Beware of skulking panel vans

Watching a scene from the upcoming horror film Creep Van, I was struck by a line delivered early on in the movie by a mother who is horrified to see her child peering into a grungy van parked by the side of the road.

“If I told you once, I told you 100 times, stay away from vans,” she tells the kid. “Only bad people own vans.”

I could only nod in agreement. I’m not talking about minivans, which are essentially cars with an abundance of seating made in the image of a van.

I’m talking about big-ass vans made of hard steel panels with rear-wheel drive and sliding doors with bits of hay and oily shag carpet sticking out of them when they close. I’m talking about vans with coffee stains along the sides so vivid you can see where the paper cup hit the window and whether the original order was delivered with one or two non-dairy creamers. I’m talking about vans with exposed wiring conduits and rusted-out murals featuring unicorns, wizards and scantily clad ladies who, if they really existed, would not be seen closer than three city blocks away from this vehicle.

Creep Van is even worse than that. The driver of the filth-encrusted title van is a creep with a hair trigger who routinely makes mincemeat out of his randomly chosen victims. The film was shot in Detroit (where people know a lot about vans), and it even features a few “international” shots of the Motor City skyline, filmed from Windsor, Ont.

Scott McKinlay and Jim Bartoo, who conceived the story, seem to understand that vans are simply not to be trusted. It’s a quality inherent in the species.

“I think there is a general mistrust of vans,” says McKinlay, who also directed. “In a sense, they are little, mobile, darkrooms. At best, they offer the privacy and intimacy to do your own thing. At worst, they can be customized to create whatever the owner chooses. That just seems a little scary to some people … myself included.”

But Bartoo, who wrote the script, also makes a good point. Even if vans were designed with the seeds of evil inside them, there was a point where they enjoyed a brief state of grace.

There’s certainly nothing seedy about Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine. I can also imagine the lyrics of Me and You and a Dog Named Boo working quite harmoniously while picturing an old panel van crossing Iowa. The shift must have occurred suddenly and seismically.

“Growing up in the 1970s in Los Angeles, a car culture if ever there was one, the idea of the cool guys driving around in customized vans was a very real thing,” says Bartoo. “Some time in the ’80s, it seemed that the image of the football quarterback in his tricked-out love machine gave way to the creepy drifter who was yanking people off the streets and torturing them. Now, instead of wondering who the cool guy with the fantastic van might be, people immediately put their guard up and wonder if someone is going to try to yank them into the back. It seemed impossible to us that, when we started talking about the idea of the film, no one had really ever done a horror movie about a guy in a van terrorizing people.”

He’s right. As a kid in the late 1970s, I once saw a van that was air brushed with whales, dolphins and other assorted cetaceans. It left me with nothing but peaceful, easy feelings.

Two years later, in the early 1980s, some buck-toothed punk from town pulled over in a van of the same model year, pointed a revolver at me and asked me if I wanted to die.

I looked him up on Facebook the other day and was ready to post something on his wall, but I realized there was no point. Unless he is still driving that van, his current interests are likely to focus on a small white dog that likes to have red ribbons tied in its fur or building inukshuks in his backyard to honour the Canadian Olympic athletes in London. Freed from the influences of that van, all of the “mean” will have left him.

Creep Van is due to be released to the general North American public some time later this year. I call it a public service.

Enjoy your underpowered minivans. I have no quarrel with them.

But beware of road-caked panel vans with chunks of something that used to be sticky dried up on the windshield and three forward gears marked Drive, Low and Skulk.

Photograph by: Peter Kenter