Recently, I’ve been planning a road trip, and as I was researching routes and hotels, I couldn’t help but think about some of the best and worst road trips in movie history. While I certainly hope mine ends up more like 2000’s ROAD TRIP or THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, I can’t help but worry that it’ll end up like one of the many flicks in one of my favorite subgenres: road trip horror.
There’s something I love about a nice helping of terror ladled over the quintessential Americana ideal of taking to the open road, but for the time being I’ll be watching these movies and taking copious notes to make sure nothing similar happens to me. However, I don’t want to deprive anybody else of these particular gems, so here are recommendations for six great road trip movies to get your engine revving.
OK, this one is pretty obvious. Steven Spielberg’s debut film might be a TV movie, but it stretches its budget (and your nerves) razor-thin to create an expansive, volcanic thriller. In the film, which is based on a Richard Matheson short story, a businessman on a California highway cuts in front of a massive tanker truck, unintentionally igniting the rage of the mysterious unseen driver, who spends the rest of the movie trying to run him off the road. It’s such a kinetic film that you hardly even notice that almost the entire story takes place in the driver’s seat of a tiny four-door sedan. It’s a propulsive beginning to a career for the ages.
THE HITCHER (1986)
The opening scene of THE HITCHER is one of the most perfectly oiled thriller machines ever created. Young C Thomas Howell picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) on his way through dusty West Texas. It doesn’t take long for the man to reveal that he’s a murderer, pulling out a knife and saying he’ll murder the boy then and there if he doesn’t say the phrase “I want to die.” It’s a terrifying lose-lose scenario, and thus begins an anxiety-riddled game of cat-and-mouse that isn’t afraid to push the envelope of death and terror. At times, it even becomes an explosive action movie, but at its heart it’s a deadly battle of wits that’s tremendously compelling.
ROAD GAMES (1981)
The only non-American film on this list, ROAD GAMES take place on another equally expansive stretch of road in inland Australia. We follow truck driver Stacy Keach, his dog Dingo, and (eventually) a lovely hitchhiker played by none other than Scream Queen extraordinaire Jamie Lee Curtis as they play a series of boredom-busting games (I Spy, the License Plate Game) along the lonely highway. It seems innocuous enough, but they soon discover that a car they’ve been spotting on and off during their games just might belong to a serial killer that’s terrorizing the area. Thus begins a Hitchcockian descent into madness as the hapless driver is drawn into a new road game, this one with life or death stakes. Keach is incredible, sliding effortlessly between comedy and terror as the film’s pressure cooker heats him past the boiling point.
BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998)
The fourth Chucky movie might seem like an odd addition to this list, but the plot revolves around a pair of clueless teen runaways conscripted to deliver Chucky and serial killer groupie-turned-doll Tiffany across the country so they can acquire an amulet with the power to return them to their bodies. The body count racks up along the way in this hilarious post-SCREAM send-up of slasher sequels. It’s gory, it’s silly, it’s giddily perverse… it’s a gothic love story for the ages.
Here’s another title that I’m certain you’ve heard of, though I hope I can open your eyes to the fact that at its heart, it’s quite openly a road trip movie. As our mismatched band of heroes make their way across the abandoned superhighways of the post-apocalypse en route to a California amusement park, they learn a lot about themselves and each other. That’s a tried-and-true road trip formula right there, and it’s just a bonus that it’s attached to a hilarious undead comedy.
DEATH VALLEY (1982)
Probably the most obscure title on this list, DEATH VALLEY is another California-set road movie about a young boy (Peter Billingsley, a year before A CHRISTMAS STORY) on an Old West road trip with his divorced mom and her new boyfriend, who crosses paths with a local serial killer. It’s a better family drama than a slasher movie, but there’s a captivatingly weird scene with a motel babysitter, and there are plenty of opportunities to make “you’ll shoot your eye out!” jokes.
So, there were some of my personal favorites. If you have any more horror road trip gems to recommend, please sound off in the comments below! I need to learn as much as I can about possible road trip pitfalls before it’s too late.