Another post where I highlight writing I’ve done for other blogs.
Once again it’s a piece for Howard Ingham’s Room 207 blog. Howard’s crowdfunding to get his essays on Folk Horror published. I hope you consider supporting We Don’t Go Back: a Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror. Full disclosure: hopefully I’ll have a couple of essays in it too.
For this post I’m making an argument for Steven Spielberg’s first film Duel (1971)1, to be considered part of the Folk Horror canon.
During Howard’s exhaustive We Don’t Go Back project, I’d always been keen to find a film that was known but not considered part of the Folk Horror canon, and to see if I could make a case for its inclusion based on the criteria of Adam Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain (more on that later).
Naturally, my first port of call was Weekend at Bernie’s II (Robert Klane, 1993).
Fearing Howard may not have the cultural sensitivities to appreciate such a subtle and nuanced piece, I decided to think again. My starting point was the 1970s with its vast array of wyrd and eerie. I thought about films that used the landscape as an integral part of the aesthetic. And I thought about Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971).
Being pursued is one of the oldest tropes in fiction. It’s universally understood and can be transposed to pretty much any setting or format. The primal fear of a fight or flight situation. To be hunted. To be prey. To be chased.
Writer Richard Matheson was apparently inspired to write his short story Duel after being tailgated by a truck on the way home from golf on the day of JFK’s assassination.
Duel is brilliant in its simplicity and has been written about extensively. I don’t plan to go into too much detail about why it’s so good. In a nutshell:
(i) No one directs tension as effectively as Spielberg, including Hitchcock;
(ii) Dennis Weaver sells it so well;
(iii) Effective soundtrack with sparing use of music;
(iv) Judicious use of setting and landscape.
Instead I shall be making an argument as to why it should be included within the canon of Folk Horror.
In his paper presented at the first Folk Horror Conference in 2014 and his subsequent book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (Columbia University Press, 2017) Adam Scovell suggests a number of components that identify a film as Folk Horror, what he calls “the Folk Horror Chain”. They are:
• Skewed Moral Beliefs;
As the basis for his argument Scovell quotes from Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation of Beowulf.
“Grendel was the name of this grim demon, haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.”
So let’s look at each of these four links in the chain in turn to see how Duel fits the genre.
When Duel was re-edited for cinematic release a longer sequence showing David Mann (Dennis Weaver) leaving home and driving out of town was shot and inserted. Its purpose was twofold, to have some nice, easy padding to help get the film up to a 90 minute running time, and to provide an obvious transition between the urban world of David’s home and the unfamiliar setting he now finds himself in. The whole title sequence is unhurried, taking its time. It shows us the suburbs where David lives, the noisy, polluted centre of Los Angeles and finally the Figueroa Street Tunnels, taking our hero out of his world and into the unknown. There is no music here, David has the car radio on but it’s news, traffic updates. The background bustle of civilisation.
The lighting effect in the tunnel is futuristic, science fiction-like. A portal transporting us to an alien space.
Establishing the outside as ‘other’ is crucial to understanding that our hero is isolated and vulnerable, the title sequence to The Wicker Man does something very similar while most of JRR Tolkien’s Hobbits would be horrified at the prospect of leaving the Shire.
Outside = unsafe.
When David emerges into the light and to the story proper, we are somewhere very different.
When Richard Matheson first wrote the short story, he drove from his home to Ventura, California and recorded the landscape as he encountered it on the way. This illustrates not only Matheson’s diligence but more significantly the inherent feeling of unease that permeates such a setting. No artistic licence needed here, to simply describe what you see is enough.
We now have the main aesthetic for the film. Rural, lonely, isolated, unforgiving. A quintessential Folk Horror setting.
While the isolation of David Mann himself is self-evident, here we’re looking at the isolation of the people or communities that David encounters.
When David first stops at a petrol station, we get our only glimpse of the trucker that is pursuing David (his boots). This sequence is also the only time we see anything of David’s home life, with a wife (Jacqueline Scott) and two young children. And while it serves to show the audience what David has left behind, the conversation he has with this wife is somewhat bizarre. They argue about David’s failure to defend her honour after she was “practically raped” at a party. This thread never goes anywhere yet there’s a subtle subtext of failed masculinity that runs through the whole film. We hear a man on the radio calling up for help with his census form, clarifying that he is a house husband and his breadwinning wife as usurped him as head of the household. And David’s puny Plymouth Valiant is dwarfed by the power of the rather phallic 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck. Our hero is a slight man, in contrast to the more physically powerful men he encounters. Yet another reminder of his vulnerability.
The petrol station scenes also have a nice little Chekhov’s gun moment, where the attendant offers to replace David’s radiator hose. David, thinking he’ll be fleeced, refuses. It’s a decision he’ll live to regret.
The diner scenes, where David arrives dishevelled and distressed, reinforce both his vulnerability – he wrongly identifies the truck driver, attempts to fight him and loses – and David’s place as an outsider. Despite his predicament, he is openly mocked. The patrons on the diner are of a type, snake-skin boots and cowboy hats. They are not of David’s world and have no wish to be, but he is in theirs. Like the pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, in An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981), the traveller finds mockery, indifference or hostility in place of hospitality. When it’s revealed that the truck driver never left his cab and just waited outside the diner, we know that he is destroying David psychologically as well as physically.
Even the old couple in the car, who David asks for help towards the end of the film, abandon him at the first mention of the Police. We know nothing about their origins but I suspect they are travellers too, equally fearful of the strange world they’re traversing, unwilling to engage in anything they don’t have to, which leads nicely into…
Skewed Moral Beliefs
While there’s no reason to believe that anyone who David encounters is a practising Pagan, let alone engaged in Devil worship, it’s notable that no one comes to David’s aid. In addition to the aforementioned diners and fellow travellers, there’s a school bus driver (Lou Frizzell) who doesn’t believe the threat David describes (a feeling which is exacerbated when the truck driver helps the stranded school children). When David stops at Snakerama to phone the Police, he is met with disinterested bureaucracy in the limited time he has in the phone booth before the truck flattens it. That’s the closest we get to ever seeing the Police, David thinks he sees a police car but it’s only a pest controller, and I don’t think he has the resources to deal with this particular irritant.
In short, the characters encountered are as indifferent to David’s plight as the landscape itself, and in many ways they are the same thing. Their behaviour may certainly be considered unChristian, and there are precious few signs of churches.
Duel isn’t a terribly accurate name for this film. Chase, or Hunt might be considered more appropriate, and the nameless, faceless and indeed motiveless truck stalks this landscape like the demon Grendel. Nevertheless, the final showdown is surprisingly brief. David, cornered and desperate, thinks quickly and tricks the truck driver to his apparent death. Elliot Silverstein would use a similar ending to The Car (1977) but that vehicle was unambiguously supernatural. Here ambiguity and anonymity are made all the more terrifying, and any answers perish in the flames with the truck and driver.
There’s a curious little shot inside the wrecked cab. We see dripping fluid but are unsure if it’s blood or oil. Like the landscape and the people we have seen, the distinction between truck and driver is shown to be meaningless.
So our hero survives. But as the sun sets and he is left with a myriad of emotions – elation giving way to relief and post trauma stress – David now has to contemplate his fate: alone, no supplies, no transportation and an unforgiving landscape. But that’s another story.
As the film ends (and compare the final shot with that of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, below), I emerge with the conclusion that the narrative structure of film fits Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain enough to be considered part of the canon.
I hope you agree.