Monday, June 27, 2011

Foreign Fears: ROADGAMES (1981)- Australia

Director: Richard Franklin
Cast: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward

review written by Nickolas Cook

Directed by Aussie Alfred Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin (also director of the greatly underrated horror flick "Patrick" (1978) and the more well known and critically acclaimed sequel of the granddaddy of all psycho serial killer movies, "Psycho II" (1983)), "Roadgames" also happens to be another of the 80s undisputed Scream-Queen Jamie Lee Curtis's better, if not as well known, horror flicks. She plays a American hitchhiker making her way across the deserted outback, who happens to be picked up by Stacy Keach's people watching, poetry spouting, philosophical truck driver. He and his dingo companion, Boswell, become suspicious of a mysterious black van driving stranger who he suspects may be a serial killer picking up hitchhiking women on the backroads of the Australian desert and cutting them into little pieces and then getting rid of them along the road and in garbage dumps in the wee hours of the morning, who we know only as "Mr. Smith" or sometimes "Mr. Jones" because he likes to use such names as aliases when he checks into roadside hotels to do his dirty deeds in private and comfort.

Like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's classic "Rear Window", he finds himself inextricably pulled into the game of trying to find out the truth. Along with the plucky Curtis, they decide to use her as willing bait to trick the killer into showing his hand, which leads to some harrowing, very well done nail-biting scenes of suspense. Which plays on the title of the film, as the characters like to play intellectual guessing games as to the killer's identity and motive, until the game becomes very serious indeed when the killer goes for the bait and find he has been playing his own game with them as well.

Another great underplayed aspect, but one important to the characters' developements, is the lowkey slow romance which developes between Keach's Quid and Curtis's "Hitch", who we later discover is a runaway heiress. It actually adds a level of suspense and danger to the narrative that elevates the movie to a more Hitchcockian film, instead of a smarter than usual slasher film.

Franklin (who tragically passed away in 2007), knew how to frame his characters against the deserted stretches of highway, accentuating the emptiness of the landscape and the lives of the characters' played against one another. He also knew perfectly how to keep his dialogue almost Hawks-esque in pace and delivery. He also had a knack for using disturbing background sound to throw the audience off balance. Franklin learned well from his late mentor, using some of Hitchcock's best cinematic tricks of the trade, allowing the pacing and silence between the plucked strings, so the speak, to contain volumes of unspoken tension and meaning. And he wasn't bad at staging some great car chases as well. There's one very well done sequence involving Keach's rig and a dumb traveler hauling his boat recklessly.

But to my mind, the main attraction for this Jamie Lee Curtis fan is the beautiful, plucky Curtis. She is just as gorgeous and awesome as ever in this movie. Well worth the viewing, for sure. And that surprise ending...yikes!

This also made it onto this month's Top 13 Horror Films of 1981.

--Nickolas Cook