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DVD SAVANT

Roadgames


Roadgames
Anchor Bay
1981 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 101 min. / Street Date June 10, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward, Grant Page, Thaddeus Smith
Cinematography Vincent Monton
Production Designer Jon Dowding
Film Editor Edward McQueen-Mason
Original Music Brian May
Written by Everett De Roche
Produced by Richard Franklin, Bernard Schwartz, Barbi Taylor
Directed by Richard Franklin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An excellent thriller, Roadgames (it's Road Games everywhere but on the print of the film itself) is definitely one of the best thrillers born of the slasher genre instigated by 1978's Halloween. A largely Australian production, it's a smart amalgam of Rear Window, Duel, and a bit of Mad Max thrown in for good measure. Add to that an excellent Stacy Keach performance, a short but effective appearance by Jamie Lee Curtis, and you have a freewheeling, suspenseful road picture that's much too good for its own genre.

Synopsis:

Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) is an American truck driver in Western Australia who with his trusty Dingo Bosworth is transporting a trailer-load of pork halves to Perth. As he observes his fellow- travelers on the highway, Pat becomes convinced that a shifty character in a green van is the Jack The Ripper-style killer of young women he hears about on the radio. This causes him to become protective of the smart young hitchhiker he picks up, a runaway named Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis). But the more Pat tries to determine if the Green Van driver is the killer, the more circumstantial evidence he lays before the cops that he's the guilty party.

Made near the befinning of the burgeoning international success of Australian films, Roadgames is an extremely well-made suspense film that plays its own games with Alfred Hitchcock visuals. Certainly not a slasher film - there's almost no blood here - it instead takes a credible situation and builds its scenario out of genre expectations. Most of the way through, it entertains simply by being different than what's expected.

The Hitchcock content is fairly overt, but it's free of the solemn worship of your average Brian de Palma thriller of the time, and there are no blatant copycat scenes. A character is nicknamed 'Hitch', another's given name is Madeleine, and our truck-driver hero talks to himself while making up names and backstories for the people he sees on the road - Captain Careful is an annoying guy towing a boat; sneezy rider is a motorcyclist with a kleenex problem, etc. As with a Hitchcock thriller, we're given info the main character doesn't have, and from then on we sit anxiously hoping he gets close to the danger, but not too close.

If this were all that Roadgames was made of, it would be pretty dull, but the clever script keeps events at a boil while offering Stacy Keach an unending string of fun monologues. The 'road games' start with games he plays by himself while talking to his dingo, and continue with an unwelcome guest rider, "Sunny" Day (Marion Edward). Naturally, she gets the idea that Keach is the killer, and almost runs herself off a precipice; the highway seems to parallel an endless stretch of giant cliffs, emphasizing the strange landscape.

Naturally, most of the folks Keach meets are hostile, indifferent, or deaf to his attempts to identify the possible killer; there's a nice stopover at a bar where the locals seem determined to keep him from communicating over the only phone. Another key stop along the way uses a noisy car alarm as a giallo-like tension device, to keep our nerves at a rattling pitch.

Roadgames is a highly commercial show, with a couple of scenes of George Miller-like highway mayhem that are borderline-irrelevant to the basic story but a welcome break just the same. One fairly explicit killing up front is the only slasher-like scene, but it colors all that comes later. The frozen hams in the back of Keach's truck are a constant reminder of the fates of the serial killer's dismembered victims - at one point we're encouraged to worry that there's human meat hanging back there.

Jamie Lee Curtis is completely charming, with definite star appeal; but she's only on screen for a little over a reel, (spoiler) spending the last 20 minutes or so out of sight, but hopefully not chopped up into mincemeat. Stacy Keach isn't Cary Grant or James Stewart, but he does make for a likeable central hero, playing harmonica & making friendly with most of the people he meets. The characters in other vehicles are introduced as vignettes, and become more 'real' as Keach re-encounters them later on.

Roadgames is a handsome and technically impressive film. The handling of the driving scenes, with vehicle mounts and helicopters, is better than competent, and more than a little reminiscent of Duel, Spielberg's Hitchcockian TV movie. But there are plenty of clever front-or-rear projection scenes and Richard Franklyn's own inventions, such as the nifty camera move from the back of the Green Van around to the driver's side mirror. In another clever touch, reflected red taillights align with Keach's eyes, visually turning him into a demon. Franklin superimposes female eyes over the back windows of the Green Van, perhaps aping a Hitchcock visual idea sketched in the Truffaut Hitchcockinterview book.  1

Roadgames perhaps loses a little momentum at the end, but closes with a nifty and unique action sequence that never fails to raise hackles. Keach's giant semi-truck is drawn into a side street, then an alley and finally a tinier alley where it has no chance of getting through; it's the kind of nightmare situation where the walls close in. Keach finally gets to a point where he can't move, and can't open either cab door, effectively imprisoning himself. Add other elements, like the poor Aussie cop trapped in a mess of wire underneath, and the sequence gets very complicated. Frankly, knowing how tough it is to maneuver those big rigs, I can't see how they could disentangle it.

A few weeks back, Savant reviewed Strange Behavior, a quirky and likeable character study somewhat stifled by the commercial necessity to be an early-80s slasher film. Roadgames has the same problem initially, but soon pulls far ahead of the game, leaving simple genre limits behind. This is an engaging and fun thriller.


Anchor Bay's DVD of Roadgames is another of their rewarding packages that, if released by a major label, would be called a special edition. AB's enhanced transfer is nigh-perfect, even in the many dark scenes; Savant only saw this picture flat on early cable and can appreciate the visuals much better here.

As is typical, Anchor Bay has key talent on tap. Keach and director Franklin are paired in a 20 minute documentary that gives this title its full due. AB extras wrangler Perry Martin put it together, in additiou to conducting the feature commentary track with Franklin; he's a gracious host and his docu style is unfussy and direct. There are ample stills and posters in a visuals gallery, including the sleazy key graphic that has unfortunately mis-represents the picture. It adorns the package cover (above). Mark Wickum provides incisive career bios for Franklin, Keach and Miss Curtis.

Menus and art trimmings for the disc are top-class, and are accompanied by snippets of Brian May's stunning score.

The IMDB lists a 'Tony Curtis' as a producer; I dropped it from the credits above because I didn't see his name on the film, and the Franklin interviews gave the impression that Jamie Lee was a 'scream queen for hire' on Roadgames.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Roadgames rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, docu, stills, bios, & original trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June, 2003


Footnote:

1. A curious detail in the process work: for alternating single shots of Keach and Curtis in his truck, the clouds seen out the window of each side of the cab are the same background plate, flopped! The many process scenes in Stacy's truck are very deftly handled.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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