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June 28-July 4, 2006

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Cult Leader

When Cars Go Bad: This time, it's mechanical

By Steve Palopoli

I WAS WILLING to go along with the talking toys, even though we all know from Twilight Zone that they'll turn on you at any moment. Monsters in the closet that turn out to be nice, I guess I can buy that. But cars that drive themselves? Sorry, Pixar, I am not down.

Didn't John Lasseter and the rest of the people who made Cars see any movie where cars zip around all on their lonesome? They are evil! Take Christine, for starters. Not a great movie—in fact, John Carpenter's first real hint of many bad movies to come—but still, I think it got the point across. Bad car, no driver!

And what about The Car? Despite going in and out of print on video and DVD, this 1977 James Brolin movie has become a cult classic. I saw the first half hour or so on the ABC Saturday night movie one time when I was a kid, and it scared me so bad I couldn't watch the rest. I had to have a friend tell me about it the next day, and of course having someone describe it to you rather than watching it yourself makes it seem about 1,000 times scarier than it actually is. I would not ride my bike after dark for months after that, and if I saw a black Cadillac at any time of day, forget it.

Watching it now, of course, it's about as scary as an automotive manual, but it's still a hoot. There are lots of cool shots of the car, a Lincoln Mark III designed by George Barris—he of the TV Batmobile, KITT on Knight Rider, the General Lee and the car for The Munsters. The best parts are in the beginning, when no one can figure out why some maniac motorist refuses to share the road with bicyclists, hippie hitchhikers or off-duty law enforcement personnel. Turns out there's no one driving—at least that's what everyone becomes convinced of, despite the fact that not a single person in the film ever gets a peep behind the impenetrable tinted windows. Brolin comes up with about the worst plan I can imagine for stopping a car, and the supposedly untamable auto-monster not only obligingly drives right into their trap, but also motors around pointlessly for 10 minutes beforehand to give them enough time to set it up. Still, if you never thought you'd see a demonic car chase a parade into a graveyard, this is the movie for you.

Stephen King's 1986 film Maximum Overdrive (which is bad in a fun way) and the 1997 TV movie Trucks (which is bad in an excruciating way), were two versions of a subpar King short story about driverless vehicles set on wiping out humans. But perhaps the most ludicrous scrap in the killer car subgenre is the 1990 TV movie Wheels of Terror. When star Joanna Cassidy (better known as the replicant Zhora in Blade Runner) calls the title auto "a really filthy black sedan," she means it's covered in mud. Or maybe it's a Freudian slip: in a tasteless twist of epic proportions, the car is a sexual predator that preys on children. The whole movie, you keep thinking, "OK, this car must have a driver," but none is ever shown, and amazingly, no one ever talks about this in the entire film, even when a kid escapes from it. I'm sure director Christopher Cain (who did Young Guns) thought he was making some really significant social statement about the facelessness of crimes against children, but instead it plays like a perverted remake of The Car, with the sedan chasing people around in the desert and appearing to have a mind of its own. Then (spoiler warning, as if you care) in the most ludicrous Carrie-rip-off ending in history, the sedan crashes to its death, appears again out of nowhere to scare the main characters, and then crashes to its death in the exact same way a second time!

There are two actual good films in this genre, though both feature vehicles with drivers. Don't worry, they're still plenty evil. One is Steven Spielberg's Duel, a much-deserving cult film featuring Dennis Weaver stalked by a mysterious trucker. It's the mother of all car-stalk movies, and the sweaty tension Spielberg managed to create in his debut is worthy of Hitchcock. Another good one is 2001's Joy Ride, by director John Dahl (whose earlier neonoir films have big followings and are also worth seeking out). Don't miss the classy Duel reference, which comes, as the Wonder Twins themselves would have appreciated, in the form of an ice truck.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite evil-car movie here.

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