Road Games (1981)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-07-20 08:21

Written by: Everett De Roche (screenplay), Richard Franklin (story)
Directed by: Richard Franklin
Starring: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis and Marion Edward

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“I know you're looking for a little adventure."
"I could go to Disneyland for a little adventure. What I'm looking for is a little excitement."

I imagine life on the road would make you a little crazy at some point. Between the grimy rest stops, dingy motels, and the overall loneliness of it all, you might start seeing things--or perhaps even begin inventing them as a sort of game once “I Spy” no longer will do. Aussie director Richard Franklin (coming off of directing Patrick, which would go on to become a cult hit in its own right) explores all of this in his native Outback in Road Games. It’s not the bombed out, vacuous wasteland of George Miller, but rather, the everyday roads of a truck driver who finds himself caught up in a deadly chase--one that he unintentionally started himself.

The driver in question is Quid (Stacy Keach), who has been charged with transporting a meat truck across the country. One night, he rests outside of one of those motels, where he spies the driver of a green van who ends up stealing both the last room and a girl (a rat of the road, I assume) from underneath his nose. Quid imagines what must be going on inside--is she so insistent on getting down that she still wears her socks? As it turns out, he’s right about that, but he can’t even begin to imagine that she’s also about to be strangled to death by the driver. When the meat wagon shows up the next morning, he laughs it off; that is, until he learns that a serial killer is on the loose in the area, and he keeps coming in contact with that mysterious green van, which arouses Quid’s suspicions.

A deceptively well-wrought cat and mouse game ensues, and it’s one that’s got Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it. Much has been made (by Franklin himself, even) about Hitchcock’s influence on Road Games; the plot is essentially a white line fever-induced take on Rear Window’s paranoia, which is mixed in with a dash of Spielberg’s Duel for good measure (particularly in how the antagonist is vaguely preternatural). Franklin doesn’t even hide his love for the master of suspense within the film, as there are overt references throughout. He even nabbed Janet Leigh’s daughter and named her Hitch since she’s once again playing a hitchhiker (and still taking rides with guys twice her age just one year removed from The Fog).

I think Hitchcock himself would have appreciated the masterful precision of Road Games, particularly in the way Franklin crafts an enigmatic antagonist and toys with the audience. We never really see the van driver until the very end of the film; before then, he’s either obscured on the camera or we see things through his point of view. Despite this, he’s a menacing figure represented by an ominous vehicle (whose rear windows sport eyes in one particularly surreal moment). Franklin wrings a lot of suspense out of not only the driving sequences (one of which is a high speed stunt sequence that’s masterfully realized), but also those moments where Quid leaves the comfort of his cab. This is primal stalk and slash stuff, and, like Hitchcock himself, Franklin relies on a fair amount of misdirection and fleeting images--there’s even one hell of a chair-jumper thrown in for good measure.

Most interesting is the psychological unnerving, though; though Road Games slightly diverges from Rear Window by making the audience privy to a definite murder, we’re still never quite sure if Quid’s suspicions about the van driver are true. He hardly seems to be the most reliable of protagonists; sure, Stacy Keach infuses him with a burly heartiness, but he’s also a little twitchy motor mouth prone to talking to either himself or his dingo (his lone, constant companion on the road). This is definitely Keach’s show, as he carries it with a certain good-hearted dignity that recalls Hitchcock’s common men caught up in unusual situations; though he does meet the likes of Curtis’s hitchhiker and a weigh station attendant, they mostly operate in the background. In fact, Curtis seems to have been brought in for her burgeoning star power, but she’s mostly just relegated to damsel in distress status. More memorable is Marion Edward’s finicky and twitchy housewife, who is initially responsible for fuelling Quid’s paranoia.

That paranoia is the film’s eventual calling card, as Franklin crafts a swift, efficient thriller that hits all the right notes, particularly once the green van driver becomes aware of Quid. It’s here that our protagonist’s gaze is reflected back onto him and he becomes subjected to some playful mind games. Some great, psychologically unsettling moments ensue, such as when Quid is forced to search his own truck, which may house unspeakable horrors. At one point, he eyes a slab of strange looking meat hanging from the trailer--is it part of the load he’s been carrying, or is something more sinister afoot? We finally get our answer for everything with the climax, which is delightfully twisted in both its narrative convolutions and the gruesome final gag. That slick slam into the credits is about as gruesome as the film ever gets, as Franklin mostly relies on implied grisliness and that slow, maddening isolation of the road, which swallows you with the arid, vast Australian landscapes.

Road Games is an engaging minor road horror classic; its success enabled Franklin to make the leap to Hollywood, where he directed Psycho II, which has to be one of the better fanboy success stories ever when you consider his obvious love of Hitchcock. Well-performed and tautly wired with a lean, rough and tumble Aussie aesthetic, it’s a fine exploitation update of Hitch that’s earned its cult status over the years. In fact, Anchor Bay released it under their “Cult Classic Film Series” a few years back, though it’s gone out of print (along with AB’s earlier disc). It can, however, still be rented from Netflix, and it shows up on Turner Classic from time to time. While it’s worth tracking down for a reasonable price on the secondary market, it’d be nice if someone put this one back in print. One of the more impressive and memorable Ozploitation titles, Road Games is a pretty smooth and suspenseful ride. Buy it!

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