Some of the most spine-tingling horror films of all feature cars. We pick our top 5.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the season of the horror film is upon us. Prepare for your Netflix feed to be bombarded with tales of the eerie and unexpected, gory bloodbaths and jump-a-minute fright-fests as Halloween creeps ever nearer.
As a genre, horror is a pretty diverse beast that spans a huge range of subject matters and scenarios and let's be honest, some of them can be pretty far fetched - if not downright laughable - I'm talking about you 1988 clanger 'Slugs'. Which incidentally, is a must watch if gastropods with human dentures are your thing.
Man eating mollusks aside, a good horror film will lock into our collective subconscious, hone in on the biggest fears of an era and exploit it for all it's worth. It's no coincidence that the economic and social ambiguity of the 1970s spawned a glut of films that demonised anyone seen to be dissenting from the traditional, Christian, wholesome family image of generations gone by - for example. Or that the rapid technologic advancement seen between the 1980s and early 2000s gave rise to movies that capitalised on the notion of haunting via technology.
Whilst the humble Hyundai doesn't automatically spring to mind as the most terrifying subject matter available and murderous Mercedes are few and far between, some of the most iconic and enduring horror films can be related to a vehicle of some sort. Granted, you can probably count the number of movies actually about possessed cars you know on one hand but that doesn't mean the good old Audi isn't just as pivotal to the plots as the villain themselves.
Pretty bold claim, isn't it? But this frustrated film critic stands by it. From the obvious to the slightly more left field, go with us on this...
Read on if you dare and discover our pick of the 5 best horror films that have cars at their (blackened, evil) heart.
If nothing else, you'll have some top film suggestions for those cold, dark winter nights. Just don't watch alone...
5) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
If ever a film could prove that there's no such thing as bad publicity, this is it. Banned in several countries around the world on account of the extreme violence depicted within, it didn't take TCM long to secure it's place as a cult classic. In fact, since it's release in 1974, Hooper's horror debut has been lauded as one of the most influential movies of the genre and cited as a major lynchpin for the generations of slasher movies that followed in years to come.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, it follows the journey of Sally Hardesty and her travelling companions, who embark on an ill-fated road trip across the Lone Star State. Along the way, the group encounter more than their fair share of maniacal hitchhikers and inbred locals with cannibalistic tendencies. Most of the protagonists meet a disturbingly gruesome end and the action culminates in a showdown between Sally and the infamous masked, power tool wielding villain known as Leatherface.
All very interesting, I hear you cry - but what has any of that got to do with cars?
Enter the 1972 green Ford Club Wagon that Hardesty and her companions use to hit the roads of Texas. An iconic second generation camper that boasted seating for 12 passengers, natty hounds tooth fabric on every seat and a thoroughly modern AM/FM sound system. From the offset, the vehicle is (fairly obviously) significant simply because it is the mode of transport that spirits the group from the relative safety of their previous lives into the jaws of certain death, destruction and murder most horrid.
Symbolically speaking, however, the Club Wagon represents so much more. Part hippie wagon and part chariot of doom, the van epitomizes the concept of free love, rejection of the system and alternative lifestyles. In 70's America, social and economic turmoil prevailed and trust in institutions such as government and the church were waning. Half of society feared the breakdown of the nuclear family and dissention from traditional Christian values. The other half embraced the change. As a result, a generation of horror films emerged that acted as cautionary tales to anyone wishing to break the mold and TCM is a shining example of this.
Interestingly, as the film progresses and only Sally is left (saved no doubt by her virginal goodness of course) another vehicle is used to take her away from an untimely death - namely, a Chevrolet C10 Pickup. The wholesome, masculine truck happens to be passing in her hour of need, she hops in the trunk and escapes death. I'll leave the feminists amongst you to draw your own conclusions about the patriarchal symbolism there but it's another score for the cars of the film for sure.
The moral of the story? Well, there could be any number but I'd plump for this: if you ever find yourself in the deep south, surrounded by cannibals bearing chainsaws, make sure you've got a speedy gettaway car to hand.
4) Halloween, 1978. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Arguably one of the most iconic horror villains ever, Michael Myers is a silent but very deadly serial killer with a thirst for the blood of the residents of his hometown Haddonfield, Illinois. Following an escape from the asylum in which he was detained for years after brutally murdering his teenage sister, Myers proceeds to pick off a group of unsuspecting teenagers on All Hallows Eve.
The 1977 Chevy Monte Carlo first makes it's appearance in the film as it coasts by protagonist Laurie and her friends as they walk home from school. Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis seems spooked by the car, which the audience knows contains a murderous Myers.
Perhaps the most significant role of the car, however comes a little later in the film as Annie Brackett - a friend of Laurie - attempts to sneak away from her babysitting charges to meet her boyfriend. As Annie slips into the driver's seat of the Chevy and prepares to leave, she notices that the windows are inexplicably steamed up - as if someone else were inside the vehicle. Cue Myers, a sharp knife, a lot of blood and screaming and the demise of poor Annie.
Importantly here, the film once again blurs the delineation between two worlds. In simplistic terms, the living world for Annie and the afterlife. In metaphorical terms, the 'old' life of America as a whole and the new unknown that many feared the country was slipping into. Therefore, the car becoming the scene of the murder suggests that decline is one step closer - a theme that is heightened as the action moves into the homes of the 'decent American folk'.
So while it is Myer's dastardly deeds and terrifying mask that sticks in most people's minds, without the Chevy, one of the most memorable death scenes of the Halloween canon wouldn't have happened.
3) Christine, 1983. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Stephen King
Probably the most famous film car of all time, the red 1958 Plymouth Fury, lovingly called Christine by it's owners is a horror concept that shouldn't be scary but oh my, it is. King's flawless ability to take innocuous elements of the every day and inanimate objects and make them utterly terrifying, coupled with Carpenter's eye for detail mean that not only is this a film about a car, it's a really frightening one!
You don't need to be a film critic to understand that the car is pretty pivotal in this movie - it's the protagonist after all. But it's the personification at play that's important here. Unlike the aforementioned films, in which the car is used as a symbol of transition, here Christine is given a personality. She becomes an unlikely anti-hero, championing the underdog main character of Arnie Cunningham and transforming him from school nerd to cocky, confident greaser.
Male mental health and social isolation are key focusses for King in many of his works and this is no different. Arnie is socially awkward and relentlessly bullied. Stepping on again from Halloween, the role of the vehicle here isn't simply gap-bridging, it becomes the force that will elevate Arnie from his miserable situation and ultimately avenge him. Interestingly, the car is given a very female identity with traits that are stereotypically attached to women - possessiveness, jealously and vitriol.
What plays out is a sort of twisted tale of first love that involves negative emotions, dire consequences and the corruption of an essentially good man. In using the fury in this way, the film hints at society's innate worries at the time - family breakdown, technological advances and the fall of the American Dream.
2) Ghostbusters, 1984. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Written by Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis
First and foremost, for anyone doubting this film's horror credentials, I defy you to put a 5 year old in front of the opening Library scene and not have them frozen with terror/ crying/scarred for life.
My childhood aside, Ghostbusters saw the humble vehicle take on a new and interesting direction in supernatural films, in that it became an overt force for good. Part ambulance, part hearse and so famous it actually has its own Wikipedia page. The 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Futura Duplex limo-style endloader or as it's better known Ecto 1, stands at an impressive 21ft long, 8ft high and 7ft wide and comes fully equipped with everything the 'busters need to be suitably unafraid of Zool and his minions.
Aesthetically similar to an emergency vehicle, the design nods to the general feeling of the early 80s that society was in a veritable state of decline - in this case, literally to hell - and that the underdogs are the only people qualified to save us. Interestingly, Ackroyd initially wanted the Ectomobile to be black and encased in white and purple strobe lights but as much of the movie is shot at night, the cinematographers felt it wouldn't work visually.
Which begs the question, would the car be such an integral part of the film's brand identity had it looked different? It's certainly the most consistent anchor across the franchises, appearing in every single film to date, even whilst characters change and are reimagined.
1) The Hitcher, 1986. Directed by Robert Hammond. Written by Eric Red
As you would expect from the title, the road trip from hell is the subject of this mid-eighties film. Hard up Jim Halsey comes unstuck during a cross country journey due to lack of funds. Thinking he's found the perfect solution, he hires himself out as a driver and agrees to take a 1977 Cadillac Seville from it's vendor in Illinois to the new owner in California.
Along the way, again as expected, Halsey encounters a murderous hitchhiker by the name of John Ryder. As the film plays out, Halsey bears witness to Ryder's roadside killing spree and is plagued by Ryder. Whilst intent on inflicting mental torture and physical harm on Jim, Ryder allows him to live, placing him eventually in the position of unwitting accomplice. When asked why, the answer is simply "You're a smart kid. Figure it out"
The film challenges the idea that the open road is a symbol of freedom by making it an endless prison for Jim. His incarceration is a direct result of committing to the trip - which is arguably symptomatic of the state of the economy at the time and the lengths that the impoverished would go to. The very notion that freedom on the road is inhibited is exacerbated by the countless murders committed by Ryder.
Interestingly here, Hammond chose not to show the bodies of the Hitcher's victims. Instead, the film depicts the gruesome homicides with shots of the victims' cars abandoned by the roadside. In other instances, Ryder can be seen in the drivers seat of his victim's car, indicating what has just occurred and highlighting the violation of human rights that has literally and metaphorically taken place.
The sense of suffocation that was evident in the socio-economic climate of the time is portrayed throughout the film entirely through automobiles and roads, with action playing out at typically American settings such as gas stations. The fear of the unknown that prevailed throughout the 70s and 80s is encapsulated within the microcosm of a trip.
The conclusion? Your average run around may not seem like the obvious subject for a fright-fest of a film but in the right climate, with the right factors a play, these movies have proved that cars can be just as creepy as any old ghoul.
Buckle up, settle down, lock your doors and get watching - just don't forget to check your rear view mirror the next time you drive off!