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May 13, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #19 - Roadgames

If there's one lesson that can be learned from Richard Franklin's 1981 thriller Roadgames, it's to never doubt a Hitchcock disciple with a camera. Franklin, the Australian-born director who two years later would turn the unlikely title Psycho II into a pleasant reality, grew up worshipping the Master of Suspense, thanks to a viewing of the original Psycho at age 12. During his film-schooling at USC, Franklin tried to get in touch with Hitchcock's office to acquire a print of Hitch's 1948 thriller Rope, and ended up getting not only the film but the late filmmaker to visit the school. He made such an impression that the 21-year-old was then invited to watch Hitchcock work on his 1969 film Topaz.Roadgames, despite a slasher craze inspired ad campaign led by this ridiculously cool poster, is a version of Hitchcock's Rear Window on wheels. Stacy Keach stars as Quid, a sleep-deprived truck driver hauling a load of pork from Melbourne to Perth, who entertains himself by talking to his pet dingo and making up identities for the people he passes on his journey. As he travels he finds himself most interested in a roadmate driving a green van who starts the film with a female companion and ends up dropping bags of "trash" across the continent.

To the viewer, there is no question as to this mysterious driver's purpose - we are shown what happens in the hotel room with the young woman before the opening credits roll. The hook of the film, with no suspense regarding that man's guilt, lies in watching Quid unravel the things he's seen. Like James Stewart's character in Rear Window, Quid has made up his mind as to what he thinks he's seen, and we're left to see if his ability to put the pieces together is good enough to make an impact.Around the film's midpoint, Quid is joined in his quest by a young hitchhiker with a secret, played by all-time horror film champion Jamie Lee Curtis. She instantly buys in to his beliefs about the closely watched man in the van, and becomes an asset in his quest to discover the truth. In the third act we find our lead alone again, and are treated to some fantastic scenes in which he tries to convince himself he didn't see what he knows he saw. As he speaks each of his soothing and practical thoughts, we can faintly hear the voice in his head that's reminding him why each statement can't be true. It's a great touch that builds tension as the film rolls toward a final confrontation.

Franklin and co-writer Everett De Roche must have had a lot of fun putting this film together. Keach is given a lot of great dialogue and establishes a unique lead who has an intellectual streak, reminding us of his skill as an actor that has often been overlooked. Curtis isn't asked to do a lot, but succeeds in the familiar role thanks to her experience, as this was the fifth of six straight horrors she starred in on the big screen. The relationship between driver and hitcher is never taken too far, and the film maintains its simple focus on the mystery driver through a cool finale in a dark alleyway.Franklin, despite succeeding with Psycho II and a few more Hollywood films, never made it big in the states. By the mid-90s he grew tired of the studios and was back in Australia working on projects he wanted to deal with. It's a bit of a shame that he never got more respect in Hollywood, because Roadgames clearly established him as a precise director of suspense whose tendencies are echoed by David Fincher and John Dahl types today. Roadgames is a well-written thriller that focuses on creating rich characters and building interest in their thought processes; and as far as Hitchcock tributes go, it's one of the best.
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R.D. Penning said...

I really want to see this, I love Stacy Keach!

Will Errickson said...

Great review. I saw ROADGAMES couple years ago, don't remember why I rented it, but my girlfriend and I really dug it. More people need to see it!