07/30/2012 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2012

The Cars Have Eyes: Killer Cars


My car was trying to kill me. Not in any cinematic supernatural way, a la Christine or The Car. It was actually far worse than that (for me). My car was torturing me like an abusive boyfriend or in the case of that crazy year (2009), Arch Hall Jr. in The Sadist. Though my sturdy muscle-mobile -- my 1971 Ford Torino -- had rarely steered me wrong, my deceptively adorable Datsun had quite suddenly become a holy terror. But why? For years I'd tended to the thing/bad seed/ "Shape of Rage" Brood creature like a spoiled child and it had remained well behaved, reliable -- a precious little angel. But one, two, three, four (five?) dark and desolate nights later, everything changed and that devil in disguise had turned against me -- Henry Lee Lucas style. Breaking down repeatedly, stranding me on scary streets, leaving me in high desert dereliction, and fending for myself in gas stations that make the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family pump look like a cheery Travel Center of America truck stop, life with my car had become a real horror show.


And I don't mean horror show the way Orange's Alex proclaims the dark wonders of life -- those bizarre, deviant, wonderfully perverse moments that strike you in the most unusual or, sometimes, the most banal of circumstances (and I've encountered some strangely intriguing situations while stranded on the road). No, I mean quite literally, the cliché of slouching towards civilization, in the black of night, losing cell phone reception, and only finding aid in a man turned aggressive creep.


And yet, when you're almost amused by how ludicrously cinematic your life has become ("It's only a movie, it's only a movie... wait. Oh Rosemary, this is no dream this is really happening!") you nearly forget to be scared. Nearly. Through all that personal vehicular peril, I'm convinced 2009 was actually laid out by The Hitcher's John Ryder (the Rutger Hauer version) and that John Ryder is a real person. But with a few years in front of me, I can allow those memories to flicker across my mind --  making my thoughts wander towards horror movies, and more specifically, the car in horror movies.  Strangely, these thoughts settle my nerves. Perhaps after two recent, lovely maniac-free road trips across America and the fact that my dramatic Datsun is running much more smoothly these days. For now.


In horror cinema, the car is a foremost force -- an angel of mercy, an agent of doom or a ghastly, terrorizing, torture trap -- sometimes all in one movie. There are numerous pictures to discuss, and I'm going to run off a long list (and sentence)  -- movies from Night of the Living Dead (those goddamn keys!); to Race With the Devil (the great Warren Oates line, "I don't believe a school bus on a Sunday!" has become my mantra towards anything unusual on the road);  to Duel, a movie that struck fear in the heart of every traveling salesman just trying to get down a California highway;  to Zodiac (the opening scene, set to "Hurdy Gurdy Man" remains one of the scariest auto slaughters in cinema);  to non-horror movie but no less horrific Bonnie and Clyde's  painfully orgasmic, bullet strewn, auto slaughter;  


to Psycho (even the police officer seems creepy while pulling over poor, desperate Janet Leigh who drives and drives and drives -- with credit to Bernard Hermann who makes driving even more compelling) and meets her demise at the Bates Motel under the spout of a shower only to have that car ditched in a watery bog;  to that other watery grave in Carnival of Souls (not a carnival I wish to vist on one of my journeys);  to the family vacation gone to mutant hell in The Hills Have Eyes (I honestly think I saw some of that clan while driving through rural Pennsylvania a few years ago -- no offense to the state);  to the astonishingly beautiful, yet horrific auto-water grave Shelley Winters suffers, seaweed entwined in her hair in the brilliant The Night of the Hunter (not technically a monster movie, but fulfills enough moments -- Mitchum's arms outstretched as he chases the kids out of the cellar);  to Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat, where David Manners and Joan Allison share a bus ride and crash with (but of course) Béla Lugosi, only to be given shelter by his great friend, Boris Karloff (wonderful), who intends  to... sacrifice Ms. Alison in a satanic ritual. Whatever will David Manners do? (Frankly, I think I'd just stick with Boris and Béla.)


Again, there are countless pictures to discuss (and I've written about cars in cinema -- Two-Lane Blacktop-is-the-greatest  --  a lot -- and movie motor meldtown too), but as I road trip, especially in remote areas, I often think of that great horror road and house massacre-masterpiece -- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While not regarded as a car movie, the picture achieves the above auto trifecta of vehicular rescue, ruse and ravage. (Don't pick up a crazy hitcher; don't get into that creepy guy's truck and... holy God! Jump right into that man's semi. Now!) The picture strikes a personal cord with me since I so enjoy wandering to/getting lost in remote places.  


As I stated, Massacre (and other movies) fuels a morbid fascination, or a sense of danger in myself, mixed with the imprudent notion that my car will keep me safe. Not sure. But I like to think of myself as curious. Though I'm not looking for a meat hook hanging (naturally), I often brazenly stop off at anything or anywhere I find fascinating -- a vacant creepy house, a broken down fun park or a carnival in the middle of the desert. On a family trip, I once begged my father to drop me off at a prison. I thought we could tour it like the Tillamook Cheese Factory or the Jamestown Buffalo Museum.


So I'm fairly certain I would make a pit stop at a Slaughter House. I think. Though I would avoid picking up the creepy, head-cheese-loving, hand-slicing-psycho hitchhiker Edwin Neal (would you pick up Edwin Neal? Detour's sexy-scary Ann Savage I can fall for. Tom Neale, sure. But Edwin Neal?) the free-wheeling kids in Tobe Hooper's classic are forced to kick him out of the van for being weirder than their '70s, let-it-all-hang-out hearts can stand. And if that's not enough, once poor Marilyn Burns is chased (quite spectacularly) by Leatherface, chainsaw a blazing, screaming through bramble and brush, she finds refuge at a seemingly kindly man's gas station. Not so fast, Miss Burns. Once in the truck, he stuffs her in a sack.  Waking up at a dinner table, complete with lunatic family and blood sucking, half-alive gramps, a culinary event Hannibal Lecter would take issue with (how rude!), she frees herself and is finally saved by (bless you White Line Fever boys of the road) a trucker.


And though not a trucker, god bless you, son-of-a-bitch fugitive Ralph Meeker, for helping Barry Sullivan in John Sturges' Jeopardy, even after you took over his car, forced his tough-as-nails wife Barbara Stanwyck to succumb to you while gobbling down all the crackers in her car and nabbing her husband's gun. Oh my. The repartee between Stanwyck and Meeker is angry, sick and sexy (he triple slaps Stanwyck!) and his confession for cheap perfume is a peach (albeit a rotten one): "It doesn't last as long, but it hits harder." (Horror movies should follow this formula.) Like Chainsaw, Jeopardy also fulfills the rescue, ruse and ravage formula (well, ruse, ravage and rescue) but with a better looking psychopath. And Meeker knows his way around a car -- see Kiss Me Deadly -- and my writeup of the picture's fantastic opening scene.


So... there's always a nutty Meeker who'll come through, even after so much auto-trauma (Barry Sullivan needs him!). With this, I say damn any cinematic warning signs. Driving across the country, into the sticks, toward the freaks, toward the beauties, taking in the gorgeousness of the Badlands or that vast Montana sky or those charming small towns un-corrupted by predatory Walmart (fingers crossed for Beaver, Utah), or just into oblivion, the vanishing point, I remain tied to the road. And now that my Dad isn't behind the wheel, perhaps I could tour that Nevada Prison from years back. If that remains a bad idea, well... it might make for one hell of a movie. Preferably with Meeker, Charles Bronson, Lon Chaney Jr., William Talman and Broderick Crawford. Another film (Big House U.S.A.). I'll watch that in my hotel. And now... back to the blacktop.


Below is a gallery from my recent road trip with not-so-scary photographs. Nothing bad can happen at the El Bambi Truck Stop:

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.