My favorite sub-genre in all of horror isn’t a sub-genre at all, really; it’s just an element. It’s a huge one, though, one that is as much an antagonist in most cases as the monsters, demons and killers themselves. It’s a sickness, a fascination, and like a moth to flame, I’m drawn to horror movies that deal with driving, roads, and travel like I’m drawn to nothing else in film.
It’s either an asphalt fetish or a severe, unquenched wanderlust, and I’m not ashamed to admit either condition. So with that, here’s 13 road horrors that make fantastic use of a fear that goes often unspoken: the fear of what’s coming with that next mile.
(not in ranking order)
1- THE FORSAKEN (2001)
Much like a certain seminal vampire film that will be mentioned later in this list, this whisper of a flick features a bunch of crusty, sleazy desert vamps who love trouble and find more than enough of it. They die. Most vampires do in these flicks. But this movie often feels like EASY RIDER for the fangs and coffins set, and it’s a real underrated gem of a flick, both in this sub-sub-genre and in modern horror on the whole.
2- BLACK CADILLAC (2003)
Randy Quaid terrorizes the Hell out of a few state-hoppers who were just out for a good time. Picture Spielberg’s DUEL, but with a gorgeous Caddy instead of a semi with malicious intent. And yeah, Randy Quaid is really creepy in this movie. Another one that buzzed so far under the radar that I’ve never met anyone who’s ever actually seen this movie without borrowing it from me. It’s worth being sought, as a bit of coming-of-age drama, tense thriller and slight nostalgia trip all at once. It’s bare-bones and direct, which is something that tends to be a hallmark of a good road horror.
3- HIGHWAYMEN (2004)
Jim “I died for your sins and Mel Gibson’s unfathomable riches” Caviezel and Colm “Born in Sin, Come on In” Feore star in this movie that should have had a theatrical release but didn’t, thanks to the juggernaut that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was and the havoc that typecasting wrought on Caviezel’s career to this very day. It has bad-ass cars, cross-country chases, murderous intent, a tunnel-vision revenge plot and a quiet rage hidden by loud engines and a thrilling, film-long pursuit. And while it’s not nearly as gory as THE PASSION, it’s still visceral enough to allow it to straddle that horror fence.
4- THE WRAITH (1986)
It’s a touch cheesy (“Jake…Jake…Jamie!”), but this movie delivers in high-octane, white-knuckle race sequences that always end badly for anyone who dares to mess around with Mr. Charlie Sheen. There’s a life lesson to be learned from that, I believe, and I’m surprised more people haven’t hipped to that. Part supernatural horror, part THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS and part 1986 horror comfort food, this is a movie that’s absolutely essential to the idea of this sub-sub.
5- CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
This is one of my very favorite movies, a movie that begins with a car crash and ends with an absolute mindf*ck, with one of the scariest shots I’ve ever seen in horror sandwiched in between. It’s another movie that creeps, envelops as one views it, and was made by a guy, Herk Harvey, whose only prior work was in industrial and instructional film. It’s one of the most boring Criterion Collection packages I own, but the feature alone is worth the 40 bucks…though the film is public domain and can be picked up for about 4 bucks in just about any big-box pharmacy in the country. There’s little to mention without throwing out half the movie, so it’s safe to say that it’s about 90 minutes that are absolutely not wasted.
6- JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001)
In the creepiest sentence I’ve ever written, “the world’s 2nd favorite pedophile, Victor Salva, knows how to press all the wrong-but-so-right buttons.” POWDER was terrifying without even trying, and when JEEPERS CREEPERS came around, it raised that bar sky-high. If there’s one thing that Salva knows how to do, it’s film a terribly vulnerable male character, and the fear in Justin Long’s character was absolutely palpable as he and his sister crossed that one long, desolate, miserable road, chased down by the scariest truck since the Green Goblin fella out of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE. Their sh*t-box of a car they had was on its last legs from the first scene, no one could save them, and there was no hope. They never had a shred of hope, and that’s honestly terrifying. A criminal director knows how to scare the sh*t out of me: go figure!
7- HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986)
Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, cruising the streets in search of random prey, in a way that actually happened. Though a well-played dramatization by director John McNaughton, and played with a seething rage by perennial B-king Michael Rooker, this actually happened in ways that weren’t so different from what we saw. Any street, any night: it could be you. All you need is a quiet road, a dark corner, and a sociopath with a compulsion to kill. All three of those things are in great abundance the world over, but any city in America could be the background for this, which brings the fear out of the screen and into the home.
8- HIGHWAY TO HELL (1991)
This Chad “my ex-wife Hilary Swank was much more buff than I” Lowe vehicle was funny, witty, silly, gross, scary and well-conceived. Too bad it wasn’t seen anywhere but late-night pay cable, the odd VHS copy or via less-than-legal means online. Why this movie, featuring tons of odd cameos ranging from Ben Stiller to Gilbert Gottfried, hasn’t seen a DVD release is mind-boggling, because it features everything one could want in a road horror: chases, guns, demon cops, Patrick Bergin, a road in Hell being constructed by the Good Intentions Paving Company and a literal Highway to Hell. It’s not a terrifying movie, but it’s incredibly enjoyable and holds up well to numerous viewings. Plus, biker pirates!
9- NEAR DARK (1987)
One of the first films to come from THE HURT LOCKER’s Kathryn Bigelow, this moody, angry, ballsy flick about a group of nomadic vampires with a little bit of a connection to those much-maligned Confederate States of America focused on a thick-as-thieves tribe of bloodsuckers who had to keep on the constant move as a basic means of survival, leaving a trail of dead & drained bikers and drunks in their wake. The pack, led by Lance Henriksen at his sleaziest, made Adrian Pasdar interesting, Tim Thomerson viable outside of his turns in DOLLMAN or the TRANCERS movies, and Bill Paxton one of my favorite actors. The desolate locales, haunting soundtrack by Tangerine Dream and no-punches-pulled action made this movie as exciting as any vampire movie has ever been…which is rather amazing, considering how oddly quiet much of the movie actually is.
10- STEPHEN KING’S THE STAND (1994)
The road is as much a character in Mick Garris’ TV mini-series adaptation of THE STAND as Captain Trips, Stu Redman, Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg combined. In addition to the ultimate battle between good and evil, the survival of a superflu that ravages the entire human population, all of the characters have to contend with tough and arduous paths that test allegiances, faith, love and endurance all at once. It’s imposing, daunting and one of the most emotionally enduring made-for-TV movies I’ve ever seen.
11- PHANTASM (1979)
Everybody knows and probably loves PHANTASM, and the road essentially plays a giant graveyard for this film. Wherever it goes, death follows, and Mike & Reggie are only too eager to follow it all the way to its logical, gruesome, silver-balled death. The sequels only serve to reinforce this theme and build a whole universe of sorrow, loss and decay.
12- THE HITCHER (1986)
This movie’s whole gimmick is the road. It couldn’t exist without the horror of “what could happen if I pick up that hitchhiker?” And Rutger Hauer makes little C. Thomas Howell’s life a living Hell, much to my agitation upon my first viewing and increasingly to my delight upon subsequent viewings. I really, really like Rutger Hauer, so seeing him go absolutely, psychotically apesh*t on Howell & Jennifer Jason Leigh is a unique and wonderful thrill. This movie takes the jilted traveler premise so far past its logical bounds that it’s almost comedic at points…but comedic in the most unsettling way that a major studio would allow in 1986.
13- DEAD END (2003)
Though this film is my #1 pick for road horror, it’s not the best of these movies. It just happens to be my favorite horror flick from the past decade. It’s the simplest of premises–a prototypically dysfunctional, nuclear family is on their way to Grandma’s for Christmas dinner, and they take the back road this year. In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” a possible interpretation of the poem is that its narrator laments choosing the “road less traveled by,” and that “all the difference” is not something that he actually wanted. DEAD END epitomizes that interpretation with a strikingly realistic family dynamic, sprinklings of urban legends left and right, and a double-twist that is apparent from a mile away, but played so enjoyably and empathetically by all the parties involved (especially Ray Wise and Lin Shaye) that it ultimately doesn’t even matter. The movie takes its viewer for a dark ride that’s enjoyable, creepy, powerful and heartfelt, which is rare enough in horror to push it to the top, despite it being an inferior film to at least half of the movies mentioned before it on this list.