In action and drama films, the car crash is often used to bring shock, surprise, and intensity to otherwise light, entertaining fare. Horror, on the other hand, doesn’t need help in creating shock and surprise; when horror films do have a sizable budget, they frequently choose to spend it on makeup, monsters, and gore effects rather than the expensive set-ups required for physical stunts and car explosions.
But on those rare occasions when a horror film decides to portray a car crash, those scenes are infinitely more harrowing and effective than in other films. In honor of this weekend’s release of Cars 3 (which looks decidedly darker than its predecessors, by the way) we’ve put together a list of horror films with spectacular, disturbing car crash sequences…
Though it is remembered for many things, including great performances from an all-female lead cast, Neil Marshall’s claustrophobic survival film opened with (SPOILER ALERT) the tragic loss of one character’s husband and child. The scene is brief, horrifying, and the aftermath of it hangs over the entire film. Nearly a decade later, a car crash would be used for similar story purposes in 2014’s The Babadook.
The opening of Inside echoes the tragedy of both The Descent and The Babadook, but directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury take it one horrifying step further by having the survivor of the opening car crash be a pregnant woman. The film is filled with a series of disturbingly memorable horror set pieces, and one of them is the uncomfortably quiet opening moments in the aftermath of a wreck – a single living person sitting in the totaled wreck of a vehicle next to her dead spouse.
There were several films whose car crashes would have put them on the list if not for the fact that they weren’t genuine horror films. John Frankenheimer’s work in Ronin is unmatched in its intensity, and Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown is a brilliant post-Duel B-movie, but both fall more comfortably into thriller than horror. The only reason Crash received special consideration is because of its director, David Cronenberg, is an all-time horror great, and because the film itself borders on horror with its unflinching violence, haunting performances, and moody score.
While Richard Franklin’s Road Games is mostly a highway-bound reinvention of Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, the few sequences of car action and impact leave a definite impression. There is no doubt that the film spills into horror with its seediness, its garrote wire killer, and its performance from newly dubbed scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. The eighteen-wheeler landing atop the car it is pursuing is a particular highlight.
There is little left to be said about Steven Spielberg’s first directorial triumph, painstakingly crafted from a taut short story by Richard Matheson. Brilliant themes and skilled filmmaking aside, the whole film builds inexorably to one expectation: the car being pursued by an evil truck will finally turn around and face its pursuer. It does so, and in spectacular fashion, as the truck smashes through the flaming wreck of a car only to find itself teetering on the edge of a cliff… and there is nowhere to go but down.
It is appropriate for Elliot Silverstein’s The Car to follow Duel on this list, because it takes every story beat from Spielberg’s mainstream breakthrough, Jaws, and sets it on land with a driverless black car instead of a shark. There are several attack sequences in the film and more than a few car wrecks, but it is the over-the-top end sequence that puts it on this list. The local deputy lures the car into a quarry, sends it over a cliff, and then blows up the quarry and the car in an explosion sequence that seems nearly never-ending.
THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS
Before director Peter Weir became known in America for his lyrical horror films Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, he made this offbeat, darkly comic film about a town whose livelihood is based on the intentional destruction of tourists’ cars. The plot and characters are outlandish, as is the car violence; there are only a handful of genuine car mayhem sequences, but those sequences are a wonder to behold.
No list of films about car wrecks would be complete without the inclusion of Stephen King’s only directorial work. Based on his own short story, the film chronicles the growing war between people and the machines that have suddenly come to violent life. The film has its unique pleasures, from the AC/DC score to a committed performance from character actor Pat Hingle, but its vehicle carnage is what makes it most memorable.
RACE WITH THE DEVIL
This film has an impressive road movie pedigree: directed by Jack Starrett (who made biker film Run, Angel, Run and episodes of Dukes of Hazzard) and starring Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda and Two-Lane Blacktop’s Warren Oates, Race with the Devil combines the road film with the cult film to great and creepy effect. The final act of the film is a prolonged chase scene where two couples are trying to escape a group of backwoods Satanists, and there are a number of fantastic crashes along the way.
It is a remarkable enough feat to create a devastating car crash whose impact is felt emotionally through the whole film. More impressive than that is the film whose entire story is about the painful physical aftermath of an accident, played nearly in real time. Stuck is real-world horror from Stuart Gordon, known primarily for his decidedly unreal H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. Stephen Rea’s performance conveys deep suffering, and there are moments of body trauma that rival the best and creepiest of Cronenberg.
Everything in crazed hitchhiker John Ryder’s wake is left in ruins. That includes lives, souls, and more than a few cars and helicopters. Robert Harmon’s direction of the relentless script by Eric Red strips the horror film down to its bare essentials, but still somehow manages to paint on a massive canvas. The wide-open deserts isolate the protagonist and antagonist in an eternal struggle, and the explosions of the vehicles are just more fire in their own personal hell.
For the first half hour of Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse, a viewer would be forgiven for being confused and possibly a little frustrated with the pace of the story about a group of young ladies laughing, talking, and drinking over a fairly uneventful night. But at the end of the night, the drive home spins the film in a new direction with breakneck speed. Stuntman Mike offers one young lady a ride home in his “death proof” car, and it leads to one of the most spectacularly executed sequences of action in a major theatrical release of the last two decades. Watching the crash multiple times from various angles, the brief moment of impact echoes numerous times on the screen, imprinting itself in the viewer’s mind forever.
FINAL DESTINATION 2
Based on sheer carnage alone, Final Destination 2 is one of the most devastating car crashes of any film, horror or otherwise. Seeking to top the brilliant action of the original film’s airplane accident, director and stunt coordinator took advantage of his first major feature opportunity to create a Rube Goldberg machine of violence and mayhem. A loose tree log and a cup of hot coffee lead to one of the deadliest event chains in film history. The highway sequence alone was enough to secure Ellis (who we sadly lost in 2013) another directing gig later in the franchise with 2009’s The Final Destination.
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