Haunted houses. Possessed children. Reanimated corpses. Men or women cursed with vampirism, madness, or lycanthropy. These are all well-loved and well-worn staples of the horror genre, and the basis of scores of the most entertaining and terrifying films ever made. But once you get past those undoubtedly popular tropes, there are others to explore. Like the nightmares that roll down blackened roads on four — or more — wheels.
Horror movies in which vehicles are front and center — whether it’s a car, a truck, or some combination of the two — are perhaps not as plentiful as the categories mentioned above, but they’re out there. And if you’re cruising down the endless, labyrinthine lanes of your favorite streaming highway during spooky season looking for something to hitch a ride with for 100 minutes or so, you could do far worse than the 13 models we’ve parked below for your perusal. We can’t promise a smooth ride every time out, but we can proclaim with confidence that these machines will get you where you want to go.
So buckle up, press the ignition button, and let’s hit the gas on this handy list of automotive shockers. There’s no speed limit, which is quite useful when the Devil himself is coming up fast behind you…
This is where it all started — Steven Spielberg’s career, that is. After a couple of years directing episodes of TV shows like Night Gallery and Columbo, Spielberg got the chance to direct this TV-movie (expanded to feature length for overseas theatrical release) based on a short story by legendary horror/sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, who adapted the story himself.
A ratings hit at the time and a cult classic to this day, Duel can now be seen as the precursor to Jaws, the milestone horror film Spielberg made just four years later. In this case, the relentless force is a Peterbilt 281 tanker truck, its driver unseen behind its dirty windows, which terrorizes salesman Dennis Weaver as he wearily drives home through the Mojave Desert. The massive truck itself becomes the monster that Weaver’s everyman must vanquish, and the fact that we never see who’s behind the wheel or learn the driver’s motivation makes it that much more frightening.
Race with the Devil (1975)
Two motorcycle dealership owners (Warren Oates and Peter Fonda) and their wives (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) are driving from San Antonio, Texas in an RV for a skiing vacation in Colorado when the two men stumble across a Satanic ritual in a field one night. The couples are then pursued across the Lone Star State by a seemingly endless supply of devil worshippers, as each town’s chapter calls ahead to the next and tells them to run the RV off the road.
We recall this fun, occasionally nerve-jangling B-movie as a staple of drive-ins during the mid-1970s and a more action-oriented offshoot of the “Satanic panic” horror craze of the time. The threat this time comes from a literal army of cars, trucks, and motorcycles helmed by the acolytes of Hell, and the film’s steady build-up of dread and bleak ending may put you off cross-country trips for a good, long time.
The Car (1977)
Another mid-‘70s crowdpleaser tailor-made for double features, The Car stars a Lincoln Continental Mark III as a sinister, impenetrable car that starts running down hapless victims in a sleepy desert town. With no driver visible behind the wheel, it soon becomes apparent that something supernatural is afoot. Oh yeah, the movie also features James “father of Thanos” Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, Ronny Cox, and sister child actors Kim and Kyle Richards (the latter a year away from appearing in Halloween).
But make no mistake, that big, black Lincoln is the star of the film (four were actually used during production, with all but three destroyed), and the bits when the car is offscreen are tolerable at best. While The Car does get surprisingly nasty at times (with a couple of shocking deaths) it’s mostly cheesy fun for an hour and a half.
The Hearse (1980)
Trish Van Devere stars in this rather fun, semi-forgotten little exercise about a teacher who leaves San Francisco following a divorce and her mother’s death to get a little alone time at her late aunt’s secluded house in a small town. She finds herself not exactly welcome by the townspeople — which include Joseph Cotten (Baron Blood) as a prickly local lawyer — and haunted by supernatural occurrences, including the continuing appearance of a big, black hearse outside the house.
Directed by George Bowers (who worked primarily as an editor), The Hearse is frankly inferior to the other 1980 horror film Van Devere appeared in (this time with her husband, George C. Scott), the classic The Changeling. Nevertheless, The Hearse has its charm as a low-budget, early ‘80s shocker, and its supernatural storyline is a nice change of pace from the era’s slasher-heavy offerings. Also of note in a supporting role is David Gautreaux, who was at one time slated to star as Vulcan science officer Xon in the abandoned late 1970s Star Trek: Phase II TV series after Leonard Nimoy declined to return as Spock.
It seemed inevitable that the careers of Stephen King and John Carpenter would collide — especially during the early peak years for both — and they eventually did on this uneven but gripping thriller based on King’s novel, which came out only months earlier. Once again, the real star is the classic red and white 1958 Plymouth Fury that gives the movie its name, a demonic vehicle with a haunted past that takes over the life of high school outcast Arnie (Keith Gordon) and slaughters anyone who slights him.
The actors are clearly too old for their teen roles, but Carpenter’s excellent-as-usual imagery and score go a long way toward making Christine work. The scene in which she first regenerates herself from wreck to brand-new in front of a stunned Arnie is a showstopper, as are several other set pieces. The movie’s energy may flag, but Christine herself remains embedded in pop culture as a truly creepy engine of destruction. A remake was announced by Blumhouse Productions in 2021.
Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Stephen King himself got in the driver’s seat — sorry, into the director’s chair — for this bad movie classic, which King rightfully never followed up with any more filmmaking outings. Based on his 1973 short story “Trucks,” the movie finds Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, and a bunch of others trapped in a truck stop as machines of all kinds — not just trucks, as in the original story, but cars, lawnmowers, radios, and everything else — enact retribution upon their former human masters.
The vehicles, however, are the mechanical stars of the story (which was remade somewhat more faithfully as a now forgotten 1997 TV movie using King’s original title), with a Western Star 4800 truck sporting a large Green Goblin mask on its grille providing the film’s most iconic image. Too bad there’s nothing else remotely iconic about it; King’s first and only time as a director is a hopelessly inept, unintentionally funny mess, unless you’re really into endless car crashes.
The Ambulance (1990)
Like many genre movies written and directed by the late, great Larry Cohen, The Ambulance offers some sly social commentary beneath its thriller exterior. Eric Roberts plays a comic book artist who puts a woman he meets into an ambulance after she collapses on the street — and never sees her again. He soon learns that she’s not the first patient to step into that same vehicle and vanish into thin air…
Cohen doesn’t dig as deep here as he does in pictures like God Told Me To or The Stuff, but the ambulance whisking patients into oblivion is a nice metaphor for the medical field and particularly the health care industry. Roberts is full of tics and quirks as usual, but the movie is propelled forward by that zippy Cohen energy.
Leave it to David Cronenberg to give the term “auto-erotic” a whole new meaning. Based on J.G. Ballard’s already controversial book, Crash stars James Spader, Holly Hunter, and Deborah Kara Unger in a bizarre psychological thriller about a group of emotionally distant people drawn together by the intense sexual arousal they experience while watching or being involved in car crashes.
As explicit and often difficult to watch as one might expect, Crash explores many of Cronenberg’s favorite themes — the relationship between sex and violence, the mechanization of humanity, and the effect of intense trauma on human flesh — filtered through the lens of Ballard’s psychosexual narrative. There’s no enemy or monster per se in the film, only the lingering question of what is produced when human and machine merge in the most catastrophic way imaginable.
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Siblings Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips) are driving home from college through rural Florida when they are briefly harassed on the road by a rusty 1941 Chevy truck. It’s only later, when they spy the driver of the truck — who doesn’t appear to be fully human — dumping what appears to be bodies down a pipe next to an abandoned church that they realize they’ve stumbled upon something unspeakable.
Jeepers Creepers is a low-budget exercise in sustained terror, with the first half of the film dominated by that malevolent-looking truck. Echoes of Duel abound in the chase sequences involving the Chevy and the kids’ car, but the film turns into an outright monster movie halfway through when the nature of the truck’s owner — the hideous “Creeper” — is revealed.
Joy Ride (2001)
Co-written by J.J. Abrams and starring a pre-Fast and Furious Paul Walker, Joy Ride follows two brothers (Walker and Steve Zahn) who ignite the ire of a vicious murderer when they play a prank on him over a CB radio while on a cross-country drive. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game in which the brothers, a girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski), and a second girl are all targets of the unseen killer known as Rusty Nail.
Taut and often frightening, Joy Ride plays as a sort of updated version of Duel while incorporating the CB radio culture that was popularized in the late 1970s by movies like Smokey and the Bandit. The psychopathic trucker is voiced by Ted Levine, best known as Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs.
Dead End (2003)
You may be able to guess the ending based on how many Twilight Zone episodes you’ve watched and remember, but Dead End is still a nifty and often eerie little thriller. Frank (Ray Wise of Twin Peaks fame) is driving his wife (Insidious star Lin Shaye), their son, their daughter, and the latter’s boyfriend to visit relatives for the holidays when they narrowly avoid an accident on a back road. Little do they realize that they might not have avoided calamity after all.
A creepy hearse factors in the proceedings here, which take on an increasingly surreal tone as the poor Harrington family begin experiencing several bizarre occurrences on their drive. Directors/writers Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa deliver plenty of atmosphere to spare in their spooky little road movie.
Death Proof (2007)
Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) has outfitted his car to be “death proof” — meaning that the driver can’t get killed even if involved in a terrible crash. But that doesn’t mean anyone else in the vehicle is safe, which Mike proves when he kills a young woman (Rose McGowan) who takes a ride with him and proceeds to slaughter her friends as well. It’s only a matter of time before another group of young women cross paths with Mike and his “death proof” machine.
Quentin Tarantino‘s Death Proof was originally part of the Grindhouse double feature experiment, along with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, but it was re-released as its own film after Grindhouse flopped. Russell is excellent, as are stars Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and others, but the film is perhaps Tarantino’s talkiest ever (one astonishing car chase aside) and its odd structure makes it drag. Still, the notion of “Stuntman Mike” being out there and using his car as a murder weapon is an unsettling one.
The newest addition to our list just makes it because (and yes, spoilers are ahead) the main character, a dancer named Alexia who performs erotic numbers at a motor show, appears to have sex with the car she dances on — not just in the car (although she is in the vehicle when the deed happens), but with it. Alexia, who is also a serial killer with a titanium plate in her head from a childhood car crash, learns she’s pregnant and later gives birth in a gruesome climax to a baby with a titanium spine.
Raw director Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature — which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival — is about a lot of things, including gender, grief, and identity. But it’s also the first film we can remember seeing in which a woman got pregnant in a car, by the car itself. It’s certainly provocative, and it makes Titane a worthy — if entirely unconventional — addition to this list.
Titane is in limited release now.