They just do not make horror films like this anymore… They really don’t. This film is what I have been missing from the horror genre for years now. Ever since the 1980’s cornered the market on the Slasher Flick genre the only thing people seem to be fascinated with his how many people die, how gruesome their deaths are, and how many sequels can we make before people burn down the production studio in a fit of rage. If more films like Duel were created today then the genre would not be a complete laughable medium that it is.
Created in 1971 and directed by Steven Spielberg, Duel is the compelling story of what happens when you happen to run across a deranged psychopath with a terrible case of road rage. Originally aired as a ‘made for TV movie’ on ABC the film has been praised by critics receiving a certified fresh 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and continues to appear on lists of the Greatest Horror Films of all time. The story is about a traveling salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) on his way to meet a client while traveling across the California desert. He has the misfortune of running across a truck driver in an old 1955 Peterbilt Tanker who then proceeds to seek revenge for enacting such a heinous act as attempting to pass a slow-moving vehicle by chasing him across the desert and attempting to kill him. The story is a hard one to put to words as it does not feel… necessarily compelling but this is an instance where you really have to see the film to truly understand how terrifying the film really is.
Visuals Make the Film Terrifying and Compelling
Camera angles in this film are phenomenal and truly add a whole other level of terror. Thanks to many close up shots of Dennis Weaver who gives a truly phenomenal performance, you truly since his terror along with building tension in your stomach. After Mann’s first encounter with the truck that leaves him spun out into a white picket fence, David goes into a cafe to calm down and while he is walking to the bathroom the camera is visibly shaking as the camera man is back peddling in front of Weaver, which gives a fantastic feeling of disorientation.
Shots of the truck make an old tanker truck into a truly menacing force as if the truck itself feels as if it is some sort of evil creation brought out of hell itself. When the truck pulls into a tunnel and turns its lights on you get the sensation that you are staring into the eyes of an unrelenting monster.
Lingering shots and close up shots is really what makes this movie phenomenal. They pull you into this world and make you feel uneasy or worried or tense. There isn’t anything graphic or gruesome on-screen and there doesn’t need to be. This film has an atmosphere and tone that is rare to come by in any movie and it truly makes it phenomenal.
The Truck Driver
No joke the Truck Driver is one of my favorite villains of all time. The whole setting itself is just unnerving and creepy and he simply does not fit the evil horror movie villain people come to expect. While the film does paint the truck in a malevolent tone and makes it feel like it is almost acting on its own will, bottom line it is being driven by some guy. Just some truck driver nothing more. He gets passed one time by David Mann and for some reason this sparks the events of the film.
Not only that it seems like for everyone else in the film he is actually a nice upstanding citizen towards. There is one scene in the film where a bus is stranded on the side of the road and when David attempts to help them the truck returns. David tries to hassle kids off the road and eventually jumps in his car and leaves but the truck driver actually helps the bus full of kids then proceeds to torment David again. In today’s horror movie the bus would be filled with teenagers and the driver would have just ran them all down and it would have been bloody and graphic. But no, instead the guy helps a bus full of children before returning to torment Mann which makes him… Even more terrifying. The main reason being is because we really never understand his goals. They are never stated why he was chasing David. David couldn’t have been the only person to try to pass him and in one scene a car passes David and is never seen again. In order to pass David he would have to pass the tanker so the mere act of passing him could not have been the soul reason. From the few instances where we see limbs of the truck driver like his legs or his arm the motions are never angry or even malevolent. They seem benign and peaceful. He obviously doesn’t want to kill everyone he sees or else there would be a trail of bodies in this film a mile long. So why chase David? Why pick him to torment? It is never answered and that is what makes him all the more horrifying because we just don’t know what his deal was.
But there are two qualities above all else that makes me absolutely love this character. Number 1) We never see him and 2) he never kills anybody.
We never see this man’s face. We never see what he looks like, we never hear him talk, all we ever see is his legs which wear a pair of leather boots, and his arm when he waves at David to pass him or so forth… This is genius. If you see the truck driver then you take away from the truck itself. It puts a face to the terror and you know who this guy is and you can see the intention on this man’s face. To never show him makes it all the more terrifying because as I just stated before, his goals and he himself are completely unknown and are never known. The driver is a mystery wrapped in an enigma and left only to our own interpretation of who he was and what it was about David Mann that made him initiate this chain of events. As I have stated many times before our imaginations can be one of the greatest tools for terror and in the hands of a right director is are worst enemy.
Then there is the fact that he never kills anyone. Seriously how many films are you aware of where the antagonist in a horror movie didn’t kill a single soul and yet is a walking breathing terror? Not too many, right. This guy is absolutely terrifying he is unrelenting, he is smart enough to anticipate David’s actions, he does not stop, he cannot be bargained with or bribed, this guy flat-out said it is me vs. this guy in the Orange Valiant… Let’s see who wins.
In any horror film nowadays the killer would have murdered the gas station attendant, the woman who had the snake farm, the bus full of kids, and the people in the cafe for no other reason then he is the antagonist in a horror film and that is apparently what they do and if he would have done that then the movie would have been terrible. This guy flat-out said that it is me vs. him. Everyone else go about your business and by God do not interfere. The fact that this film does not focus on death but instead focuses on one man’s unknown vendetta against the other makes it truly terrifying because really what is more terrifying? A guy who kills people? Or a guy who wants YOU and only you dead and there is nothing you can do to stop them?
This Film is Set in Reality
Films like Nightmare on Elm Street, The Blob, and The Thing are terrifying in their own right because it is against an antagonist that is otherworldly. Whether it be an alien species or the ghost of a serial killer who invades people’s dreams the idea that this creature that you has no business in reality is pursuing you makes for a gripping and terrifying narrative.
But for me personally I always found that the most terrifying films are the ones that are based in reality. The horror story that could literally happen to you at any moment. Jaws for example is terrifying because it is simply the story of a shark who eats people. Sharks exist and though rare they have been known to bite people from time to time. The original Halloween is terrifying because (at the time) Mike Myers was just some deranged psycho killing people. He didn’t have super powers, he was just an unstoppable killing machine, and he wasn’t immortal. American Psycho is terrifying because hell we all know that there are people out there like Patrick Bateman exist and can snap at any moment.
This is what makes Duel terrifying is because it is something that can actually happen. Hell we have all experienced our share of road rage. I myself was in a duel of sorts with a guy in a white truck who cut me off and in my poor judgment I gave him ‘the finger’ which turned into a battle of sorts between the two of us on the interstate until I eventually said fuck it and pulled off to a gas station to cool my head.
But seeing a person truly snap at the idea of you passing them then chasing you around the country side in a gigantic rig no doubt is a terrifying premise that can still happen to this day even with modern technology (we will get to that in a second). It is the idea that you can step out of your house tomorrow and find yourself in a game of chicken with an eighteen wheeler who wants your blood. Reality is terrifying and Duel is a prime example of it.
One Phone Call or One Concerned Citizen Kills this Film
You really couldn’t make this film in today’s high-tech society. With the use of cell phones this film would have been railroaded in a second. The whole idea of the film is that it is David Mann vs. this deranged truck driver who prevents him from making any sort of contact with the outside world such as calling the police or asking for help. Any time David attempts to the truck driver attacks him.
Nowadays sweet Jesus one call on a cell phone and you would have the entire pow dunk police department chasing this asshole across the countryside. Plus I can already see the horror writers of today prepared to fill in the classic schtick ‘Oh no cell phone service’. Which unless this takes place in butt fucking nowhere Montana or West Virginia then that shit just don’t fly anymore. Not to mention even if you did set it in a setting like that you would lose a lot of the things that made this movie great such as the scene in the diner where David is trying to discover the truck driver in a room full of people because even in Montana and West Virginia the populated areas now have cell phone service.
The whole premise of this story needs to be set in that time because really the whole premise would just fall apart if it were set in the present.
Some of David’s Actions Contradict His Desire to Free Himself from the Trucker
The problem that I seem to have with this film is the fact that the David Mann character seems to bring a lot of this onto himself. Yes, this deranged truck driver is following him, running him off the road, and by all accounts is attempting to murder David. But there are multiple attempts in the film where the truck driver takes off down the road to set up his next mind game and David just keeps traveling down the same stretch of highway even after admitting that he has already missed the time he was supposed to meet his client. Every time in the film the truck driver appears it never once feels like he has secret mystery powers that can teleport his truck, he is just some psycho tormenting this man and has powered up the diesel engine of his truck to travel at fast speeds.
At the cafe or after David was nearly pushed into an on coming train, the driver takes off down the road and out of sight. David could have simply turned around and drove home and called it a day. Sure the driver would realize that he isn’t coming but even by that time David would have had the time it would have taken the driver to realize he wasn’t coming and the time to drive back. Making just locating him on the road a damn near impossible feat.
In a way I could even argue that David wanted to take on the truck driver. The truck becoming a giant that he needed to slay. It was established earlier in the film that David was married and that his wife was mad at him for not defending her honor when a man hit on her at a bar. He is a common traveling salesman and a person who seems to feign away from most confrontation. It could have been all his pent-up frustrations had finally boiled over and when it came down to him and the truck he was willing to have the duel to the death so to speak… Or then again maybe I am looking WAY too much into this film. Who knows?
Duel is a fantastic horror story, it is both terrifying, thrilling, and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the last second. Dennis Weaver’s performance is amazing and this film stands as one of Steven Spielberg’s best works and coming from a name like that, that is saying something.
Final Score 4/5
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