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ROAD GAMES

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The most notable thing today about this on-the-road thriller is the presence of young Jamie Lee Curtis in her first non-horror role but Stacy Keach is also quite good and the film must have a fan base since the Shout! Factory has given it a brand-new sparkling Blu-ray release. Director Richard Franklin attempts to mimic Hitchcock here, but two years later he’d take that a step further by giving us ‘Psycho II.’ Here’s my ‘Road Games’ review, published March 30, 1981, in the Deseret News.

“Road Games” tries very hard to be Hitchcock but instead goes off half-cocked.

A strange combination of farce and fright, “Road Games” eventually builds its own roadblock, dead-ending what could have been fine scare fare — and it’s especially sad because the picture showcases a terrific performance by Stacy Keach.

Keach is Pat Quid, a self-styled Renaissance man of the road who recites poetry, plays his harmonica along with a Mozart concerto, and gives quirky names and personalities to those he passes on the road. It’s all part of a running life-commentary that helps him overcome the redundancy of a trucker’s life (“Just because I drive a truck doesn’t mean I’m a truck driver!”) as he and his dingo Boswell travel Australian roads from Melbourne to Perth with a freezer van full of butchered-hog carcasses.

It’s a delightful portrait, and with a little help from the script, it could have been a classic one. Still, Keach does his best, and that’s quite a bit. He is the main reason to see this film.

     

Stacy Keath, Jamie Lee Curtis, 'Road Games' (1981)

Another, however, might be Jamie Lee Curtis, in a small but important role as one of the hitchhikers Quid picks up. After spending most of her screen time screaming in “Halloween,” “The Fog,” “Prom Night” and “Terror Train,” Curtis finally has a film role where she doesn’t once have to scream. She is very good, by the way, and with a few better movies in the future, she will definitely be a star on the rise.

The story has a mysterious Jack the Ripper killer dismembering young female hitchhikers along Australia’s back roads. Quid follows a hunch that he knows who the killer is — and that basically is the plot.

Unfortunately, in between killings and reports of killings, producer-director Richard Franklin, presumably following Everett de Roche’s script, has included a number of farcical incidents, which tend to undermine the serious mainstream subject matter.

That would probably be OK if it all blended in tone but there is no such blend. Rather, scenes sharply shift from broad comedy to horror-style set pieces, a rather disconcerting decision on the part of the filmmakers.

There are a lot of illogical turns, as well. Quid reaches conclusions far too quickly about the mysterious killer and several of the decisions he makes to act on those conclusions seem way out of character.

It probably would have helped also to have the killer out of sight, adding a hint of mystery, but Franklin has opted to show him from the first, and he just looks like a grubby wino on the road.

      

There is a lot of attempted Hitchcock here, which might account for both the comedy-horror combination and revealing the killer early on, but Franklin has forgotten that when Hitch used those techniques it was for more subtle reasons.

In the case of the comedy, it always worked within the context of Hitchcock’s material, and when killers were revealed early, as in “Frenzy,” the Master of Suspense wanted to show us what went on inside them. We never learn anything about the killer in “Road Games,” and the only question about what goes on in his mind is brought out broadly by Curtis wondering aloud.

Technically, the film is very well done, and the Australian landscapes are beautifully shot. Mercifully, the one screen killing is actually off-screen (a very well-lit sequence that would have been more frightening if we had known more about it), but there is a severed head and the implication that a couple of hanging carcasses are human. (Wouldn’t human female carcasses be distinctively different from pork? Shades of “Motel Hell!”)

Australian filmmaker Franklin is also responsible for the tongue-in-cheek horror film “Patrick” and he has a flair for set-ups. Maybe in time his sense of tone will improve but “Road Games” will ultimately disappoint anyone who goes expecting a good shocker.

“Road Games” is rated PG for violence, profanity and partial nudity.