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From a moving perspective
A UK region 2 DVD review of ROAD GAMES by Camus
 
"Madam, just because I drive a truck
does not make me a truck driver."
Pat Quid's (Stacy Keach) attempts
to pull himself clear of cliché.


And in that rather smart line lays the soul of Road Games; a suspenseful flirtation with what might be, conclusions drawn based on seeing the shadow, not the body casting it. In essence, Road Games is a distinctly Australian Rear Window (but through the front windscreen). I will attempt to be objective given that the movie's director, Richard Franklin, who died a few days shy of his 59th birthday last year, was one of my closest friends. This won't be as hard as it may seem because although Road Games wasn't my introduction to his oeuvre (that was Psycho II), the memory of a mid-80s late night screening as well as a few recent DVD screenings have convinced me, friend or no friend, that this is one classically made, oddly charming thriller, a robust and slick movie that convinced the world that Richard was destined for Hollywood – destined perhaps but as Hollywood became more suited to Armani (so to speak), then Richard became less suited to Hollywood. Later in his career, he was to stand firmer on the truth of the statement "one more day in L.A. is another day wasted..."

It was (I emphasize 'was') perhaps a rather strange prejudice of mine that I believed for a long time that genre expertise was country specific. Yeah, I know. All profound dissertations on life, love and death came from Sweden. Westerns (despite their historical roots) came from Italy. The Brits made insular kitchen sinkers while the thriller was an American genre and woe betide (what a wonderful expression that is) any whippersnapper who crosses boundaries. Well, hullo there, Mr. Franklin! In the late 70s and early 80s, Australian cinema nudged its northern hemispherical neighbours and said "Oi, check this lot out!"

And there they were, Oz's own movie brats, making films of distinction and commercial viability. The celebrated and money-makers were Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and George Miller. Wading around in the disreputable 'thriller' pool was Richard Franklin. I say 'disreputable' because unlike movies about schoolgirls who disappear on a picnic (...at Hanging Rock), drunken, politically minded party revelers (the wonderfully hilarious Don's Party) and dramas about disgraced army commanders (Breaker Morrant), where was the artistic merit in making thrillers? Well, Hitchcock may have had something to say about that if he hadn't died in 1980.

At the University of Southern California, in film classes, Richard rubbed shoulders with John Carpenter and George Lucas. It was the late 60s and the auteur theory was entrenched in cinema studies. For those who speak no French, the auteur theory was a self-aggrandizing bit of nonsense invented by a couple of precocious French critics in order to get noticed as film-makers, something they owned up to eventually. The theory's essence is that the director is the 'author' of the film, his/her artistic outpouring and 100% so. This blathering nonsense gave birth to the utterly silly "A Film By..." title that graces Hollywood movies these days. Hitchcock enjoyed this kind of faux-intellectual attention (culminating in the afore-mentioned, rather superb and rightly famous one-long-interview book Hitchcock by revered French film-maker, Francois Truffaut). According to screenwriter William Goldman, the venerable old man fell for it much to the detriment of his subsequent output (praise feels good, I've had some myself). Excessive praise from two smart French guys can turn a director's head.

But Hitchcock's position in world cinema was still down in the murky end, critically speaking. To quote Richard's tutor at the time of his burgeoning cinematic education – Hitch was one of a few "tired, old hacks..." still working. He made thrillers not profound treatises on human existence. Intellectually, Francois Truffaut pulled Hitchcock up a notch with his book published first in 1967 and in the same year, a young Richard Franklin persuaded the great man to turn up at USC and lecture, much to his in-house lecturer's displeasure; Richard's subsequent assisting Hitchcock on Topaz cemented the film student's professional regard for the master of suspense and he went back to Australia and made the film which put him front and centre to direct the sequel to one of Hitch's most famous thrillers, Psycho. In Road Games, it is no coincidence the hitch-hiker's name is, ahem, 'Hitch...'

Pat Quid drives trucks (see the quote above). He's intelligent, self-taught, he speaks in other people's quotes, is curious and willfully imaginative. It's this imagination that starts him on a road (sorry) of intrigue and on the trail of a suspected murderer. After letting his dingo out of his truck for his early morning ablutions, Quid notices a gloved hand holding back motel curtains with its owner watching the trash men do their job. Earlier, we have seen a highly stylized murder of a young woman with a guitar string so we know Quid's suspicions are on the money (it may have helped the film's mystery if we'd not been so sure the girl was murdered but then this would not have helped to sustain the menace throughout). Also, I'm certain that Richard and screenwriter Everett De Roche had worked all this out. I spent a lot of time with these two gentlemen way back in 1985 and the care lavished over plot and attention to detail was extraordinary.

The gloved man, a rarely seen character in a green van decorated with an angry spider spray painted on the side, is on the same route as Quid on his way to Perth. They are accompanied by a cast of characters all turning up at the same gas stations and motels along the way in the same way that strangers often meet in pub toilets (bladder relief symmetry) without the slightest intention of doing so. What draws the audience in is an almost cinematic non-starter – a lone individual talking to himself. It takes some balls to make that into a thriller. Yes, Quid has his dingo/dog Boswell, someone to talk to but you soon accept the idiom of Quid's cheery isolation and literally go along with the ride.

Quid's suspicions are fuelled by radio reports and fellow travelers' tales. He tries to inform the authorities but in this era, in this place (the east west road to Perth, all 1600 hundred miles of it), law is something that only happens somewhere else. After he picks up a hitcher (Jamie Lee Curtis was not yet fully established in the stardom firmament in 1981), he expounds his ideas about the gloved man and she gleefully joins in with the conspiracy theories. Cornering the suspect at a bar stop, Quid loses his hitchhiker, 'Hitch', to the suspected killer and in a panic goes to make chase. He commandeers a motorcycle and extremely realistically (and I mean extremely) he loses control and crashes into tyres and delivers the best version of the expletive "Shit" I've heard in the cinema. Only John Belushi's"Holy Shit-tah!" from Animal House comes close.

Not to give anything away, all the signposts are nicely played out and a compromised ending (Richard had to wrap two days early) doesn't feel compromised in the least. It's wildly implausible, sure, but in the way it's executed, it doesn't feel out of place. Richard told me of the ending he had originally planned and it breaks my heart that I can't recall what was originally scripted. But what's important is that the ending works as is. What elevates Road Games is a number of slyly humorous contributions, not least Richard's own. Yes, they could be Everett's (the scriptwriter's) ideas but I've known Richard long enough to recognize elements of his own personality within his movie. Gosh, Richard was an 'auteur'! He would have laughed that one off with one of his earthy Australianisms.

Several instances of this playful dark humour stand out. The first murder in the motel is preceded by the victim tuning a guitar. Not only is she about to be garroted by a guitar string but the sound of her tuning is that of a single guitar note going further and further up the scale – a stereotypical 'suspense' score on one note performed by the victim herself. Ever seen that in a movie before? As the main title disappears, a man pushes another pig carcass into Quid's truck. It's no coincidence that both man and pig have similar pink tattoos on their bodies. On a billboard there is the wonderfully ambiguous notice reading 'Butchers Strike Again'. The gag is in the context (Quid hauling meat whilst chasing a man who cuts up human beings). There is also a very sly nod to Hitchcock (aside from the hitchhiker's nickname and a magazine cover with the man himself in Quid's cab) in a shot from Quid's POV looking out on the road. As we move forward, Richard's camera is slowly zooming out which makes for a very curious lengthening effect. Try it yourself with your camcorder. A lot of people credit Spielberg with the origin of this trick (Brody's first experience of a shark attack in Jaws and RIP Roy Scheider who died last Sunday). The credit belongs to Hitchcock, shooting Scotty's POV in Vertigo as he looks down at the stairs he's just climbed. The track forward, zoom out effect is quite a neat trick of cinematic punctuation.

Also noteworthy is a pre-Mad Max 2 score from Brian May. An odd cross between Holst's Planet Suite's Mars and Ravel's Bolero in places, it includes a jaunty main theme incorporating a mouth organ solo (played at certain points by Stacy Keach himself). It's very hummable and suits the film wonderfully. But there is a caveat to a good review of the film itself and in this case it's the DVD's presentation. Inexplicably (does anyone care these days?) the DVD is presented in the wrong aspect ratio making a mockery of direction and camerawork. Comparisons with the Region 1 Anchor Bay release dramatically illustrate my point. But the same corporation (Canal +) was responsible for both versions. At what stage was this film digitally mastered for Region 2 and didn't anyone bloody notice?

sound and vision

The freeze frame under the end titles reads "OMORROW'S BAC". Does that make any sense to you? No, me neither. I'm sorry but, like Quid's pigs, I was gutted to find one of the few true 2.35:1 movies to have a good reason for the aspect ratio (ever looked out of an HGV windscreen?) presented in this horrible compromise 1.78:1. Why would anyone... I don't need to finish that sentence. Companies take short cuts to make money but this short cut is particularly damaging to the experience of viewing what is presented. In two-shots, characters are uncomfortably squashed into the edges of frame, characters who should comfortably occupy said areas. I'd like to think this is simply a mistake on the review copy but as the incorrect aspect ratio is repeated on the notes accompanying said disc, I doubt it.

The screen grabs below clearly illustrate the cropping issue when compared
to Anchor Bay's region 1 US release

The print isn't in great condition. It looks soft and grainy in places. There's a fair amount of dirt but nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of the film (except the framing). The Dolby stereo soundtrack is serviceable with no noticeable rear speaker re-mix action (I'd know if Road Games had been remixed for this version). In fact, in Pro Logic mode there is almost an absence of right and left speaker sound (nothing from the rear and the sub woofer isn't bothered either). Everything seems to be centrally focussed making the soundtrack a tad shrill at times.

The titles (very simple, white with drop shadow) I have a fondness for. Why? Because they are a wonderfully creaky example of the work of 'not the greatest laboratory in the world'. You can always tell when titles are done on video – rock solid, sitting on the screen like a tray on an ice rink. Optical titles are somehow embedded into the film itself (technically they are the film itself). Optically added titles are (or rather were) added by literally printing them on film. Any bad registration or judder caused by the sprockets moving results in a little wobble and phasing in the end result. I love that wobble. Takes me way back.

special features

Nada except the trailer.

Trailer (2:18)
This is a typically over the top trailer (again presented in the wrong bloody aspect ratio which may be 1.78:1 but looks more square) selling the film like a slasher movie on wheels. The picture shows great evidence of this print being overused, grainy as hell and caked with dirt. There are lots of earnest pronouncements: "A truck driver plays games... The hitchhiker plays games..." Oi vey... "And a killer is playing the deadliest game of all..." Ho hum. If you know the movie, the trailer basically shows you almost everything except the telling of the actual story. It's a classic of its kind in terms of how it was believed thrillers had to be marketed. Essentially it's "You're are a stupid jerk but this sort of advertising entices you, doesn't it?" Richard felt that the marketing made Road Games out to be an S&M movie. And he was forced into adding the 'head in a bucket' coda, not the best make up special effect in the world...

summary

Road Games is a class act and a breath of fresh air presented, in this case, in a stuffy oddly shaped box. This fine Panavision work is not fatally wounded by its seemingly arbitrary presentation in 1.78:1 but it comes bloody close to giving you the impression that certain superb craftsmen and women didn't know their own jobs. Aficionados and purists should go for the Region 1 Anchor Bay release (with added doc and Franklin commentary AND PRESENTED IN THE RIGHT BLOODY ASPECT RATIO)!

Road Games

Australia 1981
97 mins
director
RichardFranklin
starring
Stacy Keach
Jamie Lee Curtis
Marion Edward
Grant Page
Thaddeus Smith
Steve Millichamp
Alan Hopgood
John Murphy

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
Optimum
release date
3 March 2008
review posted
19 February 2008

See all of Camus's reviews