Killing Miss Daisy - An History of Autonomous Autos

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 14, 2012 04:00pm | Post a Comment
Back when I was working on the mezzanine at Amoeba Hollywood, I sometimes amused myself by bundling together DVDs with a similar theme in crudely decorated box sets. Some that I remember were Aquanauts, Cop Dogs, one with age switcheroos -- the name of which escapes me, and Killing Miss Daisy. Using the magic of white-out and a copy machine, the cover pf Killing Miss Daisy was of a horrified Miss Daisy staring bug-eyed at the empty driver's seat. The writing on the box was meant to look like dripping blood. It contained four or five films about killer cars with minds of their own and, although the price was the same as buying all of the titles separately, it quickly sold.

It was probably because I recently spent two weeks in El Sereno that I found myself thinking back to these self-determining sedans of cinema. During my stay I spent time under a bridge where a killer car, Christine, long ago killed someone in the eponymous film. I've still never watched entire picture but I scanned through it to find the scene and remembered the Killing Miss Daisy box set. I wonder where it is now? Anyway, I also began trying to compile a list of films about cars with consciousness and figure out where this all began.

I figured that the premise of a buggy with a brain had to be almost as old as cars themselves. Car owners routinely anthropomorphize and fetishize their rides. And what driver hasn't experienced seemingly random occurrences such as windshield wipers turning on by themselves, prompting them to wonder if their machine is possessed or has a mind of its own.

                 Gremlins on a Plane by Gustaf Tenngren                                       The Gremlins by Roald Dahl

Airplanes had scarcely gotten off the ground before British pilots starting blaming mechanical irregularities and failings on imps they named "gremlins." I reckon most drivers are less knowledgeable about the mysteries under the hood than military pilots so people's complicated emotional relationship with their cars is understandable. 


I think a self-aware sedan would've been a natural subject for Dziga Vertov or any other early director in love with the possibilities of film in the silent era. However, early animators in the 1920s and '30s were the ones who seem to have given birth to the idea of anthropomorphic autos. With their eye-like headlights and four tires instead of limbs, cars, along with every other conceivable inanimate object, were transformed into speaking, dancing, bouncing characters in the vertiginous animations of the era. Since then, there've been many animated examples such as Speed Buggy, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, Magic School Bus, and Pixar's Cars films, to name a few cartoon car stars, but this entry is about their live action counterparts -- which are usually much nastier.


I won't be surprised if someone points out earlier examples, but near as I can tell, the first live action "car with a mind of its own" first appeared on television on the Twilight Zone episode, "A Thing About Machines."  It first aired 20 October, 1960. The plot concerns a witty but unpleasant food critic who is tormented by machines. Ultimately he is killed by a driver-less 1938 Lagonda LG6 Rapide Drophead Coupe.


My Mother the Car debuted on 14 September, 1965. When remembered at all, it s generally remembered with loathing. In fact, the NBC show, has topped several lists for the worst show of all time -- a TV equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The show starred Jerry Van Dyke and the voice of Ann Southern, his mother. The series explains that she passed on in 1949 and was reincarnated as a 1928 Porter. Never mind being reincarnated as a car, how does one come back as something that was born almost 20 years before one's own death? Having watched only one episode, I found it rather average for the time. Just as I think Hollywood turns out at least 20 films a year worse than Plan 9 from Outer Space, any Disney Channel or Nickelodeon tween comedy in history is far more odious than this inoffensive, old clunker. 

Even in its day it was unpopular with critics and audiences alike. It ran for 30 episodes before its cancellation the following year.  Its failure is somewhat surprising when considering some of the people that worked on it. It was created by Allan Burns (co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, writer on The Bullwinkle Show) and Chris Hayward (creator of Dudley Do-Right). The writers were Burns and Hayward as well as James L. Brooks (director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As it Gets), Phil Davis (writer on The Bob Newhart Show), George Kirgo (president of the Writers Guild of America West from 1987 to 1991), Arnold Margolin (writer on The Andy Griffith Show and That Girl), and Jim Parker (also a writer on The Andy Griffith Show and That Girl).


Two years after the cancellation of My Mother, the Car, the folks at Walt Disney decided to adapt the 1961 book Car, Boy, Girl into a film, Love Bug (1968). The star, Herbie, was a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle who takes a shine to a has-been race car driver. It was the third highest grossing film of 1969 and spawned numerous sequels: Herbie Rides Again (1974), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), The Love Bug (1997), and Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005). 

As a kid I was a big fan and owned several Scholastic novelizations (of a film franchise adapted from an actual novel). It also spawned the short-lived TV series, Herbie the Matchmaker (1982) which I have no memory of.


Killdozer! (1974) is as far as I know, the first entry into the horror genre (although the Twilight Zone episode paved the way), where it has remained parked ever since. The plot concerns a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer that is possessed by a meteorite and goes on a killing spree. In the 1970s, many violent horror films showed on on the small screen.

Although Steven Spielberg's earlier TV movie, Duel, wasn't strictly part of this subgenre I'd wager it was probably an influence. In Duel, the driver is never seen clearly and the anthopomorphic features of the truck were played up to the point where the conflict was more "man against machine" than "man against man" and is largely seen as part of the "Road Terror" subgenre that includes films like The Cars that Ate Paris, Mad Max, Death Race 2000, Death Proof, The Wraith, The Highwaymen, &c).


Why this transition from  mostly helpful sentient autos to nearly always mass murderous machines? Perhaps it's because in the 1960s and before, people loved their cars. They were beautiful, you could take them to drive-ins and drive-thrus. Hot-Rodders found new levels of thrills and the newly constructed freeways flowed even as the much of the nation's public transportation was dismantled.


came out the year after the 1973 Oil Crisis, which marks the moment when people stopped driving for pleasure and started languishing in gas station lines moaning, choking on smog in gridlock, shooting each other in drive-bys  and often moaning "I have to own a car" instead of "I get to own a car." I await your treatise.


In 1977's Crash! (not to be confused with David Cronenberg's James Spader vehicle or Paul Haggis's Oscar-winning/comically-awful LA racial fantasy of the same name), this one is directed by Charles Band of the Puppet Master series. It follows the attempts by a jealous invalid husband to possess a car and use it to kill his wife.


The Car (1977)  is about a a customized 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III that terrorizes the residents of Santa Ynez, Utah. Derided for its acting, writing and premise ("Jaws in the desert"), The Car (and The Swarm) terrified me as a kid when they aired regularly on TV. If they enjoy it, most adults did so more for the unintentional laughs it elicits than anything else. 


The Hearse (1980) stars Trish Van Devere, who moves into a house owned by her deceased, Satan worshipping aunt. It seems on the way to the cemetery the hearse had an accident in which both the driver and cargo seemingly vanished. From what I gather, it sounds like it's more of a haunted house movie but the Hearse gets titular priority.


Nightmares (1983) was an anthology consisting of four short films. In one, The Benediction, a priest loses his faith and sets out on the road. There he is terrorized by a supernatural, evil black Chevrolet pick-up truck.


Knight Rider was a TV series that ran from 1982 to 1986. It starred David "The Hoff" Hasselhoff as Michael Knight and his customized 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am that equipped with artificial intelligence named KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand). KITT, being benevolent, was a throwback to an earlier age, and being programmed with intelligence instead of powered by possession, was an anomaly. His older brother, KARR (Knight Automated Roving Robot), had more in common with the growing pack of killer cars.
Knight Rider spawned several sequels and remakes, including: Knight Rider 2000 (1991), Knight Rider 2010 (1994), Team Knight Rider (1997), and the 2008 revived series, Knight Rider (as well as a host of imitators).


Christine (1983) is a John Carpenter-directed film set in 1978 about a killer 1958 Plymouth Fury. In the film version, Christine is shown to be evil from her birth on the assembly line whereas in Stephen King's original novel of the same year, she was possessed by the spirit of a previous owner. I'm not going to actually look it up but I'm pretty confident that this film is the most commercially successful killer car film of the lot.


Maximum Overdrive (1986) saw Stephen King revisit his 1973 story "Trucks." It's premise wondered, "What if all machines came to life because the earth passed through the tail of a comet?" Most notable of said objects are a group of trucks, who wage murderous battle with their meatbag adversaries at a truck stop. King later admitted to being coked out of his mind throughout production of his only directorial effort which is not shocking at all.


In Wheels of Terror (1990), a mixed black Dodge Charger is abducting, molesting, and murdering young girls in Copper Valley, Arizona. From reader reviews it seems that it's not meant to be clear whether or not the car has a driver. From the reviews it is clear that I won't be forming an opinion on the subject.


Trucks (1997), was the second time Stephen King's "Trucks" was adapted into a movie. Despite Maximum Overdrive's mostly negative reviews, Trucks was even more poorly received.


In Phantom Racer (2009), a race car possessed by the soul of its former driver hellbent on revenge -- apparently drawing inspiration from My Mother, the Car, The Love Bug, and The Wraith.


In Super Hybrid (2009), a car involved in a deadly hit-and-run is impounded by Chicago PD in garage. The car then proceeds to kill people in said garage. I don't think that the car is a hybrid in the normal sense although the thought of a predatory Prius would be an injection of fresh fuel into the field.

Considering how many films and TV shows have featured autonomous (usually killer) cars, its perhaps surprising that it has been relatively unparodied. All I know of is the Futurama episode, "The Honking" (2000) and Rubber (2010). Then again, given the level of obscurity most of these movies are mired in and the fact that most new entries appear to be running on fumes, maybe they're sufficiently, if unintentionally, self-satirical.


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Relevant Tags

Cars (1), Road Movies (1), Tv Movies (2), Road Terror (1), Killer Cars (1), Satan Worship (1), Stephen King (5), Possession (1)