In 1971, an up and coming director with a number of TV credits under his belt made a TV movie that was more or less an extended chase scene. It was a very simple story about an average, maybe even boring person driving through a desert on his way to a business meeting. He encounters another, sadistic motorist driving a large, dirty truck. At first the mysterious truck driver (whose face is never seen) is content to cut off and mildly irritate the man, but gradually the game of cat and mouse becomes murderous.
It was a simple story, and a well told one. So well told that the director was asked to put in additional material to lengthen the movie and release it theatrically in Europe. Today, this director’s name is one of the best known in Hollywood, and he’s directed or produced some of the top grossing films of all time.
The director’s name was Steven Spielberg, and the movie was Duel.
This is not his story.
Nope, because this is Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension, this is the story of Wheels of Terror, a hopeless and ridiculous rip-off of Duel. WoT is also a TV movie, and a good made for TV movie is a rare thing indeed–they seem to consist mainly of disease/disaster of the week efforts, low-budget rip-offs of the latest blockbusters, and scandal “based on a true story” melodramas that do a lot of lurid talk but have no guts. Since Duel was made nearly 20 years earlier, and WoT is a “Don’t expect much” made for TV movie, I guess we’re supposed to forget all about Duel. Nice try.
The offender, I mean, director in this case is Christopher Cain, father of Dean Lois and Clark Cain. Cain’s biggest directorial hit would be the brat pack Western Young Guns (1988). His resume doesn’t contain many things that will make you swoon, but his career was semi-respectable until of late. Now he’s got things like The Amazing Panda Adventure (1995) and Gone Fishin’ (1997) under his belt. Yeah, ouch.
The writer, who’s hoping we have short memories is, Alan B. McElroy. His credits don’t exactly scream originality. You’ll see his name attached to Halloween 4 (1988) and Spawn (1997). Although, Spawn did feature a giant, malformed and evil Chihuahua with a bad haircut and the voice of Doctor Claw from the Inspector Gadget cartoon posing as the ultimate evil. Admittedly, that was original.
Like most bad rip-offs or bad sequels, it’s important to look at what came first to see how far short the newer film falls (Exorcist II would have failed as a stand-alone movie, but the fact that it’s supposed to be the sequel to one of the best horror movies of all time made the wound sting that much more).
Duel is one of those movies that is enjoyable on several different levels. First, it’s just a plain good story. Anyone who’s ever driven a car and has had some jerk deliberately tailgate them or slow down suddenly in front of them has probably momentarily experienced the fear Duel plays on. Yes, it takes it to a more extreme conclusion and a dramatic liberty or two, but it’s very easy to believe that “It could happen!” when you watch it. No cyborgs, no demons, no lasers, just two people in an isolated area, and one isn’t playing by the rules of polite society.
Secondly, if you like picking out subtext in your movies, Duel is a good one. Is the name of the main character–David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) symbolic? Is this an allegory for how modern times have made men less manly, and unable to defend themselves when confronted by someone who hasn’t forgotten his caveman roots? Is the truck meant to be a giant phallus on wheels? Well, best of all, and as Ken once said of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you can go ahead and search for meaning if you want to, but it’s not a requirement for enjoying the movie. Proof once again that they key ingredient of a movie is a good story well told as opposed to a “message.”
Don’t be looking for any possible allegories about the law of the jungle and modern manhood in WoT, and not just because the lead character is a woman. “Subtlety” is not a word a word I’ll be using much for this review.
Okay, our movie opens with a shot of the road flashing by. Already, this is reminiscent of the opening of Duel, which featured an extended POV from the car’s point of view as the credits rolled. This intro is intercut with longshots of a country road in the desert. So while not a photocopy of the first few minutes of Spielberg’s breakthrough movie, the POV shot and the desert roads don’t exactly scream unique either.
Gradually, we get a shot of our villain, the black car, as waaaaaah ominous music plays. I’m not an auto aficionado myself, so I’m afraid I can’t be very specific about the model. I do know it is later described as a “primer black 1974 two door sedan.” The windows are tinted completely black. The car is beat-up, scratched, dented, and has a bright flashing sign on top that says “Hey! I’m evil!”
Next we get a shot of a man and his young daughter at the side of the road. I do believe that this man is the brother of Mr. Victim from The Beast. (The little girl is in fact listed in the credits as “Girl Victim”). The father has the hood of the car up and is vaguely looking over the engine (for some reason, both passenger and driver doors are also open).
Father is muttering about having just had an oil change, and then the car breaks down. This is to establish that he pulled over and began looking under the hood because the car has developed some kind of problem you see, and not because he got one of those periodic urges we all get to pull over in the middle of nowhere, open the doors and pop the hood of our cars and look it over for no apparent reason.
This is intercut with more shots of the black car, the camera getting in tighter with each shot to establish that the car is getting closer. Meanwhile, the Victims are trying to wave down a passing truck. The truck rolls by (we can see the black car further up the road).
Little Miss Victim asks why the driver didn’t stop. Father says “Because he’s a…” But then he remembers he’s in a made for TV movie and there are Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, so he stops. Little Miss then asks “Are we going to end up like the Donner party?” Wha hah hah. Precocious children asking adults embarrassing or cynical questions. It’s right up there with movie old ladies cursing like construction workers. Writing convincing dialogue for children has always been a tricky business, but let me caution you now that this movie fell shorter than most.
Now Father notices the car. The previous shot established that it was not too far behind the truck and should have passed them by now, but anyway. Just give points to Daddy for noticing the car so soon. Most people in this movie are so unaware that they wouldn’t notice the car if it ran over their foot.
Dad tries to wave the black car down. Instead, the car steers towards him. It’s pretty obvious that the car is going to hit him, and this would give most people lots of time to get away. Instead, Dad gets run down in slow-mo. Well, we don’t actually see him get run down. The black car hits the open door of Daddy’s car, and a Stunt Daddy falls backwards. From this I infer that poor Mother Victim, having just dealt with the death of her son and her daughter-in-law at the hands (tentacles) of a giant squid, has a new tragedy in the family.
Little Miss begins to scream by putting her hands on her cheeks and wailing. Her eyes seemed locked on something, probably her acting coach. Needless to say, people who witness a loved one getting mowed down are a little more lively in their reactions than this. The black car stops, the door flings open…
Cut to a quarry where a warning horn is blaring. This sound is mixed with the scream trailing from the previous scene (Auteur!). Dramatic music swells up, and the main titles roll. Curiously, we see an explosion in the quarry, plus lots of trucks, tractors, conveyor belts, and other kinds of construction equipment at work. The music and the close-ups of the machines remind me a lot of the opening titles of Terminator, which showed Cyberdyne’s machines chugging away. We saw them again in the showdown of the movie, where one played an important role.
Although the machines of this have nothing to do with the plot, this is in fact the valley where the final confrontation of the movie will take place. I guess they just looked cool. We see another explosion here, too, before we resume the story. The explosions are important, because they set up something later in the movie. So pay attention, ok?
Sometimes when you’re watching a lackluster beginning to a movie, you consider flipping the channel, but you find yourself thinking “Well, maybe it will get better.” WoT tricks us momentarily into thinking this with an actual well-shot scene. We cut back to that road again, where the little girl is walking slowly down the middle. There is no sound here, just very slow and quiet music. The girl is hanging her head, and her clothes are slightly disarrayed. A police car appears behind her, but she doesn’t react. The cops get out and stop her, though she tries to keep walking, not appearing to really be aware of what’s going on. The police put her in the car.
This scene succeeds in being well-framed, and dramatic. A pity it ends with an unnecessarily long scene of the police car turning around, but at this stage of the game you look at this movie and say to yourself “Ok, maybe there’s some hope after all.” Don’t worry though, Jabootu faithful. We apologize for that momentary outbreak of competence. It won’t be repeated.
Now a cheery country song begins as we get a shot of Copper Valley, Somewhere Desertish, USA. Copper Valley is a small, wholesome community. I’d guess the population is under 10,000, but it’s hard to say. It’s possibly much smaller, though it does have a pretty decent-sized elementary school (it’s implied later that it’s 5,000).
Switch to an abrupt POV from inside the black car, looking down a residential road. This road does appear later in the movie, but now it has no significance. Then there’s another shot of the road from the car’s POV. Like many movie monsters, the black car is powered by the V.U.E. (Voorhees Unreality Engine). This allows monsters to instantly cloak and teleport to wherever they need to be the moment they’re not on camera, no matter how slow, entangled, large, injured or cumbersome they might be.
Advanced V.U.E.s actually can be used to anticipate where victims will be going despite a lack of information, and can even teleport the remains of the monster’s victims so that the site of the killing is spotless, no matter how gory the killing. (See I Know What You Did Last Summer. No, on second thought, don’t.) I named it after Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th movies, who benefited from it a lot. I must say though, if the mysterious driver of this car isn’t careful, he’s going to burn his out. First he’s on the street I just described, then he’s on the road, then he’s at a schoolyard. Once again this is shot from inside the car, while ominous music plays.
Finally, it’s time to meet our hero, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who walks up to the schoolyard fence. On the other side is her daughter Stephanie. They exchange some ‘witty’ dialogue so that we get this is a wholesome, loving relationship. Laura asks Stephanie if she made any friends today. Laura replies that the kids around here are different. “Not like the kids in LA. A little backwoods, if you know what I mean.” In what weird universe do 12 year-olds talk like this?
Laura smilingly asks if Stephanie isn’t a little young to be so “judgmental.” Actually, I believe the term is “snobby.” Stephanie says “I take after my mom.” Instead of grounding her for a week for implying that Mom is a snot, Laura says “Cute, real cute.” She gives her a maternal smooch through the fence. Oh man, I can feel the sugar in this scene eating away at my molars.
Now we see Laura pulling up to a rural garage. Dialogue from the previous scene established that this is supposed to very close to the school, but the dusty, unpaved area is a far cry from the well maintained suburbs where the school is.
Laura’s new boss, some old guy who is really inconsequential to the movie, helps lay down some expository dialogue, which was mostly put in place by the previous scene with Stephanie and Laura, but anyway. To recap, Laura and Stephanie have just moved here and are still adjusting. Old Boss Guy offers her an egg salad sandwich, and Laura laughs heartily at this. Gosh, everyone’s so friendly and giving in this community. If I were her, I’d pack my things and blow town immediately. This can only mean that something wicked this way comes into this small town paradise.
Inside a garage, two mechanics are toiling away on some half-sized school buses. One of them, Luis, is supposed to be Spanish. Although he tries to do the accent, he sounds about as Spanish as Chow Yun Fat. Luis recognizes Laura. “You’re that hotshot from LA. Courier driver, right?” Yes, boys and girls, Los Angeles is a city laden with such star power that even the couriers are famous. You’ve got UPS and FedEx drivers on the cover of People and Entertainment Weekly, thanks to ol’ LA.
Luis asks Laura what she’s doing in Copper Valley. Laura says “I have a twelve year-old daughter. Growing up in the city wasn’t doing her any good.” So Laura came out here to be a school bus driver to get Stephanie away from the more undesirable elements of LA, presumably the crime. Silly woman, don’t you know movie irony will only make sure you run straight into the very thing you sought to avoid?
Laura looks at the engine of a bus she is to drive and says “Isn’t this a racing engine?” To which witty Luis says “Yah, you’ve got that right. What the hell, right?”
What the hell indeed. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the mechanic type. But you know, I’m having just a teensy little problem with the thought of someone yanking the engine out of a Formula 1 or NASCAR racer and installing it in a school bus. I have no idea how school buses are administrated in this area, but what kind of governing body would allow a racing engine to be dropped into a school bus, driving children? That is, if such a thing could even be done. Wouldn’t the chassis of a school bus be all wrong for such an engine? Wouldn’t it take a different grade of fuel? Would the engine even have the same kind of gears as a regular civilian vehicle?
This crazed development is essential to the story, though. So, apparently, is the remark about Laura being a hotshot courier driver. Without these two concepts (especially the engine), you can’t accept the big showpiece of the movie. Then again, you can’t accept it anyway, because it’s just too ludicrous. But patience, we’ll get to that.
Hilariously, Luis reveals he’s been driving the bus himself off hours. Yeah Luis, I’ll bet it’s a real chick magnet.
Cut back to the schoolyard, where Stephanie can be seen through the windshield of the black car. Stephanie is pretty close to the camera, which in movie terms means that the car must be quite close to her. And yet for some reason Stephanie hasn’t noticed a big, dirty, beat-up black car right in front of her.
Back at the garage, Laura is behind the wheel of her super-charged bus. “It’s you and me, babe,” she says. “We’re going to be best friends.” I don’t want to be rude to the members of the school bus driving profession (I had my fill of it in high school, thanks), but I gather not many people really dive eagerly into this sort of career. Most of the school bus drivers I had were deeply resentful of their job. There can’t be a whole lot of money in it (particularly for someone raising a daughter), so I find it surprising that Laura’s settling into the job this well. Still, if she’s bonded already with Bus #9, so be it.
Back at the school, the car is getting closer. I’m telling you, the driver of this car is Romulan agent, because it must have a cloaking device if Stephanie can’t see it. She’s standing in the school parking lot and this thing must be about a dozen feet away. Still she doesn’t notice.
This is one of those false-start moments popular in monster movies. The killer-whatever can see our hero or the hero’s girlfriend and is stalking her, but something happens (such as the arrival of the hero) to prevent it from attacking. In this case, Mom pulls up in her car. Still from the black’s car POV, we see Steph get in and Mom drives away. The black car follows. And STILL there is no mention of anyone noticing the car. If the US Navy ever hears about this, they’re going to buy this car and implement its technology into a fleet of submarines.
Cut to what looks like an after-school gymnastics practice. Laura is talking with Mrs. Generic. Stephanie and Mrs. Generic’s daughter are participating in the gymnastics. Mrs. Generic, hoping that an Olympic medallist is in the make here, imparts a few words of IMMORTAL DIALOGUE.
This scene is to establish again what a NICE community this is, how FRIENDLY and NICE everyone is, and how WHOLESOME and SAFE things are. GOT THAT? It’s a little like answering a knock at your door, and when you open it, a man proceeds to hit you about the head with a two-by-four with the words NICE and FRIENDLY painted on it. THIS IS A NICE AND FRIENDLY TOWN. And naturally, the Devil is about to ride on in.
This scene accomplishes other goals. It proves that Laura is SuperMom. She gives Stephanie advice on how to flip over the vaulting horse (and eliminates the need to cast a gym teacher and pay speaking actor rates). Stephanie does a forward flip over the horse flawlessly (even though the film-makers cross the action axis when filming her). We also learn that Laura is going to make Stephanie go to summer school to compensate for a semester of math she missed because of the move.
Uhm, just how long did it take to move anyway? And what about Stephanie’s other subjects? Does she have to take up a semester of math, but English, History, and Science be damned? Anyway, the point is clear. Laura is a loving Mum, but no pushover. And later she’ll face off against a psychopath, remain well dressed, and I’m sure she’s a good cook, too (mothers of the world, feel inadequate yet?)
We also learn that Mrs. G will be the subject of many of her daughter’s therapy sessions years from now. “Ok honey, I want you to take a cue from Stephanie on that tumble!” she calls. Mrs. G’s daughter haughtily responds “I thought you wanted it done right.” Mrs. G mumbles “Calgon, take me away.” Calgon, take this movie away while you’re at it.
Mrs. G’s daughter does a completely different kind of jump (forgive me, I’m not up on my gymnastics terminology here), but clears the horse. This is satisfactory to them, even though we got the impression she was trying to duplicate and better Steph’s move, but anyway. I grow weary of this scene, so…
…cut to the next morning, where Laura is about to pick up her bus. She’s dressed very well for a bus driver–most of them I knew seldom wore anything other than jeans or tracks pants. Luis is there, and she greets him with “Morning, Carlos.” When Luis corrects her, she apologizes, says his real name and laughs. Uh, maybe Stephanie did inherit her uppittyness from her mother after all.
Luis now reveals more vital information as Laura starts up the bus. “Wow, that’s got a lot of kick,” she remarks. Luis says the school bus can “do 110 on the straight without breaking a sweat.” Laura gets in and starts it up. She tries the reverse, but it isn’t responsive. She point this out to Luis and says “You’ve got to get physical with it. Treat it like a man.” I think Luis is also supposed to be a randy Casanova type, too, as he has been hitting on Laura since he met her. Well, that’s more convincing than his accent, for what it’s worth. Laura simply tells Luis to fix the breaks.
As you’ve probably guessed, you’ve just witnessed a plot point. Any reasonably savvy moviegoer can usually pick up ‘casual’ information that will in fact play an important role later in the movie. This tidbit is particularly obvious, not due to the dialogue, but do to the fact that Laura had absolutely no reason to try reversing in the first place. The front end of the bus was already pointing out of the garage.
Anyway, Laura drives off. A bit later she pulls up to the school to let the kiddies on. Uh, wait a minute. Didn’t she say “Good morning” to Luis? Shouldn’t she be taking kids to school? Or are the kids going to night school in Copper Valley? And there’s only one other bus visible in front of the school. Don’t they need a few more buses to transport the kids? Why does Laura know all their names already? Is the movie almost over?
Anyway, a bunch of kids get on. She advises them to “buckle up” (did anyone here actually go to school on a bus with seatbelts? I sure didn’t) and then pulls away.
While that’s going on, we see Stephanie and friend standing on the residential road we saw at the beginning of the movie. And once again, it’s a POV through the car’s windshield as DUM DUM DUMMMM! music plays. The car begins its steady crawl.
Cut back to the bus where Laura asks a youngster “Watcha thinking about?” He answers “I dunno, nothing really.” This causes much laughter. Well, at least on that side of the screen. With an audience full of people like Laura, Keanu Reeves could be a successful stand-up comic.
The probable function of this scene, by the way, is to cut back and forth between Stephanie and Laura. We’re supposed to be wondering anxiously, “Will she make it in time?” Well, since the movie is less than a half-hour old, I’d say that’s an affirmative.
The school bus appears on the road, and Steph is saved! I’ll bet you’re so relieved that it doesn’t occur to you why Stephanie isn’t already on the bus. This place is obviously within walking distance of school, so why not just hang out in the schoolyard until it’s time to meet Mommy? And why is Mommy turning around, with a bunch of children still on the bus, mind you? Is she abusing her power as bus driver to do favors for Stephanie? After a few viewings, I believe that Steph initially misses the bus to stay for gymnastics. So Mommy (who seems to take an hour to drop off about a dozen kids if a clock seen on the wall is an indication) comes back to pick her up. Before letting all the children out. Not a real efficient route.
The black car, by the way, is about maybe a car-length away from the girls by the time Mom arrives. And STILL Stephanie and her friend do not notice. It’s only as Steph gets on and Laura pulls away that she finally notices the car. She frowns at it momentarily, but does nothing.
A moment later, though, as Laura drives, the car roars up behind them. (How fast is the bus supposed to be going that it has to catch up like this?) By swerving madly behind them and by generally having a loud motor, we’re supposed to believe that the car is somehow threatening the bus. The kids helpfully say “Watch it, you jerk,” “It’s going to hit us!” and “He’s going to kill us!” in order to give us the idea. However all the car really is doing is making noise and driving off-road a little, which is likely to cause even more damage to the wreck. Finally the car passes by. Stephanie says “Oh God,” in relief.
Now there is a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG shot of a girl, Stacy, being dropped off at her house. This could be why Laura takes so long to complete her route–door to door service. Stacy lives at a house at the end of a long driveway. The driveway goes over a ditch, which is covered by a carefully shot grille. Hmm, it could it be coming into play soon?
Now yet another shot from the black car’s POV, watching Stacy. I wonder how the driver knew where she lives? And given this angle, Laura must have driven right by the car, but once again it escaped notice. I’m beginning to think that’s why it ran down Mr. Victim at the start of the movie – as a pathetic plea for attention.
The black car cuts Stacy off, blocking her path as she nervously tries to get around the car. Soon the car is driving in circles around her, kicking up dirt. Now, this is essentially Stacy’s front yard. I guess the black car isn’t real worried about anyone being home.
Stacy runs for the road (and not her house), but stops to turn and look back when she reaches the grille. You know what that means. Stacy’s foot gets stuck. The black car drives up, the door flips open, and yanks her inside.
If you’re not keeping track, we’re dealing with a criminal that can only succeed at what he’s doing in this movie, and nowhere else. He’s been driving around with no license plate, which in most place I know will get you pulled over on sight. He’s been hanging out in schoolyards in a very distinctive car. He’s rammed another car (which would leave paint flakes). He’s left one witness to his activities. He’s harassed a school bus full of witnesses. He’s left lots of tire tracks in another victim’s front lawn (minutes after harassing the above witnesses). The only possible way he could draw more attention to himself would be to drive up the steps of a police station, leaning on the horn.
Cut to Laura’s homestead, where Stephanie is going over her music collection with a friend. There’s some more mysterious dialogue which is spoken by 12 year-olds from the planet Zarkon or wherever the scriptwriter is from (see IMMORTAL DIALOGUE). We learn that Stephanie listens to The Cure and Bon Jovi (rather eclectic tastes for a 12 year old). Steph and friend want to listen to a particular tape that is not in the pile in front of them, so she announces she’s going out to her mother’s car to get it. Laura, lounging nearby, asks her to grab the mail while she’s at it.
Now, there’s a radio visible on a nearby table that has been silent. Suddenly, it starts relaying a news report, even though no-one has touched it. It must have one of those newfangled Relevant Plot Info Sensors™, so it switched itself on. The story has to do with Stacy. She has been found alive, but there is “evidence of sexual molestation” (see AFTERTHOUGHTS for discussion).
Hearing this report makes Laura go outside and yell at Stephanie to get back inside the house. It’s a good thing she does, because the black car is right there. And I do mean right there. Stephanie, who apparently wouldn’t notice a tornado if it launched her across the state, turns around and protests that she’s getting the mail. I can only assume that Stephie here has memory problems, and doesn’t recognize the car that ‘attacked’ the bus earlier. Anyway, Stephanie gets inside, and the car pulls away. Laura gives it a long look, and not a quick dial to 911.
Cut to a town meeting. The Chief of Police and what might be the mayor are on hand, fielding questions. A local yokel stands up and says “I’ve got two daughters, five and eight…and…I’ll tell ya…my wife is scared. And I’m scared.” Yes, so scared he can hardly act. Pretty stilted delivery from our yokel here.
So the good folks of Copper Valley demand action, etc. Meanwhile, believe it or not, the black car pulls up outside. Get the feeling that if the driver of the black car was a bank robber, he’d demand tellers to deposit all the bank’s money in his personal account?
Inside, one local accuses the Chief of not knowing how to do his job. The people of Copper Valley demand results! Suddenly, the rabble is disrupted by Robert Shaw, who drags his fingernails down a chalkboard. He says “I’ll catch this car for you, but it ain’t gonna be easy. Not like going down to the used car lot and chasing Toyotas and Chevettes. This car, swallow you whole. No shakin’, no tenderizin’, down you go. And we gotta do it quick, that’ll bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin’ basis. But it’s not gonna be pleasant! I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, Chief. I’ll find him for three, kill him for ten. But you’ve gotta make up your minds. If you want to stay alive, then ante up. Or you can play it cheap and starve the whole winter. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the headlights, the bumpers, the whole damn thing.”
Okay, that’s not what happens. Still, you can amuse yourself in any movie with a town hall scene by inserting Quint and changing his lines accordingly.
What happens instead is that the Chief is appeals for help, and urges parents to take extra steps to protect their kids.
Will somebody explain to me how they could not possibly be looking for the car already? There have been two survivors of his attacks. It was mentioned earlier that one victim was catatonic and therefore can’t offer descriptions, but what about the second? And even if she was catatonic, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to get to a suspect. When a girl goes missing, the first thing that’s done is to retrace her steps as much as possible. It would take them a few phone calls to learn that Stacy was on the school bus and dropped off at her door shortly before she disappeared. The police would then question the people on that bus if they noticed anything unusual. “Well, come to think of it officer, there was a black car…” And how many cars of this description are there in the area? My guess is one.
This part of the movie also plays like an after school special for adults. The Chief offers some advice to the parents on how to protect their kids (tell them not talk to strangers, be waiting for them at the bus stop, etc). You suspect he will also add “And being different is a good thing sometimes! It’s what makes you unique, and special. By the way, if your friends want you to take drugs, then you’re not really your friends.”
Mrs. Generic meanwhile whispers to Laura “Aren’t you glad you moved to this nice quiet community with no crimes and no worries?” Hey, yeah, I guess that’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?
A little later, Steph and Laura are leaving the town meeting. For some reason, the lot is now deserted. Why they stayed longer while everyone else left is not discussed. Stephanie suggests that perhaps they should move back to LA because “I’d rather be one in five million than one in five thousand.” Real American 12 year-old girl, or thirty-something male writer, folks? It’s truly an enigma.
Suddenly, the black car roars to life, and has its headlights on Laura and Steph. Laura instantly says “Get in the car” and scrambles to unlock the doors while Stephanie bleats “What’s wrong, Mom?” Personally, I find it amazing that the actress playing Stephanie didn’t ask the filmmakers, “Does my character really have to be this dumb?”
Soon Laura and Steph are inside. “Lock your door,” says Laura. (Psst! Laura! This is your car! You can drive off, you know!) Steph meanwhile asks “Who are those people?” Mom responds “Just some creeps.” Ah, so not even Mom has made the connection yet, huh? Perhaps Steph got her intelligence from her Mom, too. “I know you, Mom, and you don’t get jumpy,” she says. Sorry, Steph, we’re not trusting your perception until you can spot vehicle-sized objects less than six feet away from you. The black car, apparently as bored as we are, takes off.
Cut to a dream sequence. Laura is having some artfully shot (and time-killing) dreams of the black car. Now we know that Laura can describe the black car down to its rust spots, if her extremely lucid dream is any indication. The dream ends with a roar of the engine (it’s unclear if it was supposed to come from the dream or real life). Laura gets up quickly and runs into Stephanie’s room. She calls for her, only to see the bed empty, and the window wide open. But it’s early yet, so we know this is a false scare before Steph wanders sleepily into the room.
False scare over, Laura goes back out into the living room (where she apparently sleeps). Another car engine sounds, so Laura grabs the fireplace poker (nasty weapon against a human being, not so effective against a sedan). But it’s another false scare. So is the one in the next scene, where we see a driver’s POV of a playground with children. It’s not the black car, but Laura. At this rate, we will be relieved when something nasty really happens.
We next see Laura at the garage. She fires up the bus, which still doesn’t want to reverse. Laura mutters and calls Luis over, who says “I’m working my little Latin fingers to the bone here.” Jabootu lovers will be familiar with the Implied Attribute. Usually this is to establish that the character has some talent the actor does not (such as the ability to dance very well). This is the first time I’ve seen the Implied Attribute to convey ethnicity. The weirdest part is that Luis is played by Carlos Cervantes, and that’s pretty damn Latin. Yet he doesn’t sound Spanish. His accent sounds fake.
Laura drops the subject of the reverse gear and asks Luis if he’s seen “A filthy black sedan around town. So dirty you can’t even see through the windows?” Actually, Laura, the reason you can’t see through the windows is that they’re tinted. If they were so dirty you couldn’t see through them, the driver would have a hard time evading telephone poles, wouldn’t he?
Luis, though, has not seen the car. I mean, hell, it’s been keeping such a low profile. Luis somehow takes this inquiry to mean that she wants to buy a new car. Sure, she’ll trade in that nice white Mustang she drives for a filthy black sedan any day.
A while later, Laura pulls up to the school. There’s a white van in front of her. The van pulls away, and guess who is waiting? So now the car has been hanging out in front of the school again. How in the world is this guy getting away with this? When I was going to elementary school and there was a child molester scare, the school faculty became extremely cautious. Anyone who was seen loitering on foot or in a vehicle was questioned. This sort of thing does not require a security genius. Since this guy is parked right in front of the school, tons of kids have to pass by him to get to the buses. Why aren’t sketches of this car all over town? I’m beginning to think that the car is protected by a Somebody Else’s Problem field (see the Douglas Adams novel Life, the Universe, and Everything). Or protected by a contrived script.
Laura, who still hasn’t made the connection, gets out of the bus and wanders up to the car. The car slowly keeps ahead of her, preventing her from getting a look at the driver (Excuse me, there’s something in my throat scene from Duel. Cough. Cough). Eventually, the black car drives away. Hey, who’s for a little reporting of suspicious activity to the police? Anyone? Anyone? Going once, going twice…
The bell rings, and instantly the kiddies appear (they must have been hiding behind the doors, waiting). Some begin to board Laura’s bus. One of the boys, Brad, gives her a rose, and invites her to dinner. Wow, I’m groaning just recalling this scene. “How about girls your own age?” asks Laura. “Hey, I like older women,” says Brad. “Experience counts, if you know what I mean.”
Says you Brat, I mean, Brad. If experience counted, explain how the writer of this flick could go on to do Spawn and how the director could go on to do Gone Fishin’. And while you’re at it, explain where my Nut o’ Fun is. Douglas gets the Nut o’ Fun, Ken gets his aquarium, when am I going to get a cool prop to look at? All I’ve got is this frickin’ bus full of frickin’ kids who all talk they’re 30 year old accountants telling jokes from a season of Saturday Night Live that’s five years old, throw me a frickin’ bone here people…
Ok, Jason, take your medication. Go to your happy place. Calm? Good. Now on with the review.
Steph arrives and she and mum engage in some small talk. Meanwhile, the car has utilized the Voorhees Unreality Engine to teleport back in front of the bus undetected. One of Steph’s generic friends is hovering near the car. We cut back to the interior of the bus, and we hear the car drive away (bum BUM BUMMM!).
Noticing the absence of her friend (whose name is Kim, we learn), Steph says “That’s funny, she’s was right behind me.” At this Laura panics and asks if her parents were picking her up. Steph, in near histrionics, says that Kim would have said something to her if this were so. Another kid on the bus says that her parents did pick her up and “I saw her get into a car.”
Laura leaps off the bus yelling “Kim! Kim!” which, seeing as how she took off in a car, doesn’t prove especially helpful. Stephanie, who couldn’t get a clue if you gave her a free coupon for one, asks Laura what’s wrong. “What’s happened to her?” she mewls in an annoyingly high pitched voice. Laura holds her daughter tightly and rocks her. Say Laura, will you be calling the police anytime soon?
In our next scene, Laura is finally going to the police. “Come on, Mom,” urges Steph annoyingly before they enter. There’s a long bit of padding where the secretary calls on Detective Drummond, who shows them into his office. Now’s a good time for a munchie or bathroom break, kids. When you get back, you’ll see Drummond asking Steph if she’d like to know how to work the police computer. Bad idea, Drummond. She’ll only forget five minutes later anyway, knowing her.
Drummond here is trying to politely get Steph out of the way. Of course, since she’s seen the car on several different occasions, you’d think he’d want to question her. You’d also think you wouldn’t want a 12 year old looking at confidential police information, but then, you’d think a lot of things that would prevent you from writing the script to this movie.
Laura and Drummond sit down in his office. He offers her some coffee. She declines, but he helps himself to a cup (Get on with it). Finally, Drummond sits and begins to get to brass tacks. He opens his mouth–and the phone rings (Oh God…). Drummond mutters something about a search, then hangs up. Just when we think this conversation is going to begin, we cut away to a search party combing a field (Arrggh!). Then, we jump back to the office.
The conversation, which should have begun in 1986, finally takes place. We learn that the school has been closed for one day. The teachers, Drummond, and Laura have all been involved in the search. Drummond then adds “We can’t find anything on that black car you reported.” And Jason drops dead of a heart attack upon learning that Laura finally reported the car.
Laura asks if the car might be from out of town, or out of state. “We’re checking,” is the reply. Laura insists that the car is responsible. “I have to be honest with you, Mrs. McKenzie,” says Drummond. “We questioned people all over town, including kids on your bus. No one has even seen a primer black 1974 two door sedan and you can’t give me a license plate.”
Ah, the disbelieving police, a proud movie tradition, be it pod people, gremlins, or killer cars terrorizing the town. They’re taking it a teensy bit too far here, though. This car couldn’t draw more attention to itself if it drove onto the field during the second quarter of the Super Bowl. And what the hell is this talk of no-one seeing it? Stephanie has seen it. The kid on the bus said he saw Kim get into it. The car also chased the bus and ‘terrified’ the kids before Stacy was abducted. It’s been hanging out in the most obvious, high traffic areas. It’s probably doing donuts in the station parking lot right now. How can Laura be the only one who’s seen it?
And why have they “found nothing”? If you’ve got the car make and year, that’s a good start, even without the license plates. How many primer black 1974 two door sedans are in Copper Valley anyway?
Drummond gives her his card and tells her that she’s to call him day or night if she sees the car again. Meanwhile, there is an APB out on the car (so why can’t she call 911?).
We join the helicopter, finding Kim’s body, floating in a stream. This is rather weirdly edited, consisting of cutting together shots of the search party around the stream, and Stephanie looking over the police computer with the operator. They are both frozen in place. The search party pulls Kim’s body from the water (way to destroy a crime scene, guys). There are total of 3 cuts of Stephanie while this is going on. Ok, it could have been her! We get it already!
Next, a shot of a funeral. Kim is being buried. Laura hears a vehicle, and leaves the funeral to investigate, which does seem a little rude. It’s only another mourner parking in the cemetery lot. Strange the car didn’t buzz this, though. It’s buzzed everything else. Drummond, who saw her leave, looks at her weirdly for a moment.
Back at home, Steph and Mom are moping. It’s raining outside–symbolism for preschoolers. Steph–for someone’s who lost her “best friend” in the most horrible way–is taking it rather well. She acts like someone whose favorite team got knocked out of the playoffs. Mom tucks Laura into bed. Cut to a commercial break. Hey cool, Raiders of the Lost Ark is on next week! Let’s all enjoy the irony of a plug for a Steven Spielberg movie running during this flick…
Ok, back from the commercial, we see Stephanie wake up after hearing an engine. Mom is taking out the trash (at night, in the middle of the pouring rain). Steph calls for mom, when suddenly lights from the black car flash on. Mom dashes back inside while Stephie screams, and the car spins its wheels menacingly. That is, if you find cars stuck in the mud menacing.
Inside, they hurriedly lock the door while Mom digs for Drummond’s business card. She tries to dial, but it looks like there’s no answer (Pssst! 911! Or if there is no 911, dial the operator!). The car leaves, so Mom and Steph just hold each other, sobbing. Although I think they have a good reason to continue to call the police and perhaps demand some protection, they apparently don’t bother.
Next day, Steph is at gymnastics practice, looking distracted. She packs up. Meanwhile, Mom is driving the bus, and we see Brad reading a magazine called “Women.” I guess we’re meant to assume its pornographic, though this being a Made for TV flick, we get no real proof.
Cut to the good ol’ POV shot of that rural road from the car’s point of view. Who should appear but Stephanie. Did anybody in this town take any kind of precaution against the car? Laura knows the damn thing is harassing her and Stephanie. Why not have her wait in school so she can be picked up? Why not get volunteers to take groups of kids home? Watching Stephanie unchaperoned sure revokes Laura’s Supermom status.
Meanwhile, Laura is driving the bus with just Brad and one girl. On her way to pick up Steph, she is stopped at a railway crossing by a train. Cut back to the car, where it begins its slow crawl, cut back to Laura, to the car…oh, to hell with it. As if you couldn’t guess.
After much beating around the bush, Stephanie is hauled into the black car just as Laura arrives. Let me get in a few more kicks at this dead horse, but Stephanie did not see the car approach (there’s a shock). Laura also got here surprisingly fast, or black car guy took his sweet ass time here.
Black car floors it, as does Laura. Brad and little girl have been asking distracting yet dumb questions such as “What’s going on?” If a real genius serial killer did come to this town, the population would drop from 5,000 to about 5 in the space of a week (and weirdly, the kids are smiling in this scene). The black car speeds through an intersection, as does Laura, but not before clipping another vehicle.
It’s time for the movie’s big showpiece, kids. Yes, an extended chase (about 33 minutes!) between a black sedan and a school bus, with the school bus being the pursuer. We are meant to believe that the sedan doesn’t leave the bus in the dust because it’s got a racing engine in it, and that Laura is a hotshot courier driver from LA. These two ‘facts’ don’t keep the crane barely suspending the disbelief of even the most forgiving viewer from toppling over.
The filming of the sequence helps, too. In order to make the chase more believable, A LOT of it is shot in slow-mo to try to obscure the real speed of the vehicle (the intersection scene was instance #1. More to come). It’s still pretty obvious that the sedan and the bus are not traveling at maximum speed. You can tell by the way they don’t slide much on the curves, or are hardly jostled by bumpy terrain.
But here we go, are you ready? Laura needs to explain to Brad why she is driving like a maniac (sort of) all of a sudden. She explains that the other driver has Stephanie, to which Brad tells her to pull over and call the cops. “I can’t. If I lose Stephanie, she’s gone.” Yes, okay Mr. Scriptwriter, we are aware of the stakes, thank you very much.
We are, however, not aware of why the school bus doesn’t have some kind of CB. All the ones I rode in growing up did. Why don’t you explain that one? Because then Laura could contact a dispatcher or perhaps even the police directly and get half the state looking for the sedan. That won’t do.
So Laura continues to follow the sedan. We’re shown a few near misses with other cars, and then slow-motion sequence #2 pops up, where a bunch of hay falls off a truck and sedan and bus send it scattering everywhere. The driver door of the sedan momentarily pops open during this sequence, apparently an accident the filmmakers didn’t bother to reshoot.
Back in the bus, the kids are beginning to whine about slowing down and getting killed. Admittedly, two young kids on a bus who think their lives are in danger are not going to sound like one of those nice relaxing Sounds of Nature tapes, but that doesn’t mean you should subject an audience to it. Nor does it help that the kids’ pleas remain irritatingly constant. They never graduate from whining to hysteria, as you might expect.
Slow-Mo Sequence #3: a car pulling a trailer appears on the road. By this time, they have left the city and are now well out into the country. The trailer appears at a three-way junction, blocking the path of the sedan, forcing it to make a hasty U-turn down another branch of the road. Shortly thereafter, the bus is forced to make the same move. You will notice the movie shows Laura frantically spinning the wheel and looking out the window at the trailer, but we never actually see it narrowly avoid the trailer (probably because it couldn’t).
The sedan amuses itself (if not the audience) by needlessly mowing down some owl lights lining a construction zone. Then get Slow-mo Sequence #4 THE GRIPPING EXCITEMENT OF…driving through a puddle. This moment is so gripping it really is a pity that they didn’t film it from several different angles and show them all at once like they do with big explosions in action movies. I don’t think sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, do you?
Now a shot of them leisurely cruising down the road. This is one of several scenes in this chase sequence shot at normal speed which establish that the vehicles aren’t moving that fast, in some cases probably not enough to break the speed limit. On board, the little girl is crying “I’m gonna be sick, I’m gonna be sick.” Oh, sister, I feel your pain.
The sedan pulls slightly ahead, and then all of a sudden, Laura drives by a motorcycle cop! Somehow, he missed the black sedan! Not only is this movie now failing to suspend disbelief, but disbelief is actually starting to emit a strong gravitational pulls, sucking everything into it.
The cop takes off after Laura, sirens flashing. “I think he wants us to pull over,” says Brad helpfully. The cop yells “Pull over.” You know, I don’t want to jump the gun here, I mean, because the movie is being pretty vague and all, but I think maybe, just maybe, the cop wants them to pull over.
Laura does not yell back at the cop explaining the situation, but instead pulls over (Hey! I was right!). Laura gets out of the bus and instantly begins to fill cop in on the situation. Cop tries to settle her down while he calls in on his radio. Laura retreats back to the bus. Sensing Slow-mo sequence #5, she turns around.
The sedan comes roaring over the cliff, and runs down a mannequin which for some reason has been dressed up like a motorcycle cop and placed on his bike. The mannequin spins in the air rather…stiffly (though the boot flying off was a nice touch).
The car backs up, and inexplicably, the passenger window is now rolled down. Still in slow-mo, Steph appears at the window, reaching out to Laura. They exchange some anguished cries, and the chase resumes.
Well, let’s stop to take stock now. For some reason the sedan passed up an obvious opportunity to get itself away from the situation. Did it somehow know that the motorcycle cop was there, about to call in reinforcements? If so, how? And if Stephanie is not restrained inside the car, how is the driver able to continue driving with a screaming, energetic 12 year-old, who is well aware of what will happen to her if she doesn’t get away, sitting next to him?
And a minor point, but why is the windshield of the bus clean when we look in at Laura, but dirty when we look out at the sedan? Paging continuity…
So more driving, while Brad says things like “You’re going too fast.” Which, uh, they’re not. I’m beginning to wonder what’s happened to that supposed racing engine under Laura’s hood, and if the sedan has a go-cart engine under its hood. Laura follows the sedan driver through a sign blocking the road. Once again, the sedan pulls ahead and engages the V.U.E. (he’s going to have to bring it in for a 15,000 km check-up soon) so he can disappear, dust trail and all, right before a small valley.
There is a little dust in the air, but not enough to justify Brad’s cries of “I can’t see.” We can clearly see the valley coming up, but Laura hits the breaks just in the nick of time (naturally). There’s a long pause, then Laura turns around and tell the kids not to move, as if they’re already half-way over. Which they aren’t.
Suddenly, the car disengages cloak and rams the back of the bus. Of course, “rams” is a strong word. If it actually did ram the bus, significant damage would have been caused to both vehicles, and the bus would have been pitched into the valley. This doesn’t happen. Laura tries to reverse out, but that bus’ problem with reversing comes into play. Couldn’t see that one coming, could ya?
Oh wait, this scene a flashback. Uh…I see Dennis Weaver, in a car, at a railway crossing. There’s a truck, trying to push him into the train. Hmm, what movie is that from? There’s even a nearby bridge over the valley where a train crossed earlier (actually, it looks like the same train that waylaid Laura before the chase began).
“Damn you, Luis,” she says, but eventually the gear catches and she’s able to back away. Vehicles hit the road for more fun.
While the kiddies continue to annoy by yelling “Stop! Stop!” Joanna Cassidy appears to suppressing laughter. It’s probably dawned on her just what she’s supposed to be doing. The sedan pulls into an apparently abandoned filling station, and disappears behind a maze of pipes. Laura stops the bus, and finally tells the kids to get out. There’s a nearby trailer with a car parked in front. Laura tells them to go inside and stay there, and if there’s a phone, call the police. So at last the whiners are off the bus. No small relief.
Laura cautiously drives into the filling station and pokes around. Once again the V.U.E. is hiding the car.
Slow-mo Sequence #6: Suddenly, it smashes through the walls of a large metal shack, and begins roaring around the station, knocking out pipes and generally ripping the place to shreds, spilling fuel everywhere. Laura just stands there and watches this. Back at regular speed, the car pulls in front of her, as if challenging her. Strangely, she sits there.
Slow-mo Sequence #7: The car gets moving again, but Laura just watches, apparently not wanting to miss the pretty explosion that’s about to happen (oops, maybe I should have put a spoiler warning there). The sedan knocks over a fuel pump, which somehow causes the expected explosion. Laura continues to watch the car, which rams some barrels, causing a shower of sparks. We can see ‘gas’ leaking from one of the tanks near an open flame, so it obviously isn’t gas. Having caused an explosion about the size of the one that the Death Star produced at the end of Star Wars, the chase (sigh) continues.
The tally thus far: they caused a traffic accident, which would have already brought police attention. They’ve been tearing up the countryside, nearly hitting other vehicles and leaving a massive dust trails wherever they go. One of them ran down a cop. The other sent two kids into a place where they could contact help, or likely find someone who can contact help for them (since there was a car parked right in front). And finally they’ve just caused a massive fireball in the desert.
Amount of police intervention: none.
The chase resumes off-road, so they can mow down some desert vegetation. The car is in rough shape–it’s a wonder it’s still operating. They’ve reached some kind of construction site. The sedan pulls into some kind of metal building. Laura stops the bus at the entrance of this building, and then gets out and goes inside on foot.
Yeah. Good one.
The V.U.E. has instantly silenced any engine noise and there are no tracks or dust clouds to follow. So she wanders in, calling for Stephanie. Faint screams can be heard, and then, an engine starts up. The sedan comes charging at her. I’ve got to had it to Laura though–she actually uses the pipes in this building for cover, instead of just running in a straight line as people on foot being chased by cars tend to do. Bravo! Then, she makes a break back for the bus, running in a straight line, even though there are things to climb up on or duck into to avoid the car.
Sigh. That, by the way, is Slow-Mo Sequence #8.
Laura jumps up on the hood of the bus, which gets ‘rammed’ a few times by the car again. Presumably, Steph is in the car all this time, watching this. You’d think she would fight back even more earnestly when watching someone attack her mother. I suppose it is possible that there is more than one person in the car, but continual shots from the driver’s POV really support a Lone Gunman theory.
Eventually, the bus is pushed out of the way, and the sedan is able to drive by, removing the door in the process. Which, somehow, is now wide open, even though we saw Laura close it earlier (it probably didn’t pop open during the car’s ‘vicious’ attacks).
Laura stares after the car, then an abrupt cut shows her chasing it again. (My guess is that this was supposed to be a spot for a commercial my station didn’t bother with). The car swerves to face her, and we get another “stare down.” Steph momentarily appears through a suddenly open sunroof, but is hauled back down.
Slow-Mo Sequence #9: this one is close to four minutes long! And it consists of nothing but Laura ramming the car from all angles, while “Ascension”-style music plays. Now considering what will happen to Stephanie if this guy gets away, you can see Laura choosing the lesser evil and risk hurting her by ramming the car. Still, you’d think, Laura would avoid hitting the passenger side. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. She hits it three times, and not softly either. There is visible buckling right around the door area, where Stephanie probably is!
This sequence makes the car look like it is just sitting there waiting for Laura to hit it. The car tries a few weak jabs of its own. This whole thing looks more like a few kids doing donuts in the school parking lot after hours. We then finally return to regular speed and–oh God–the chase.
The sedan zips off down a tunnel. Laura follows, and although there is adequate room for the bus, she scrapes the wall anyway, probably because it looks cool–lots of sparks! Since she now has no driver side door, you’d think she’d avoid this. You’d also think the driver side mirror wouldn’t still be attached when she emerges from the tunnel.
Slow-motion Sequence #10: Driving down a hill. Hurrah. We can see though that the car is in better shape than before, and many of the big dents are now gone. Obviously, they filmed the sequences where they really needed to damage it later than these ones here.
Now they are at the edge of the quarry, where they pass by a moving dump truck, and some workmen. Again, apparently no one bothered to call the police, even though we see that they’ve just driven into an area where they are using dynamite (at least, I think that’s what the explosion near the bus was supposed to mean).
Laura pulls alongside the car. Stephanie appears through the sunroof again and is this time able to escape her assailant, getting out onto the roof of the car. From behind, we see that sudden puberty has hit Stephanie, and she has had a growth spurt and she is now as tall as, say, a stuntwoman. The sedan helpfully stays right beside the bus, never pulling away. Steph grabs a window, and hangs on. The sedan continues to ride alongside them, though Laura could break off by herself sometime. I believe a mild tap is what causes the car to veer off, and drive over the cliff.
Time for the tearful reunion. Laura stops the bus and holds her daughter who is sobbing “I saw it! I saw it!” Well, yes, one would hope that at this point even Stephanie has noticed the car. Laura comforts her daughter, saying “it’s all over.” As we all know, this is the password to activate the Backup V.U.E. Sure enough, the car appears again, and makes a beeline right for them.
Slow-mo Sequence #11. Laura trying to start the bus, which is suddenly having engine problems.
Okay, this is taking the movie to new levels of idiocy. We have already seen that it has a problem with reversing, which it must do in order to get out of the way of the sedan. Suddenly they introduce the typical horror movie faulty engine. Why? Why not use the reverse to cause the tension? When the engine does catch, Laura instantly throws it into reverse, without problem. So they could have easily made this scene make sense by using an existing plot mechanism, but didn’t.
Needless to say, Laura reverses out of the way, and sedan goes sailing over the edge again. (Slow-motion Sequence #12, and the last one, thank goodness).
Hilariously, quick cutting indicates that the car has dropped into a shack full of explosives! I’d call this overkill, but if the history of horror movies has taught us anything, nothing is too extreme for dispatching a killer. Dropping a couple of nukes on the car begins to look reasonable.
Laura and Stephanie watch the fireworks for a moment, and then get into the bus to drive away. It should be noted that Laura has to reverse in order to leave, and she does this without trouble.
Unlike Duel, Wheels of Terror does not play on a subtle fear, but a more obvious one–a parent’s fear of their child being abducted, molested, and/or killed. And while I’m all for stamping child molesters out of the world, I really take issue with needlessly seeing them in movies, even if they do get dropped into a shack full of dynamite at the end.
First, this is one unusually aggressive child molester. They are a species of criminal not noted for being bold. (The genius serial killer is also a movie creation. They remain uncaught because of the seeming randomness of their crimes, or because they prey on a segment of the population that’s disadvantaged and/or reluctant to work with the police.)
This particular child molester kills somebody in order to get at his first victim (but inexplicably lets her live). You can’t even really suspend a little extra disbelief for the sake of the movie and say that this is an unusually aggressive child molester. This is because he is stupidly aggressive. The only reason he remains uncaught is because the police and the people trying to catch him aren’t much brighter. His antics in the real world would get him arrested faster than if he walked into an airport yelling “Hey, I’m gonna hijack a plane with this nice shiny new gun I have! Wanna see?”
And artistically, the inclusion of such characters are both a crutch and a shield. Instead of developing a villain who is complex so that we can understand the nature of their antagonism (and perhaps even feel some brief empathy), many movies simply draw on the Stock Villain. The Stock Villain is the character(s) who, by simply being in the movie, can instantly be identified as the villain without all that tedious motivation and creative character development.
Nazis are a primary example. Drop one in the film, and bingo, you know they’re the villain and not much else needs to be said. Other good examples: Drug Pushers, Serial Killers, Racial Supremacists. More recently Evil Corporation, Inc. has become the stock villain of choice. No need to spend a word on what makes them tick, just being what they are makes them bad enough to oppose your hero. In the case of WoT, the stock villain is a Child Molester. What drives him to do what he does? How did he become so twisted? Uh…He’s like, ya know, a Child Molester. So like, he’s evil and stuff.
Stock Villains can and often do lead to the creation of the Stock Hero, sometimes by default. Stock Villains are so obviously evil and display no redeeming qualities (to do so would require skillful character development), that any person who opposes them becomes the Hero, just like that, and now you don’t have to waste time with the hero’s motivation either.
In WoT, we’ve got the child molester. Any parent with a smidgen of decency would protect their child from one. It goes without saying. Perhaps this is why Laura isn’t exactly the most complex character ever to grace the screen. We do get vague ideas about what motivates her actions (wanting to move away from crime in the city), but that’s all. Is she bitter about leaving home and friends behind? Is this new job a tremendous comedown? Is she a sudden widow (not one mention of Stephanie’s father or where he is)? Nah, man, never mind that. She’s out here, right, and there’s a child molester, and she’s like against him and stuff because she’s a parent. If these characters were a pool of water, they wouldn’t have enough depth to drown an ant.
That’s the plot and character crutch. Now the shield. By invoking the spectre of child molestation, they get some armor against criticism. Since the villain is so vile, how can a movie which shows a child molester getting his comeuppance be subjected to ridicule? Well, good intentions do not necessarily make a good movie. A bad movie that tells us Nazi Germany was a bad thing is still a bad movie, however noble its theme. For another good example of this tactic not working, check out Hurry Sundown, an incredibly offensive movie that’s supposed to be sympathetic to blacks in a racist American South. A great write-up can be found in The 50 Worst Films of All Time (and it even features Michael Caine!).
The Duel formula has been ripped off before and probably will be again. Other movies that could have made the cut include the subtly-titled Made For TV Death Car on the Freeway, and my friend Leandro Asnaghi-Nicastro has few good things to say about The Car (1977).
Laura and Mrs. G
Mrs. Generic: “Which one’s going to get the gold?”
Laura: “I don’t know, I’ll leave it to fate.”
Mrs. G: “Sounds fair. But I ought to warn you I intend to sleep with all the male judges.”
Laura: “Oh really? I don’t know if your husband will be too happy about that.”
Mrs. G: He’s going to take all the women.”
Uh, you said it sister:
(Stephanie and a Generic Friend look over some music tapes.)
Stephanie: “Do you have this one? I like this one.”
Generic Friend: “It’s got demons on it.”
Stephanie + GF: “Demon’s coming, we’d better head home!”