... aka: Terror in Copper Valley
Currently, this Duel-inspired thriller (which debuted on cable TV) sits over on IMDb with a lousy 3.9 rating, which gives one the impression that it's not only below average but bordering on awful. Oh Wheels of Terror... I guess nobody loves you... Nobody but little ole me. Now allow me to be master of the obvious for just one second. There's not a single movie on this planet that someone out there doesn't enjoy. As a matter of fact, sometimes I'm actually quite shocked to find out what other people enjoy. How some can find redeeming qualities to films like MONSTER A GO-GO (1965), PSYCHED BY THE 4D WITCH (1972) or even CRAZY FAT ETHEL II (1988); all movies I've panned on here, has me at a real loss. As far as Wheels of Terror is concerned, you will not be hearing many good things about it on most other blogs or websites and, for the life of me, I'm not sure why it's so roundly disliked. Sure, it's certainly not a flawless piece of cinematic art; there are some clear issues here and it's sometimes downright corny. However, I remain firm in my stance that this is not only not awful, but it's actually pretty good and I hope to make a case for that right here.
Wheels stars Joanna Cassidy, one of those under-appreciated actresses who's just so effortlessly appealing and relatable that she improves every single film she appears in no matter how bad the film may otherwise be. Her character here - Laura McKenzie - is the type of role Cassidy really excels at: a down-to-Earth, normal, well-intentioned single mother who's usually running around in baggy sweat clothes and with her hair a mess. Laura has just recently moved from L.A. to the small, dusty desert town of Copper Valley in hopes of not only providing a safer (she thinks!) environment for her 12-year-old daughter Stephanie (Marcie Leeds) to grow up in, but also a better life. Laura is dead set on Stephanie getting a good education because, as she bluntly puts it, she doesn't want her to end up just like her driving school buses for a living. But Laura's about to learn that it doesn't really matter where you live. Evil lurks everywhere... and the town of Copper Valley is about to be rocked by a child predator on the loose.
Young girls from the area start falling victim to a child molester who drives a dirty black sports car. The first few girls are abducted for a short period of time, violated and then (otherwise) safely dropped off intact, but the creep's initial victims are so traumatized by the event that they prove to be little help in identifying who did this to them. Laura, whose job as a bus driver requires her to be especially careful and observant about the children entrusted in her care, notices the car lurking around the school. She then comes to the realization that whoever's in the car seems to be stalking both her and her daughter; even going so far as to show up at their home late at night threateningly revving his engine. The crimes escalate further when Stephanie's best friend Kimberly (Kimberly Duncan) is not only raped but murdered. Laura goes to Detective Drummond (Arlen Dean Snyder), but he and the rest of the police force prove to be of little help. Sure enough, the car manages to eventually snatch up Stephanie right in front of Laura. Thankfully, the school bus she's been given to temporarily drive has been supped-up with a race car engine by her mechanic Luis (Carlos Cervantes).
After adeptly setting up the premise and characters, Wheels then begins the chase portion, which takes up nearly the entire second half. These scenes are very well-directed, well-edited, action-packed and quite suspenseful, with excellent stunt work, stunt driving and good use of slow-motion. The camerawork is consistently impressive and surprisingly sophisticated at times; including a crane shot rising up from the highway to look down upon a moving vehicle. We never actually get to see the driver, but we don't need to do. It's clear that the car itself was meant to be a faceless representation of all child molesters. There are a few obvious problems here, including two extremely annoying kids who are still on the bus when Laura begins her chase. After about a hundred whiny demands of "Stop!" "Don't!" and "Pull over!" you want Laura to scream "STFU already!" Thankfully, they're dropped off after about 10 minutes, but still their lives are put in some risk. It seems a bit out of character for Laura, though it's somewhat understandable considering if she loses the car, she loses her daughter. And if any parent places themselves in her shoes, they'd likely do the same exact thing. The very end unfortunately gets a bit silly as well, especially in regard to how the daughter escapes the car and a last-minute attempt at a shock. But those are really just small gripes in an otherwise solidly-crafted thriller.
Wheels first showed up on the USA Network before being issued to VHS (and laserdisc) by Paramount. There is currently no DVD release.