As summer winds down, what better way to close it out than with a road trip. Who doesn’t like getting into the car, driving with the windows down, and blasting your favourite tunes? If you have a good roadside assistance plan, what could go wrong? Well, horror fans know that plenty can go wrong. From psychopathic hitchhikers to deadly roadside attractions to terminal road rage, a leisurely ride can go bad quickly in horror movies. And we won’t even mention the risks of taking a wrong turn in rural areas. Instead of taking a road trip this summer, maybe you should play it safe and just peruse this list of seven ‘road trip’ horror movies.
7 – Duel (1971)
Duel is the quintessential road trip thriller. Despite premiering on television as an ABC Movie of the Week, Duel is something of a minor classic of its sub-genre. It’s every bit as suspenseful as it is simple. Straight-laced salesman David Mann passes a beat-up Peterbilt tanker truck on a stretch of deserted highway. Unfortunately, the unseen driver takes it personally and terrorizes David for the remainder of his business trip. From that point onward, Duel is a non-stop cat-and-mouse chase that rarely lets up. Sometimes the most straightforward premise is the best. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Steven Spielberg directed – in his feature-length debut – from a Richard Matheson screenplay. Spielberg’s decision to offer no motivation – not even a glimpse of the truck driver – also amps up the suspense.
6 – Race with the Devil (1975)
Okay, Race With the Devil is a hokey movie. At the height of the 1970s “Satanic Panic”, this mash-up of horror and action was one of several cult-themed movies terrifying suburban Americans. Yes, it’s a pure midnight movie with production values only slightly better than the run-of-the-mill made-for-television movie from the same era. When two married couples witness a Satanic ritual, their RV vacation turns into a cross-country nightmare. Part horror, part car chase movie, Race With the Devil is pretty standard stuff. Don’t expect much in the way of explicit gore. And there aren’t really any good jumps of which to speak. What makes this one worth watching is its oddly unsettling downer of an ending. You’ll want to leave the lights on after this one is done.
5 – Road Games (1981)
When someone says ‘Scream Queen’, Jamie Lee Curtis is probably still the name that comes to mind first. Everyone knows her roles in Halloween, Prom Queen, The Fog, and Terror Train. But even die-hard horror fans may have missed Road Games. In between Terror Train and Halloween II, Curtis found time for this Aussie road trip horror flick. Once again Curtis plays a hitchhiker who, along with a truck driver, gets caught up in a cat-and-mouse game across the Australian outback with a serial killer. Though Road Games sounds like just another slasher movie, it’s more of a suspense thriller. Less Friday the 13th, more Hitchcock in spirit. No, Road Games won’t fool anyone into considering it a classic. But it’s a nicely shot, well-acted thriller that’s surprisingly effective. In fact, it’s something of a hidden gem in Curtis’ filmography.
4 – The Hitcher (1986)
Once upon a time, years before Uber, people hitchhiked. Yes, they hopped into a car with a complete stranger. And they couldn’t leave a negative review on any app. Forget about the 2000’s remake, The Hitcher is an 80’s guilty-pleasure thriller that operates on levels of increasing implausibility. Jim Halsey is delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. On a lonely stretch of desert highway, a tired Jim decides to pick up a hitchhiker. Unfortunately, the ‘hitcher’, John Ryder, is a psychopathic serial killer, intent on making Jim’s life a living hell. On one hand, The Hitcher can be pretty unsettling when it’s focused on small moments between Jim and Ryder. These scenes make for a tense, if not unlikely, ‘Road Trip’ from hell. Along the way, the movie goes off the rails. But Rutger Hauer’s chilling performance more than compensates for its unintentional silliness.
3 – Joy Ride (2001)
At first glance, Joy Ride feels like a spiritual remake of Duel. When college student Lewis Thomas’ high school crush, Venna, asks him to pick her up from school for the holidays, he trades in his plane ticket for a beat-up 1971 Chrysler Newport. But the road trip gets sidetracked when Lewis stops to bail out his troubled older brother, Fuller. A cruel prank with a CB radio on a trucker who calls himself, ‘Rusty Nail’, ends tragically. Like Spielberg’s Duel, Joy Ride then shifts into a ‘cat-and-mouse’ chase across deserted highways. Yet in spite of its similarities, Joy Ride still delivers the goods. First, Joy Ride benefits from director John Dahl’s deft hand – he knows how to craft suspense. Audiences will find a handful of white-knuckle moments. Throw in a likable cast and Ted Levine’s creepy voice as ‘Rusty Nail’ and Joy Ride makes for a decent update.
2 – Vacancy (2007)
If you’ve ever taken a road trip, there’s a good chance you had to spend the night in a cheap motel. Generally, a cheap motel means dirty sheets, bed bugs, no cable, or all of the above. But for 2000’s horror movie Vacancy, a motel stopover turns into a fight for survival. On the brink of divorce, David and Amy’s late-night shortcut leads them to a remote motel. When David finds handful of VHS tapes showing grisly murders, he recognizes the setting – their motel room. With Vacancy clocking in at just under 90 minutes, it’s a tightly packed thriller that never overstays its welcome. David’s discovery of the ‘snuff tapes’, for instance, is genuinely unnerving. And director Nimrod Antal wisely trades on a ‘less is more’ approach. Still despite its promising premise and good set-up, Vacancy settles into watchable B-movie, owing in small part to its lack of compelling villains.
1 – Splinter (2008)
A lot of horror fans probably missed Splinter. This little indie road trip thriller barely saw the inside of movie theaters. And it’s too bad because there’s lots to like about this creature feature. A couple’s romantic getaway goes off-course when an escaped convicted and his addict girlfriend carjack them. Things only get worse from that point onward. A flat tire strands the foursome at an abandoned, remote gas station. As it turns out, the gas station is abandoned because of a strange, splinter-like creature that infects, kills, and re-animates its victims. Consider it survival horror at its simplest and best. Whether it’s the gross practical effects, the tight pacing, subverted expectations, or doses of humour, Splinter is inspired DIY horror.