Road Games (Richard Franklin, 1981)


AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddStacey Keach is Pat Quid, an eccentric trucker who plays games to keep his sanity on long hauls through the desolate Outback.  With his pet dingo keeping him company, Quid creates imaginary lives for the people he sees on the road – families, hitchhikers, cyclists.  A mysterious green van picking up young female hitchhikers arouses the trucker’s suspicions, leading Quid to the conclusion that its driver may be a maniac killer butchering women across Australia.  A free-spirited hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) joins Quid in his game of detective, but when the killer raises their stakes, the game becomes personal and fun turns to fear.

Director Richard Franklin packs plenty of wry humor and Hitchcockian suspense into this psychological shocker that was nominated for four Australian Film Institute Awards and remains one of the most surprising thrillers of the 1980s.

Special Features:

As producer/director Richard Franklin recounts, Road Games (1981) originated when he provided screenwriter Everett De Roche with the script to Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) as an example of the style he wished for their next project and De Roche responded that the screenplay would do well if adapted to the highway.  (Australians do love their movies about driving through the barren Outback, after all.)  De Roche pointed out how on long trips, one becomes familiar with vehicles traveling the same course.  With that in mind, Franklin and De Roche fashioned an ingenious reimagining of the Hitchcock classic that could have been called Rear-view Mirror, a darkly funny and highly suspenseful thriller involving voyeurism and paranoia on the open road.

Animal Vegetable PosterRoad Games relocates the central conceits of Rear Window to the highways of Australia’s Nullarbor Plain.  In Rear Window, an adventurous photojournalist (James Stewart) is isolated in his flat due to a broken leg and turns his attention to the apartment dwellers with whom he shares a courtyard.  He suspects a traveling jewelry salesman (Raymond Burr) across the courtyard of murdering his wife in their apartment and sets upon the task of establishing his guilt with the help of the photographer’s beautiful girlfriend (Grace Kelly), risking both their lives.  Franklin replaces the apartment block courtyard with the roadways of southern Australia, isolating his protagonist, a truck driver named Pat Quid (Stacey Keach), in the cab of his rig to observe the eccentric drivers that surround him and suspect the driver of a green van to be a maniac killer murdering young women (and even framing Quid for the crimes).  Quid finds unlikely help in the form of a beautiful hitchhiker named Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis on the recommendation of Franklin’s USC classmate John Carpenter) who believes the trucker’s suspicions and is willing to place herself in harm’s way to confirm the van-driver’s guilt.  Eventually, Pamela falls into the hands of the killer, leading to a prolonged and anxious chase by Quid after that inescapable green van.

Franklin was an avowed Hitchcock fan, having brought the director to USC to speak to him and other students and having later directed Psycho II (1983) with the blessing of Pat Hitchcock.  Road Games can become something of a spot-the-reference exercise.  Moving beyond Rear Window, Road Games contains generic Hitchock references, such as Quid’s nicknaming Pamela as “Hitch” or the appearance of a vintage Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the back of Quid’s rig.  More significantly, Franklin’s film contains a number of references to Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960).  Having Janet Leigh’s daughter play in the film is a notable convergence and the drives through the arid Nullarbor Plain recalls Marion Crane’s travels from Arizona to California.  A bathroom sequence early in Road Games seems to explicitly dovetail with Psycho by featuring an fastidiously clean space, a crumpled piece of paper flushed noisily down a toilet, and, in a clever reversal, the killer leaving the bathroom in silhouette (rather than entering it) to commit his murder.

Road Games GialloThat initial murder sequence is notable when considering how Franklin goes out of his way in interviews, commentaries, and featurettes to emphasize that he made a “psychological suspense film” and not a “thriller,” a term he felt became conflated to horror/slasher films full of blades and blood.  Road Games is a generally bloodless film with fairly little depicted violence, but Franklin’s characterization seemingly disavows the initial murder in a way that feels somewhat disingenuous.   Within a hotel room, a naked woman plays at a guitar.  She waits for the van driver (played by Australian stunt man Grant Page and dubbed by Quid as “Smith or Jones”) who occupies the bathroom.  Within the bathroom, Road Games evokes pure giallo horror.  Shot in POV, Smith or Jones fashions a garrote from a guitar-string.  His gloves, an explainable driving accessory, are transformed in this context to a means of shielding his identity, to a tool of his grisly work, and to a fetishistic object of sexual aggression.  His flushing of the envelope in the starkly white toilet is a loud, obliterating moment with a perversely scatological connection.  He then steps out, enrobed in the shadow cast by the excessively bright light of the bathroom, and then approaches his victim to silently drape the garrote over her head, her blank, doe-eyed gaze conveying an unnatural innocence.

Roadgames Title ScreenThe bathroom sequence is highly stylized and deliberately orchestrated, and while bloodless and without declaratory violence, it obviously recalls the slow, purposeful build-up of a giallo killer.  Road Games‘s psychological horror proceeds in the wake of this slasher film evocation.  It’s what gives the killer any meaningful threat going forward.  It is what makes the image of hanging pig carcasses during the title’s appearance so affecting, being cited again later when the possibility is suggested that some of the carcasses being hauled by Quid are actually the dismembered victims of Smith or Jones planted in his vehicle.  In another sequence of unreality, Quid chases the killer while hallucinating for a lack of sleep.  Various unsettling and unnatural images are presented, much like similar sequences presented in Hitchcock films like Spellbound (1945) and Vertigo (1958).  Pavement markings overlap and intersect across a shot of Quid driving, tail lights float across the screen and settle over his eyes as a demonic glow, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash of a monstrous and bloody kangaroo marks a shocking end of this passage.  The sequence reinvigorates Road Games, preparing for its final chase and Quid’s eventual confrontation with Smith or Jones.

The point of all of this is to say that while Franklin does fashion a highly suspenseful work of psychological drama, he seems mistaken to disavow the thriller and suggest that the film’s marketing on that basis is wrongheaded.  Franklin builds his suspense on more than a decade and a half of knife-wielding serial killers and his sun-baked film rests in the shadow of sequences coded from such past films, even if the blood-letting and gore is minimal or just metaphorical.  There is an irony at play here as well.  Franklin prefers to associate with the high cultural regard given to Hitchcock’s work rather than the low cultural ghetto of killer thrillers (lamenting that decapitated head late in the film), as if forgetting that Hitchcock himself was once considered a low culture technician in genre cinema himself.  Perhaps now, distanced from the glut of bloody thrillers from which Franklin always wished to distinguish his Aussie Hitchcock, the convivial interplay of giallo and Hitchcock can be appreciated and revelled in.  It is certainly a key element in the lasting cult of Road Games, one that should be more celebrated.

Road Games is not without the occasional misstep – Franklin correctly laments its abrupt and somewhat anticlimactic ending, noting that budget concerns caused him to collapse various concluding sequences into one abbreviated (and implausibly convenient) dénouement and Brian May’s marching score is an unusual feature to the film that is certainly memorable in its conspicuousness – but the movie is still very, very good.  Stacey Keach is wonderful, being effortlessly charming and naturally watchable throughout.  Jamie Lee Curtis holds up well in the modest amount of scenes she plays with Keach, developing a chemistry with Keach that is comfortable while only edging toward romance.  The film is darkly funny, Quid’s nicknames for various drivers standing out as his most explicit gags (Sneezy Rider, Captain Careful, Benny Balls, Fred and Frita Frugal), and at times outlandishly spectacular (the fate of Captain Careful’s boat most notably coming to mind).  Above all, it is suspenseful, being masterfully shot by Vincent Morton and carefully laid out to extract and maintain tension throughout.  It is a film deserving of its Hitchcock comparisons and does justice to its Rear Window roots.

Road Games PosterWith the existing Region 1 DVD by Anchor Bay apparently out of print and no high-definition version available, a Blu-ray edition of Road Games from Arrow Video would be welcome.  Oddly enough, Arrow’s high-end cult label has not yet explored the world of Ozploitation yet, and so Road Games would be an excellent place to start.  And while this poster is sometimes criticized as mischaracterizing the film as a horror-thriller rather than a work of suspense, we quite like it for its emphasis on that aforementioned opening sequence and for the subtle substitution of the lane markings for a zipper.

Credits:  That back cover quote is taken from the Charter Entertainment VHS packaging, while the synopsis is developed from various cover summaries.  The audio commentary, featurette, storyboards, trailers, and galleries are all taken from the OOP Anchor Bay DVD.  With Richard Franklin having passed away in 2007, it is all the more important that these special features are preserved and that his direct recollections about the experience of making Road Games and his intentions for the film are not lost.  We selected Aaron W. Graham to provide a booklet essay given his excellent profile of Franklin for Senses of Cinema.

This post owes particular thanks to Scott Murray’s interview with Richard Franklin for Senses of Cinema and monstergirl’s close reading of the film at The Last Drive In.

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