Terror on Wheels: Playing ‘Road Games’ Over 40 Years Later

Richard Franklin has been called “The Australian Hitchcock” and 1981’s Road Games is the movie that earned him that title. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Franklin did not particularly emulate Hitchcock’s visual style. Instead, he learned how to structure a story and effectively build a sense of dread from the Master of Suspense. He also learned the importance of adding healthy doses of humor along the way to make the suspense even more effective. Though Hitchcock is Franklin’s greatest influence, there is plenty of John Ford and Howard Hawks, along with contemporaries like John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg to be found in his style. This is not to say that Franklin’s work is derivative. Every good filmmaker has influences that they synthesize into their own style. Franklin’s style is more difficult to pinpoint than, say, Scorsese or DePalma’s, but it is no less effective in its narrative capabilities.

The idea for Road Games came about while Franklin was working on his second feature, Patrick (1978), and gave screenwriter Everett De Roche a copy of the script for Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window (1954). After reading it, De Roche commented to Franklin, “wouldn’t it be interesting if Rear Window took place in a moving vehicle?” The two set out to fashion a script based on this intriguing idea. In many ways, the final film is Rear Window meets Spielberg’s Duel (1971) with an interesting role reversal as we’re put in the seat of the truck rather than the smaller vehicle. But Road Games has plenty of its own flavor, making it much more than a mere retread of either movie.

Because there was only one route through the Nullabor Plain in the Australian Outback, a person would encounter many of the same drivers along the way from Adelaide in the east to Perth in the west. These characters would become much like the neighbors that L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) observes through his titular rear window. Just as Jeff nicknames his neighbors based on his observations, so does Patrick “Pat” Quid (Stacy Keach) with his fellow travelers. We are introduced to them through windshield glass and car windows right from the start: Benny Balls with his station wagon filled with athletic equipment, Fred and Frita Frugal apparently on a family trip with their child, Sneezy Rider on his motorcycle, and Captain Careful driving slowly as he tries to protect the boat he his hauling on a trailer.

All these characters are mere observances at first; a game that Quid plays with his only companion, his pet dingo Boswell. Ironically, he is prejudging everyone he meets by what little he can observe about them while he vehemently asserts that he is much more than he appears. “Just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver,” he asserts to his dispatcher and others throughout the film.

The first person that Quid encounters on his trip is the woman he nicknamed “Frita Frugal,” who reveals her real name to be Madeleine “Sunny” Day (Marion Edward). She has been left behind by her husband for a reason that is never fully revealed. It could have been an accident, but then again, maybe not. The two observe a man in a dark green van that Quid has also seen from a distance the night before. Quid already has suspicions about this man, and with good reason. Frita in turn has suspicions about Quid. When Frita flees from Quid toward a cliff and he chases after to stop her, we get our first glimpse that the lives of the people on this road may be far more intertwined than meets the eye.

Quid has picked up this latest haul, a load of refrigerated sides of pork, due to a butcher’s strike in the east, a strike apparently caused by Frita’s husband. This is a regular occurrence throughout the film. We learn more about each of the characters as Quid encounters them along the road and at various stops. We are asked to look closer, to find out more, to dig below the surfaces to see how our lives affect others and how theirs affect ours. Of course, the two most important people that Quid encounters are “Hitch” (Jamie Lee Curtis) and “Smith or Jones” (Grant Page), the mysterious traveler in the dark green van.

It is against the law for Quid to pick up hitchhikers, but after passing Hitch several times, he decides to take his chances and give her a ride. As with Frita and others, Quid soon learns that there is more to Hitch than he originally thought. We as the audience also learn a few things about her before Quid does, namely that she is an heiress looking for an escape from the sheltered confines of her life. She does reveal to Quid that her real name is Pamela and the two strike a friendship, along with a bit of romantic tension, as they spend the course of two days together.

Hitch (a reference to Hitchcock as well as hitchhiker) fulfills a couple of interesting roles in the film. First, she is very much like Grace Kelly’s character Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. The two discuss the possibilities of Smith or Jones’s methods and motivations. Like Lisa, Hitch puts herself in danger by heading into the suspected killer’s territory, attempting to find a piece of evidence to confirm their hunches. In another sense, she is like Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from Psycho (1960) in reverse. Instead of following her character up to the halfway point, Hitch is brought into the film about hallway through and is expected to be with us to the end. Of course, one of the reasons why Hitch is evocative of Marion is because Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Janet Leigh.

Richard Franklin had originally cast Australian actress Lisa Peers for the role, but distributor Avco Embassy requested a bigger name. Franklin suggested Curtis, whom he had met on the set of his friend and USC classmate John Carpenter’s film The Fog. Curtis had become a genre star with the success of Halloween (1978) and other films like Prom Night and Terror Train (both 1980), so Avco was thrilled to have her in the film. The Australian unions and press were not so enthusiastic with this casting change and Curtis, who had simply come to Australia to travel and do a job, felt quite unwelcome, though Franklin and Keach did their best to alleviate her concerns.

Later, Franklin was asked why her role wasn’t larger. The fact is she was cast at the last minute to play a part that had already been written and, had he known what a big star she would become, would have expanded the role. It is actually fortuitous for the film that the part is so small and Curtis went to such heights of stardom. It gives that “Marion Crane” or (for a more contemporary example) “Casey Becker” (Drew Barrymore in Scream) sense to the role, raising the suspense and the stakes. There is also the sheer fact that Curtis is fantastic in the role and makes an indelible and lasting impression on the film.

The other key encounter on the road is the man that Quid calls “Smith or Jones.” What makes him very different from Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) in Rear Window is that we as the audience know from the very beginning that he is a killer. In the opening sequence, we see his hands, in cream-colored mesh gloves with leather palms, garrot a young woman with a guitar string. Later we see those same mesh gloves grasp a white cooler with a red lid in the passenger seat of a dark green van. From then on, we are put into Quid’s perspective and eventually fall into a state, with Quid, of questioning our own senses and instincts. But as we learn along the way, Quid’s instincts and hunches more often than not turn out to be correct.

This is where Franklin’s abilities in building suspense are at their most effective. We already know that Quid is overworked due to the strike and not getting enough sleep. Neither he, nor we, can be sure we can trust what he sees, thinks, or feels. We are soon placed inside of Quid’s head and into his state of delirium, which leads to one of the weirdest jump scares in film history when the deformed, monstrous face of a kangaroo barrels toward his windshield. A moment later, we are shown the reality that a rather innocuous-looking kangaroo has wandered into the road. This is our first real look into Quid’s fraying senses from inside his perspective.

Franklin follows this up with one of the most effective suspense sequences of the 80’s when Quid climbs into the back of the refrigerated trailer when he notices the temperature has begun to rise. He does a count of the pork sides and comes up with two more than he is supposed to have. The seed is planted in Quid’s mind (and in ours) that the extra sides are human and possibly Hitch. He climbs back into the cab and his narration to Boswell begins to contradict his inner monologue and, up to that point, unwavering confidence in his own instincts. Franklin pulls out all his tricks at this point, giving us a sense of delirium, paranoia, and hypnosis of the road as yellow lines and lights dance across Quid’s granite features.

One of the key reasons that moments like this work so well is the inspired casting of Stacy Keach as Quid. The film was originally written for Sean Connery, but he proved to be far out of the price range of the production. Keach was a respected actor but not a particularly big star, and so fit the bill as a strong presence without the monumental price tag. As great as Connery would have been in the role, Keach is absolutely perfect in the film. Like his counterpart in Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart, Keach is one of those rare actors that a filmmaker can just put a camera on and film them thinking and the audience needs nothing more. Every ounce of paranoia, thoughtfulness, concern, intelligence, and humor comes across in the long stretches in which he is alone on screen. Sure, he talks to Boswell along the way, but even in the many dialogue-free sequences, we know exactly what he is thinking and feeling.

One of my favorite elements of Road Games is the score by Australian film composer Brian May. The music for this film contains inspirations from Elmer Bernstein’s The Great Escape music along with Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West score. His main, harmonica driven theme gives a sense of Quid’s scholar-cowboy spirit along with the “king of the road” feeling travelling cross country in a big rig. Another wonderful element is, when the specter of the killer looms over the film, guitar harmonics along with a moody push and release of the tremolo bar comes on the soundtrack. This serves both as a reminder of Smith or Jones’s murder method and glimpses into his twisted mind. The motif returns in the shock ending in the back of the trailer that Avco requested Franklin add when the guitar string dangles down on the woman scrubbing the floor.

Though Road Games was marketed as a slasher film, partially to capitalize on the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, the film is far from being one. It is a suspense film with horror overtones that remains remarkably effective to this day. It also brought Richard Franklin the attention to be hired as the director for Psycho II (1983). Franklin called Road Games a souffle, as Hitchcock had referred to his own North by Northwest (1959). In other words, a light film, full of air but awfully enjoyable as opposed to a “meat and potatoes” film of heavy substance like Vertigo (1958). Road Games is certainly a lot of fun; it is a great road adventure and suspense film. It also has plenty to say about how various lives touch others whether we realize it or not and to not judge by mere appearances. It’s fantastic entertainment that, yes, is largely dessert as Franklin would say. But it’s also a damn good one.

Road Games is now streaming on SCREAMBOX.

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