Wheels of Terror (1990): Buckle Up

Matty goes for a spin with a flawed but fascinating small screen shocker.

A self-avowed fan of John Carpenter and Stephen King, scripter Alan B. McElroy played in the Carpenter sandbox with his first produced work, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), which he wrote for director and frequent collaborator Dwight H. Little (further credits together include: Rapid Fire (1992) and Tekken (2010)). McElroy followed Halloween 4 by penning Murder by Night (1989): a King scented telepic for the USA Network that, in a further twist of connectivity, was shepherded by Paul Lynch — the Canadian journeyman responsible for one of the original Halloween’s (1978) finest cash-ins, Prom Night (1980). McElroy’s third feature-length assignment, WHEELS OF TERROR, bridges the Carpenter and King gap.

Another USA Network programmer (it premiered on the channel on 11th July 1990), Wheels of Terror is, for all intents and purposes, McElroy’s Christine (1983) — though in the hands of Young Guns (1988) helmer Christopher Cain, this evil car-type shocker is closer in tone to the existential posturing of ‘70s road movie classics like Vanishing Point (1971), Two Lane Blacktop (1971), and — of course — Steven Spielberg’s infinitely more genre-y Duel (1971).   

Massacred upon release (The Fresno Bee went as far to call it “the worst made-for-TV movie ever” [1]), Wheels of Terror is an atmospheric little number that’s stronger and stranger than its reputation suggests. Notable is the mythic, oneiric quality that Cain fosters with the eerie, sun-bleached sparsity of the film’s Arizona locations. Initially, Wheels of Terror was meant to unfold amidst the greenery of Napa Valley, California. The switch to The Grand Canyon State — done for economic reasons according to McElroy — conjures an arid, suffocating mood that money can’t buy.

While riddled with thin characters, ropey dialogue, and frequent contradictions of its own logic, the nightmarish and style-conscious approach that the pleasingly po-faced Cain employs almost elevates McElroy’s lurid premise — in which a potentially supernatural child sex-killer, masked by the blackened windshield of a custom Dodge Charger, terrorises newcomer-in-town Joanna Cassidy and her young daughter (Marcie Leeds [2]) — from pulp to poetry. It’s portentous and, even, unintentionally hilarious on occasion (especially the ‘arty’ slo-mo stuff), but it does result in several memorable images and scenes. Among them: a long take of a traumatised victim walking down a barren highway before being picked up by the police; a truly upsetting sequence involving the discovery of a dead child’s body in a nearby river; and a genuinely shocking — albeit laconically pitched — blast of violence when a motorcycle officer is wiped out by a high-impact hit and run.

Featuring an exciting final third — the entire back-end is a giant car chase, with Cassidy tearing up the road in a school bus as she pursues the perverted speed-demon — Wheels of Terror is further bolstered by some wicked vehicular mayhem orchestrated by Cain’s Young Guns sidekick Everett Creach: a veteran stunt coordinator who provided a similar service on another of McElroy’s thematic influences, Elliot Silverstein’s equally kooky motor-creeper, The Car (1977).

As an aside, McElroy seems to be a real petrol head. Carmageddon peppers his output (see: Wrong Turn (2003)), and his directorial debut, ace Showtime short Under the Car (1992), is a monster flick about a creature that lurks, well, under a car.

USA ● 1990 ● Horror, TVM ● 85mins

Joanna Cassidy, Marcie Leeds ● Dir. Christopher CainWri. Alan B. McElroy

[1] ‘Wheels of Terror’ Will Drive You to Your Remote Control by Lanny Larson, The Fresno Bee, 10th July 1990.
[2] Despite the film’s critical mauling, Leeds was nominated for the Best Young Actress in a Cable Special gong at the 1991 Young Artist Awards. She lost to Roseanne star Sara Gilbert for her performance in Lifetime melodrama Sudie and Simpson (1990).

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