Daniel DiManna
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Killer Car Movies: Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” (1971)

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killer car movies
Admit it, you’d be scared if this truck started following you…
Photo: PanzerschreckLeopard via CC

When we think of scary movies and the monsters that inhabit them, we usually think of eerie entities like ghosts, vampires, and zombies. But what about vehicles? It may sound like an odd proposition, but the history of cinema has shown that the humble car can be just as intimidating, disturbing, and frighteningly entertaining as any flesh-and-blood beast on the silver screen. The News Wheel is celebrating Halloween with a look at some of the creepiest killer car movies in film history, and first on our list is Duel from 1971.

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The best killer car movie of all time?

Okay, so there’s some subtle cheating going on here. Anyone familiar with the film Duel will know that the vile vehicle in question is a truck, not a car. But this legendary TV movie is such a classic of the “killer car” genre, that excluding it would be a huge disservice. In fact, it could easily be argued that Duel is the greatest movie of its kind, an excellent example of a seemingly silly premise used to its fullest potential.

Written and directed for the ABC network by then 25-year-old Steven Spielberg, Duel tells the chilling tale of a man pursued across the highways of America by a menacing truck. The driver is never fully seen, and his motives remain a mystery for the entire film. All we know is that he’s hell bent on running our hero, played by Touch of Evil star Dennis Weaver, off the road.

Why it’s scary

On the surface, the concept of a movie about a killer truck — an old 1955 Peterbilt 281, to be precise — trying to off someone sounds silly. But its efficacy comes down to how seriously Spielberg took the project. The young filmmaker saw the truck as a force of nature, and understood the power of fearing the unknown. The less we knew about the truck or its driver, the better. By treating the truck as the movie’s monster — even mixing in a bit of 1950’s B-movie dinosaur roaring into its sound design for good measure — Spielberg made audiences afraid of what was, in reality, just a beat-up old truck.

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Duel was Steven Spielberg’s first movie, and its success on ABC in 1971 put his name on the map. The film not only jumpstarted Spielberg’s career, but popularized the genre of killer car movies. The rest, as they say, is history.