The Film: 4.5/5
Despite being one of the true heirs apparent to the legendary Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Franklin never really received his due as a director. The gifted Australian filmmaker’s career blasted off with 1978’s lurid psychological horror flick Patrick and he did a bang-up job directing Psycho II, turning the sequel that few but the bean counters at Universal Pictures demanded into a clever thriller with the foundation of a typically strong Anthony Perkins to build on. In between those projects Franklin made his ultimate valentine to the great Hitchcock, a man he considered a friend and mentor, in the form of the 1981 release Road Games.
Filmed in the sweeping, foreboding Australian Outback, Games – which was written by Franklin’s Patrick scribe Everett De Roche (the man also responsible for such genre gems from the magical land of Oz including Long Weekend and Russell Mulcahy’s excellent Jaws riff Razorback) – is Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window set on a 1,600 mile stretch of highway running through a landscape most hostile and unforgiving. Traveling this long and lonesome highway (nowhere near the east of Omaha) is Pat Quid (Stacy Keach), who isn’t a truck driver simply because he drives a truck, but the truck he’s driving is loaded with dead frozen pig meat which must get to Perth and as soon as possible. Quid would like nothing more than to hunker down for the night with his pet dingo Boswell and get some sleep, but the job is paying double overtime. How can a working stiff resist?
Quid’s used to these long hauls, but they do tend to take a toll on the mind. For example, Quid encounters several times during his travels a mysterious green van driven by a man (Grant Page) he saw checking into a motel with a young woman – a woman that later went missing. She wasn’t the only one however; the area has seen more than its share of vanishing ladies recently, and Quid becomes convinced that the van man is the man responsible. His obsession even sucks in Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis), a hitchhiker with a past she’d rather not discuss who Quid picks up, and together they resolve to investigate the man with the plan in the van to see if he is the Jack the Ripper of the Outback without letting him realize it. Their intentions go straight into the crapper once they discover he has been on to them the entire time. PG-rated mayhem ensues.
If you must, call it Rear Windshield (though most of the action is glimpsed through the front, but Front Windshield just isn’t as catchy a title), but Road Games is much more than a crafty Hitchcock homage attempting to dodge accusations of plagiarism with a different location and characters. De Roche’s intelligent script sets up the story and its principal players with remarkable efficiency and allows the audience to get to know them for a while before the plot, which is in motion from the first scene, begins to take hold. The script also wisely balances out the humor with the suspense to ensure that the proceedings never get to close to tipping over into parody, while Franklin takes full advantage of the Outback locations to establish the perfect location for a mystery constantly in motion with a hero always encountering unsympathetic locals in taverns and on the police force and wondering if he is the only person who actually cares about what is going on.
Franklin’s film must have seemed like a breath of fresh air for moviegoers of the time who were already beginning to tire of gory slasher flicks. The year Road Games hit theaters in America and most of the world also saw the release of Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part II, The Burning, Happy Birthday to Me, and My Bloody Valentine. The sub-genre of horror was already beginning to show signs of fatigue from overexposure, thus setting the stage for a classier film like Franklin’s with a heavier emphasis on character development and a methodically-crafted atmosphere of high tension that refused to pander to the popular trends of the time to break out at the box office. Sadly, that never happened and Road Games was left to find a cult following on home video and cable. In the process the film built a stronger audience of appreciative admirers than it had at the time of its theatrical release. The true classics always stick around.
De Roche and director Franklin spare us a hacky last-minute pull of the rug beneath our feet, choosing instead to allow their mystery to play out organically to its most logical conclusion (a finale that in all honesty mighty wrap things up a bit too neatly – a development possibly brought about by a lack of funds necessary to give the film a bravura climatic confrontation between hero and psychopath – but it still works). As a modest concession to what horror audiences of the 1980’s desired, they throw in a ghoulishly amusing final shot guaranteed to get a shock out of the most experience gorehound. In between that closing tag and the moody opening sequence, Franklin executes some impressive set-pieces of vehicular mayhem that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the Mad Max movies and provide a welcome break from the tension building around Quid’s obsessive investigation of the van man’s activities.
If Road Games had been just ninety minutes of Stacy Keach behind the while of his mighty rig, launching into improvised monologues about the lives of his fellow travelers and reciting classical poetry to the amazement of the hitchhikers reluctantly allowed to be his co-pilots for a while, it still would have been a classic. Quid is an interesting fellow, perhaps a little too interesting to be driving trucks for a living, but he gets the opportunity to expand on his own backstory – a life of globe-trotting adventure that demands a series of prequels too awesome to actually exist – and there are moments when we may doubt if what he believes is happening is even happening at all. Keach was a brilliant choice for the role, all brains and rugged charisma, and since he is on screen for the entire film it’s a relief that he underplays his every scene and prefers to take a realistic approach to his character’s intellectual and physical actions, never making anything Quid does feel forced or cliché. Keach also sells the humor in De Roche’s screenplay superbly; even the corniest line can get a huge laugh from me when it comes from him.
Having grown tired of her scream queen crown following starring roles in the first two Halloween movies as well as their unofficial Canadian progeny Prom Night and Terror Train, Jamie Lee Curtis looks relieved to be co-starring in a more mature and grounded thriller for a change. Even though she doesn’t join the action until around the film’s halfway mark, Curtis integrates herself into the central mystery with relative ease and strikes up a natural camaraderie with Keach that appears ready to become something more as the third act kicks into high gear. She’s great basically playing the inquisitive Grace Kelly character to Keach’s mustachioed Jimmy Stewart stand-in, matching his fascination with some of her own and giving Road Games a fine heroine. The late Marion Edward gives the film an extra jolt of hilarity as a jovial vacationer Quid picks up and inadvertently scares to death. Robert Thompson, who played the titular comatose lunatic in Franklin’s earlier breakthrough film Patrick, pops up briefly as a motorcyclist Quid cheekily dubs “Sneezy Rider”.
The centerpiece of Umbrella Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of Road Games – the first the film has received anywhere in the world – is a 1080p high-definition presentation of Roar Digital’s recent restoration that was created using original film elements that were scanned in 4K resolution and overseen and approved by cinematographer Vincent Monton. Framed in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the image is a feast of earthy texture, beautifully inky black levels, warm colors, natural skin tones, and a healthy amount of grain that remains consistent throughout the film. Details are very sharp and impressive when compared to previous home video transfers, with the Australian outback vistas looking alternately gorgeous and menacing. Dirt, scratches, and other noticeable instances of print damage have mostly been removed.
Road Games was originally released theatrically with optical mono sound and Umbrella has provided this disc with a dual Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track that recreates the experience with a lack of distortion and balanced volume levels. The company has beefed up this release by also including a new Dolby 5.1 surround track that really opens up the sound mix with audible dialogue and impeccably layered background ambience. The exhilarating original music score composed by Brian May of Mad Max (and its first sequel, The Road Warrior) and Patrick fame that features a heroic cue apparently influenced by Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” glides delicately from center stage to chilling out while the actors share quieter moments. English subtitles have also been included.
Umbrella has put together an outstanding collection of supplements that make this the definitive home video release of Road Games. Most of the material has been made available on previous DVD editions, including Anchor Bay’s 2003 Region 1 edition. Staring things off is an audio commentary with the late director Franklin moderated by Perry Martin originally recorded for the Anchor Bay DVD. This track really takes the listener to the school of low-budget genre filmmaking and Franklin doesn’t shy away from discussing the many difficulties the production encountered in its journey from script to theatrical release. Martin keeps the commentary fascinating and informative with his thoughtful questions and insight.
The 20-minute retrospective documentary “Kangaroo Hitchcock: The Making of Road Games” was also produced for the Anchor Bay disc and is presented here in standard definition. Next on the menu is a lecture of the making of the film with Franklin, co-producer Barbi Taylor, and composer May that was presented on November 20, 1980 while the film was in post-production. It runs an exhausting 130 minutes but it’s a very enlightening archival feature that allows the participants the chance to talk about certain aspects of the production that were either truncated or completely ignored in contemporary retrospectives. This feature is presented full-frame and looks to have been sourced from a beat-to-Hell (yet still quite viewable) VHS recording. A newer featurette takes a detailed look at the process behind Roar Digital’s impressive 4K scan and restoration of the film with cinematographer Monton’s input (11 minutes).
The inclusion of unedited interviews from Mark Hartley’s seminal 2008 documentary on the history and cultural impact of Ozploitation, Not Quite Hollywood, has made for great supplemental material on previous Blu-rays of films like Patrick and Turkey Shoot. Why should it be any different for Road Games? Here we have 63 minutes of full interviews with Curtis, Keach, Franklin, screenwriter DeRoche, Monton, and first assistant director Tom Burstall (the packaging also incorrectly lists Grant Page among the participants) and all involved get to expand on topics and stories mentioned elsewhere among the supplements while throwing in plenty of fresh anecdotes and insights of their own. From 1981 there is a television interview with Franklin (24 minutes) that was filmed at the time of the making of Road Games and also touches upon the director’s involvement with The Blue Lagoon. Franklin is also present for an audio interview (23 minutes) from 2001, and there are also audio interviews from this year with Keach (9 minutes) and Page (33 minutes) that were conducted over the phone.
Fangoria writer Lee Gambin contributes a thoughtful and passionate essay about Road Games that is presented as a series of text screens within a gallery of black & white and color production stills, behind-the-scenes pics, promotional art, script pages, production notes, marketing materials, and storyboards. Finally, we have the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), presented in high-definition.
If Umbrella Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of Road Games had merely been a bare bones affair with just the movie, that would have more than enough for a recommendation. But they had to go the extra mile by giving us fans of Richard Franklin’s great, underrated thriller a fresh 4K restoration of the film and hours upon hours of in-depth supplements, making this one of the best Blu-rays of 2016. Buy this disc and buckle up for one of the craziest – and coolest - silver screen rides you’ll ever take.