Friday, December 19, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Road Games (1981)

“…Duel [1972] had already been made. I was just struck by how much like a Panavision movie screen a truck window looked, and how the driver looked out and down at the world. Rear Window [1954]) again.”

-Director Richard Franklin, describing the genesis of his thriller, Road Games (1981), in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007)

Last week I wrote here about director Richard Franklin’s career in the genre, and his first horror hit, Patrick (1978). 

This week I want to turn your attention to an even more accomplished film from the auteur, and one championed by Quentin Tarantino himself: Road Games (1981).

Written by Everett De Roche, this film stars Stacy Keach as a clever trucker named Quid, and Jamie Lee Curtis as a hitchhiker, called “Hitch” (after the master of suspense). Together, this unusual duo puzzles through a series of brutal murders in rural Australia, all from the cab of a truck that is carrying slabs of meat through the country-side.

Although Road Games is often lumped in with the slasher film craze of the same era because of Curtis’s presence in a leading role and the violent nature of the Jack the Ripper-like killer, the film actually harks back to an earlier film tradition: The Hitchcockian thriller. 

As Franklin notes above, Rear Window is absolutely the model here, but the film actually adds new elements to the Master’s equation too. Keach’s window on the world -- the truck windshield -- is always seeing things in motion, always traveling.  That makes it quite unlike Jimmy Stewart’s (stationary) apartment window, and this factor adds a sense of velocity and unpredictability to Road Games.  You are never quite sure what is going to happen next. Around each corner is a surprise, and often a shock.

In fact, Road Games cleverly adds a number of new twists to the familiar formula, including the fact that Keach’s character is suffering from a physical condition of a sort too (again like Stewart’s character).  Only Quid suffers from physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation rather than a broken leg.  He is therefore in the position of questioning reality itself – and his own perception -- and that element too adds a strong sense of the unpredictable.

Bolstered by at least one stellar action scene set on the road that involves a truck, a car, a boat and a boat’s anchor, Road Games remains a taut, well-orchestrated horror movie. The effort showcases, again, Franklin’s gallows sense of humor, precise, clean direction, and playful sense of gamesmanship.  The film’s surprises, including a last minute sting-in-the-tail/tale, continue to impress, and the score by Brian May is terrific.

In short, this is one of those films from the early 1980s that has held up well, and one can point to Franklin’s sort of neo-classic approach to the material as a reason why.

“Maybe this is some new kind of game.”

An exhausted truck driver named Quid (Keach) is assigned an emergency job by his dispatcher, “pushing piggies to Perth,” or rather, transporting cargo (meat) during a nationwide strike.

But as he prepares to rest for a short night before a long day of driving, Quid spies a suspicious man go into a hotel with a beautiful hitchhiker.  Early in the morning, the man leaves the premises in a green and black van, but there is no sign of the woman…only a cooler which may contain her severed head.

Quid believes the driver to be the Jack the Ripper-styled murderer “butchering” young women in the area, but has trouble convincing the local police of his theory. Instead, they think Quid may be the killer. 

Soon, Quid and his pet dingo, Bosworth, pick up a hitchhiker, Pamela (Curtis), and the two go back and forth debating about the killer and his nature, a discussion which both passes the time and proves terrifying in its implications..

At a rest-stop, the duo runs across the green van, parked and apparently abandoned. Pamela goes inside to investigate, and to discover what dark secret resides in the cooler. 

Instead, she is captured by the killer, who drives off in a hurry. Quid gives chase in his truck, but by now, most of Australia believes he is the wanted murderer…

“Aren’t you a little old to be picking me up?”

In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart played a photographer with a broken leg, a man with a good “eye” who was bored, and then took to watching his neighbors in a nearby apartment building to alleviate that ennui. 

Road Games instead takes an exhausted truck driver, Quid -- a guy who is too smart and too educated for this particular job -- who passes the time trying to entertain himself, quoting poetry and generally over-thinking everything.

I haven’t slept since Wednesday,” he tells his dispatcher, adding that he is “hallucinating.”  Thus the audience is faced with the distinct possibility of an unreliable protagonist, one who is smart and imaginative, but also pushed beyond the point of fatigue. Has Quid’s imagination gotten the better of him?  Is he seeing things and making connections that aren’t really there?

Road Games also adds motion – near-constant, driving motion -- to the Rear Window gestalt, because it is set on the road, in a truck and the scenery is constantly changing.  Thus, viewers may think of travel terms like “highway hypnosis” as they apply to Quid.  Sometimes, it just seems like he’s trying to stay awake, grasping at straws. The always-moving nature of the film also manages to make Quid and Pamela feel isolated.  Help is never around when they need it, and that damned green van is always nearby.

Another travel term, made popular long after the movie’s release, similarly comes to mind: road rage. 

In one of the film’s most brilliantly-executed action sequences, a car driver pulling a boat behind his vehicle decides that he doesn’t want Quid to pass….and acts accordingly.  Quid, who is pursuing the killer in the green van, can’t back off or risk losing his quarry, but must get around the enraged driver and the results are catastrophic for one of them.  Before the scene is over, the boat is pulped.  In all, this sustained sequence in Road Games is so well-designed, shot and edited that it brings to mind another popular Australian film of the age: The Road Warrior (1982).

The leitmotif underlining Road Games is not surprisingly, game-playing. Quid plays games to stay awake and occupy his superior mind.  The killer plays a game too, trying to evade capture and frame Quid for his terrible acts.  But throughout the film, we see characters playing I-Spy, and so forth.  The aforementioned road rage scene might even be called a game of “cat and mouse,” with the cat crushing the unlucky mouse. And when Hitch (Pamela) and Quid discuss the killer’s motivations -- psycho-sexual or not -- they are also playing a game, and engaging in some fun banter at the same time.

The film’s tension and energy, however, arises not from the games that are played by the characters, but the questions (or puzzles) Franklin and De Roche throw out.  What is in that ubiquitous cooler? Why does Quid’s truck, carrying the meat slabs, weigh too much (by precisely the weight of a human corpse?) Where is the killer hiding, if he isn’t inside the men’s room at the rest stop?

In my review of Patrick, I noted how Franklin plays, visually-speaking, with words, literally.  There, the words “emergency entrance” on a hospital sign became “emergency trance,” for instance. Similarly, Road Games shows viewers such terms As “Universal Meats” and “Tomorrow’s Bacon,” and they are rife with double meaning. 

For example, if both human and animal carcasses are on that truck – and therefore indistinguishable -- then it is carrying “universal meats” in a sense.  And if the human body gets delivered to market with the pork, then it too is “tomorrow’s bacon” in a really creepy, nasty way.

Franklin manages to incorporate this sense of gallows humor without adding any unnecessary moments or wrong turns.  The film feels clean and spare, and totally committed to its purpose of subverting expectations, surprising the audience, and generating unbearable suspense.  By the same token, the film’s protagonists are delightful, and it is a pleasure spending time with them, and listening to their intelligent (if sometimes speculative) banter.

Although “the opening weekend was a disappointment,” Franklin told me, for Horror Films of the 1980s, appreciation for Road Games soon grew.  “It was only when it got on TV that it really took off.” (page 276). 

From there, it was a short climb to “cult movie” status for Road Games, a film that absolutely deserves an immediate blu-ray release.  

1 comment:

  1. I remember this movie but I never really appreciated it until after I saw it on cable -- and even then it took a recommendation from my late father to get me to watch it. It is one of my favorite horror films from the 1980s yet I remember skipping the chance to see it in the movie theatre because the trailers made it seem like just another slasher film and at the time, I was getting pretty sick of slasher films. My bad.

    I suspect the reason it was not more successful in the movie theatres was because a lot of potential movie-goers at the time thought the same way that I did. It did not exactly help that it also got a rather "meh" review from Cinefantastique Magazine.