The hybrid of the road movie and the horror movie finds its purest visual representation in the opening frames of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, where we watch from the windshield’s point of view as a Plymouth Valiant leave its nondescript suburban comfort zone. There’s a series of dissolving shots: first pulling out of the garage, then going down a residential side street, then onto a main road in Los Angeles County, then onto Interstate 5, and from there onto Route 14, which takes us right into the desert. It’s there, in the Mojave, that the Valiant and its easily emasculated passenger (Dennis Weaver) attempt to pass the wrong Peterbilt 281 tanker, provoking the truck’s unseen driver to instigate a to-the-death bout of vehicular combat. The road movie, and its accompanying literary tradition, often depicts the self-discovery made possible by travel. These road-horror hybrids, on the other side, pervert that template. They consider the downsides of traveling beyond your garage door. And “murderous drivers” is often a primary one.
Spielberg’s 1971 breakout was hardly the first film to set terrors on the highways and byways of our nation. This genre has antecedents in roadside noir films, not to mention other predecessors, including multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone. Together, those earlier pictures establish the formulas that define road-horror to date. You can break them down into sub-sub-genres: there are evil hitchhiker movies (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953, or The Sadist, 1963) autonomous-killer-car movies (“You Drive,” from the Twilight Zone,) disturbed-driver movies (Motorpsycho, 1965) car-as-a-murder-weapon movies (Hot Rods to Hell, 1967,) and road-trip-gone-wrong movies (Detour, 1945, or Panic in Year Zero, 1962.) But if there’s a film that established road-horror as a legitimate subgenre in the first place, one with its own recurring concerns and consistent rules, Duel is probably it. The film, which was based on a Richard Matheson story originally published in Playboy, immediately institutes a number of motifs that would repeat through road-horror movies for the next 45 years: shrouded, faceless villains (autonomous cars and/or anonymous sociopaths), milquetoast male protagonists (there are few John Waynes in these movies, only lacking Joes), and an interest in shifting moral codes (those Joes are invariably pushed beyond their pacifist breaking-point, eventually feeling like sociopaths themselves).
Thus Duel’s inclusion in “Highways to Hell,” a five-film program of road-horror movies playing the Coolidge Corner Theatre at midnight throughout this month, wasn’t merely natural. It was necessary. Southbound (screening on 2.12 and 2.13), a newly-released anthology film featuring horror shorts with roadside settings, provided the impetus for the program. But Duel is the subgenre’s godfather. Spielberg’s film—which is playing in a double feature with the extremely stabby Death Valley, on 2.19 and 2.20—essentially defines the texts of all car-horror movies still to come: These are tests of physical, mental, and vehicular mettle, where men are left in the concrete wilderness to fend for themselves, without any of the false agency that bougie society usually affords them. Spielberg’s own study of masculinity in crisis follows David Mann—his name isn’t subtle, nor are the early scenes of him being dominated by his wife—as he’s rammed off innumerable roadsides by the Peterbilt, whose hulking grill seems to take a substantial delight in pushing its lesser target toward an inevitable deathmatch.
Spielberg finds his own delight in showing off his keen sense for physical space, orienting each moment of the film from a particular character’s perspective. A quietly-exhilarating early sequence allows us to watch from Mann’s point of view as he overtakes the monstrous vehicle—then the truck barrels past him through an alternate lane, seen only through Mann’s driver-side window. Each succeeding sequence depends on the fact that Mann can’t see the truck coming, whether it’s parked up ahead, hiding lanes behind, or waiting behind a blacked-out tunnel. All this while Spielberg is framing objects to emphasize Mann’s weakness and fragility; sand is constantly kicked up onto his car, like so many little scars. (During a stop at a laundromat, he’s literally obscured by the protrusion of a dryer’s door; later on windows and windshields turn into prison walls.) The films in this subgenre are dependent on the physical qualities of their settings—the rush of the road along the bottom of the frame, the dust that’s kicked up furiously with every u-turn, the blood that collects on the driver’s window. To the miraculous sunset that closes it, Duel finds a lyrical spareness in these Californian textures. Normally it’s just the crashes that are palpable. But Spielberg finds tactility in every one of the screen’s elements, alive or otherwise.
The car-chase movie and its many cousins would continue to proliferate throughout the 1970s, allowing many authorial filmmakers to try their hand at the genre’s horror permutation. It is in this period that we get William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (a Wages of Fear remake that has Roy Scheider driving into his own hellish mindscape,) Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil (wherein the undervalued action filmmaker stages some of his most awe-inspiring stunts, including a almost-tipped-over car driving down the road on its right side, like a drunk about to fall over,) Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (which is of the road-trip-gone-wrong variety,) Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (an astonishing bleak piece of exploitation cinema that hangs with ruthless killers and their kidnapped victims, within the confines of a squeezed automobile, for almost the entirety of its running time,) and Hal Needham’s Death Car on the Freeway (a feminist tract from the Smokey and the Bandit filmmaker, regarding a female reporter’s dogged pursuit of a misogynist killer who stalks his prey in a souped-up van.)
Though the names reveal that this is usually an American form of storytelling—like the western, road-horror provides a portal to explore our rougher landscapes—the subgenre has been spotted in other nations. To wit, there is Road Games (screening at the Coolidge on 2.13), an Australian thriller about an American trucker abroad, befriended only by his pet dingo. This one’s not indebted to Duel or other contemporary horror movies, instead finding its influence in the Master of Suspense—Mr. Hitchcock even makes a cameo, albeit by way of a magazine cover. Quid (Stacy Keach) is the Hitchcockian “wrong man,” an American driver who has his identity stolen by a serial killer traversing the Australian countryside in a green van. Women are being garrotted from one motel to the next, and Quid is being chased for it, but director Richard Franklin keeps the tone closer to comedy than to Psycho—the title is no misnomer, given the sense of aesthetic play the film creates. The sensual pleasure of chases and crashes prove to be one of the chief attractions of this midnight program, and there may be none to top one where Quid overtakes a piggish Sunday driver hauling a hastily constructed boat. The editing cuts between the involved parts (the boat, its anchor, the chain that connects them) with the sure rhythm of a Buster Keaton gag (and it has a punchline, involving an ad-hoc spear, that matches.) Franklin, like Spielberg, also has fun by keeping us one step ahead of his hero, and one step behind his villain: Another standout scene has Quid searching for the source of pleasured moans he hears from the nearby woods. He thinks a woman he’s had his eye on (Jamie Lee Curtis) might be spending the night with his mortal enemy, the van-man. The camera follows his gaze, until he believes he has identified the target of his search. But then the frame goes one step further than he does, revealing to us alone that he’s got the wrong man himself. It is a fact universally acknowledged that within fiction, a road is always a symbol, and these movies are constantly emphasizing that which their protagonist drivers fail to see. What’s being signified on those roads is as plain as a stop-sign: it’s the ignorance of male ego, at once comic and fatal.
Most other examples of 80s road-horror suffer in comparison to Road Games. In this, the subgenre’s second wave, road-horror began to cross-pollinate with the then-trending slasher film. This created a whole rush of autonomous-car-on-a-killing-spree films, with The Wraith, The Hearse, and two Stephen King adaptations among them (John Carpenter’s Christine, which transcends its farcical setup with nightmarishly suggestive compositions, and King’s own Maximum Overdrive, which is Maximum Overdrive.) Death Valley, from 1982, connects slasher-horror and car-horror even more directly, considering a family terrorized in the eponymous wasteland by one of those anonymous knife-wielding killers so prevalent in the horror cinema of that era. A Los Angeles Times report on the production of the 1986 feature The Hitcher—which began the Coolidge program yesterday, and screens once more tonight—harps on the fact that the film’s producers and filmmakers were wary of being caught within this trend, and worked consciously to divorce their film from the confines of the slasher subgenre. That would include the director, Robert Harmon, who made his name with road-horror—The Hitcher was his first film, and he got the job by way of a related short feature, China Lake. The word on that early work, per the same Times report: “[It’s a] beautifully photographed short film about an L.A. cop on vacation in the High Sierra desert who gets his kicks from stalking unsuspecting motorists on deserted roads and running them down with his cycle or locking them in their trunks—and leaving them to perish in the desert heat.”
The Hitcher rides alongside Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) as he passes through West Texas during a road trip (though this film was shot in the Mojave, for the record, just across from Duel). It’s there that he picks up the eponymous rider, John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), whose distinguished snarl (it’s an entrancing contradiction) quickly details what happened to the last driver who picked him up (“I cut off his legs, and his arms, and his head”). From there the hitcher tortures the boy, constantly forcing him into morally-fraught confrontations, often forcing him to risk his own safety to prevent the gruesome massacre of someone else (the script, by Eric Red, remains infamous for the pleasure it takes in its own gory prose.) What results is an almost Kafkaesque thriller, with Halsey quickly forced to protect himself from the violent code of police officers (who wouldn’t hesitate to gun him down in cold blood, if only there weren’t so many bystanders) just as surely as he must protect himself from Mr. Ryder, who continues goading the puny boy (another example of the subgenre’s atypically passive leading men) into an eventual showdown (“Duel with a person,” is how one producer described The Hitcher).
That climactic duel, composed to showcase the infertile landscape and vast space between the two men, tells the story. Like Road Games, The Hitcher finds its primary influence outside of the car-horror subgenre—Sergio Leone and spaghetti westerns provide Harmon’s film with its roughhewn texture and pitiless approach to violence. Like Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hauer’s John Ryder has an almost mystical quality; he appears to have the supernatural ability to conjure himself at the edges of any given composition—The Hitcher is yet another film that actively suggests we should fear what we can’t see beyond the frame. When Ryder does materialize, he does so to play Road Runner to Halsey’s Coyote, pushing him to the edge of his own psychological cliff, and then speeding off with a laugh. Even when Ryder’s not around, perspective itself proves to be a bogeyman in his absence: The Hitcher’s biggest chase scene manages to hide an entire helicopter under a sloping hill, revealing it only as it passes on top of Halsey’s beater car. There’s something out there in the desert, be it an incorruptible demon, a careening helicopter, or—most often—a reckoning with one’s own survival instinct and moral center. Whatever it may be, these men don’t see it coming until it’s much too late.
The following decade was slow for horror on the road, save for two gloriously-unclassifiable works of auteur-driven genre cinema (Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire-road-movie Near Dark and David Lynch’s yellow-striped nightmare Lost Highway) and two fashionably-bleak post-Lector thrillers (Kalifornia and Breakdown.) It took the new millennium for road-horror to reach its third and final wave: the revisionism stage. Many of their aforementioned movies were stripped of their most sellable parts, and refashioned into works of varying quality. Joy Ride (Duel as a teen movie) and Wolf Creek (The Hills Have Eyes in Australia,) led the way, alongside remakes of The Hitcher and a few others. (Also of note is Final Destination 2, which features one of the most joyously repulsive car-crash sequences in recent memory.) Two of these revisionist car-ror movies, Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, reorient the subgenre’s predilection for thoughtful perspective by putting us behind the shoulders of the villains themselves. They’re political films—Zombie is looking at foreign policy and breaches of moral codes, while Tarantino is mostly concerned with the treatment of women and male/female power dynamics—that each use manipulative identification techniques to queasily align audiences with the bad guys. (In other words, they’re Bush-era.)
For Tarantino, politics and aesthetics and cinema history are permanently intertwined; he plays on our knowledge of film-specific symbols and signatures to stage his manipulation. The cars here come from cited movies (the Charger from Dirty Mary Crazy Larry chases the Challenger from Vanishing Point,) and they’re outfitted with references to other favorites (in the scenes where we might sympathize with serial killer Stuntman Mike, his car is adorned with the rubber-duck ornament previously rocked by a heroic Kris Kristofferson in Sam Peckinpah’s trucking-epic Convoy.) Even the sound cues are borrowed from the background noise of other movies (listen closely during the climax for a quick needle-drop from the Race with the Devil soundtrack.) Death Proof is a consideration of the “car genre” far more encyclopedic than almost any work of comparable criticism can claim to be. It just played at the Coolidge last month, during a Tarantino-themed program. But if there’s enough noise made at these roadside midnights, it’s likely that we’ll get another look into Stuntman Mike’s rearview mirror.
HIGHWAYS TO HELL. COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 290 HARVARD AVE., BROOKLINE. FRIDAYS AND SATURDAYS AT 11:59PM, FROM 2.5—2.20. ROAD GAMES AND THE HITCHER SHOWN VIA 35MM, DUEL AND DEATH VALLEY VIA 16MM. $11.25 PER SHOWING.