Plenty of arguments have gone down over the years about the scariest examples of inanimate objects coming to life in horror movies... toys, houses, dummies, mirrors, tires, post-it notes, whatever. Even more digital ink is spilled over the most imaginative weapons wielded by villains and heroes, and for a while that debate changed every time a new SAW sequel came out. But how often do you consider all the actual working devices in horror flicks that are capable (for reasons supernatural or otherwise) of selecting their own targets? It's a much shorter list, right? Especially if you limit yourself to pure horror. Hell, if I included science fiction movies, this list would be around seven hundred entries long, and six hundred of those would probably involve James Cameron. But seriously, think about my requirements here: it has to be a device – which rules out the likes of Chucky, because the "Good Guy" doll that houses his evil soul wasn't originally designed to do anything but talk. (Besides, we covered that in this piece.) And it has to work independently, which eliminates even the most elaborate of Jigsaw's traps, because at some point someone still has to strap a victim into the damn thing. Kinda narrows it down, doesn't it? Now I'm playing by a loose set of rules here, so if I make a poor choice, don't be afraid to call me on it. So press the power button and let this baby rip!
The Tall Man's Balls
This one's easy. In a movie series featuring muscle cars, big guns and a dimension-hopping baddie who turns dead people into Jawas, what's the one image that always springs to mind when someone mentions Phantasm? It's all about the balls, dude! Like Swiss Army Knives from hell, the Tall Man's sentry spheres come packed with a wide assortment of tools (which expands with each film in the series) designed for only one purpose: to destroy your face. When that thing first plunged into a guy's head and sucked out his brains like he was a jelly donut, I freaked out completely... and then, after composing my sissy self, said "I have just seen the best thing ever." As the sequels wore on, more backstory was added to the spheres, which for me took a lot of the elegant spookiness out of them. But for my money, the balls totally owned in Phantasm II... especially the Deluxe Limited Gold Edition sphere, which sports a circular saw, infrared cameras and lasers. I'd like to restate that. It has fucking lasers. High-five me if you've ever picked up a silver Christmas tree ornament and pretended it was one of these things.
Killer cars show up a lot in horror cinema, because it gives the filmmaker the opportunity to cram lots of (sometimes) cool driving stunts into the plot, and it's often cheap and easy to wreck a few junkers or chase after various characters, grinding the less fortunate ones into the asphalt. Before Stephen King's novel hit the shelves, the only danger most people associated with a rusted-out '57 Plymouth was a tetanus shot. But then came Christine, and people started getting nervous when crossing the street at night, looking for those piercing dual headlights in the distance. For the 1983 film, legendary director John Carpenter removed King's concept of the car being haunted by its previous owner, and instead made the car pure evil from the get-go. No explanation necessary – Christine just hates your punk ass. Unless, of course, she thinks she can steal your soul, as she does with teen outcast Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon). But if you're on her shit list (and rest assured, you are), you're destined to become a pile of ground beef with shoes.
The Lament Configuration
I can already hear you grumbling, but the Hellraiser puzzle box is clearly a self-operating device that chooses its targets. Why? Because I say so, that's why. No really – it contains a tiny, elaborate mechanism that whirs and clicks, makes music, and emits some kind of electrical discharge, and it often selects the person destined to "own" it. I put quotes around that because no one really possesses the box; if anyone solves its puzzle, they usually get filleted like a salmon. Sure, there's supposed to be this whole "gateway to a world beyond pleasure and pain" thing, but on screen I'm just seeing a whole lot of pain, so I'd consider the box to be a pretty damn efficient murder/torture machine. By the way, I'm only focusing on the first three Hellraiser movies, because after that I lost interest – except for some aspects of Hellraiser: Bloodline, mainly the backstory of the box's creation: it was designed in the 18th century by toymaker Philip Lemarchand, whose specialty is automatons – clockwork figures which were basically the first robots. See what I did there? Death machine!
Nobody seems to care for this demented flick by horror icon Tobe Hooper. In fact, I've seen it appear on a lot of "Worst Piece of Shit Excuses for Horror Movies Ever" lists. With that said, get ready for a shock: I don't exactly love it myself. But wait, I didn't say I hated it either! It's so insanely over-the-top goofy that it actually comes back around to some kind of entertainment, especially the bizarro performance of mumbling, antacid-popping Ted Levine (aka Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs). But enough of my bad taste; let's get to the Mangler itself. Another Stephen King creation (from an early short story), it's very cool in concept: a massive industrial laundry drier/presser/folder with frighteningly few safety measures is imbued with evil powers after it randomly "ingests" a specific list of ingredients – including a virgin's blood – that, when combined, result in a demon taking control of a person or object. Since this object is already a very dangerous piece of equipment (based on a real machine at a laundry where King once worked), then giving it a will of its own is not going to turn out well for the rest of the cast.
Yes, we're back to killer cars again, but I'm totally not cheating... I just have to include this dorky chunk of vintage awesome on some list somewhere. The result of a studio exec's decision to cash in on two popular '70s genres at the same time – devil movies and car chase flicks – this nutzoid clunker is just a party in a bucket. Tossing all logic out the window, the writers decided to avoid the origins of this super-cool custom black airport limo, leaving you to wonder if it's driven by an invisible speed demon, instilled with its own supernatural intelligence, or just Satan's own badass chariot. Who cares, anyway, when you can watch it run over hippies and terrorize a marching band? James Brolin (before he cloned himself and named the clone Josh) delivers some of the studliest mustache acting ever, but still can't outwit The Car's diabolical pimposity. Did I mention when The Car's victim seeks higher ground, the thing can just go airborne like Luke's landspeeder? Yeah, it's sick like that.
Okay, I might be pushing this one, because killer robots should fall under science fiction. But who the hell am I kidding? Chopping Mall is a slasher movie, plain and simple. The only difference is, instead of masks and machetes, the killers have tank treads, robo-claws and laser cannons. (Hell yeah! More lasers!) That's my story and I'm sticking to it. In the story, the 'bots were originally designed to patrol a shopping center, and some freak electrical thingy makes them go psycho on a bunch of teenagers hiding out there. I never did figure out why they thought that level of mall security was necessary to begin with... wouldn't your basic Paul Blart type rent-a-cop be enough? I was around in the '80s, but I don't recall a big problem with roving mall gangs in penny-loafers and Members Only jackets. Still, this one's a lot of fun, with lots of cult movie in-jokes and cameos, the ever-popular exploding head bit, and Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) flashing her boobies.
Every Machine in the World
Yes, I know. Maximum Overdrive is another Stephen King entry, and yes, there are killer cars in it. Well, technically trucks. But I'm including both this and the TV adaptation of King's short story "Trucks," for reasons I'll get into later. First, we have the nutbag big-screen adaptation directed by the author himself (who admits he wasn't entirely present at the time, if you know what I mean), and a bit later the low-budget TV version, both of which depicted a worldwide apocalypse in which every mechanical and electronic device ever made decides to rebel against the human race in the most violent ways possible. That's why it's on my list... and why it's the final entry, because when you're talking self-operating death machines, you can't get more hardcore than every damn gadget in the world trying to dismember you. Lawnmowers, carving knives, ATMs (which can't do physical harm, but they will spew curses at you), even a cranium-crushing soft drink machine. The story mentions something about a comet or some bullshit causing it all, but it's not important – this is Night of the Living Dead with trucks standing in for zombies. No explanation necessary; just stick a bunch of strangers together in a building, then watch them freak out and die. Even though the TV movie sticks closer to the original story, the theatrical version is just so insane you gotta dig it at least a little bit.