit after hit. And what’s not to love about Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s best-seller, which tells the story of an unlikely and lethal relationship between a ’58 Plymouth Fury and a gawky high schooler named Arnie (Keith Gordon)? Wrapped around an earnest friendship between Christine’s boy-toy and atypical jock Dennis (John Stockwell) is a pulsating evil with an appetite for destruction, cooly playing foreshadowing Motown as it’s consuming the life of those that get in its way. Whatever evil drives the car does so in a seductive and frightfully alluring way, enticing us with the beauty that drives the beast within Christine to kill. This is Carpenter firing on all cylinders in a diabolically playful way that shows audiences why he continues to be one of the greatest directors of all time.