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Road Games (1981)
Director Richard Franklin has openly confessed that his Road Games is an "Alfred Hitchcock derivative."1 Replacing Jimmy Stewart's apartment view in Rear Window with the fly-splattered windscreen of an 8-wheel truck, Road Games hurtles into a world of obsession, mistaken identity and psycho killers as if the master himself were in the passenger seat. But the sheer unhinged energy Franklin injects into the narrative make this more than just a simple pastiche. This is Hitchcock at 80mph and it doesn't let up for a second.
Quid (Stacy Keach) is an overworked truck driver in desperate need of some sleep. Instead he gets ordered to haul a load of pig carcasses across Australia and keeps himself alert by rapping to his dog (he thinks it's a dingo) and observing his fellow drivers. He gives them names too, like Sneezy Rider and Captain Careful. Then there's Smith/Jones, a van driver who Quid first sees awake at five in the morning watching the garbage collectors. Why? His initial curiosity turns to obsession and he soon becomes convinced that Smith/Jones is a serial killer scattering body parts along the highway. A hitchhiker (Jamie Leigh Curtis) shares Quid's suspicions and slowly they are drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse, where the only prize is survival.
Conceived when Franklin gave writer Everett De Roche the screenplay for Rear Window, the film, while not a remake, takes key concepts and scenes from the 1954 movie and transports them into the Australian Outback. There's the voyeuristic hero, the enforced isolation (Stewart due to a broken leg, Keach bound by his cab) and the loving gal who indulges his paranoia (the scene in which Curtis sneaks into the killer's van directly mirrors Grace Kelly snooping around Raymond Burr's flat in Window). Franklin grew up on Hitchcock and the Master of Suspense was in his blood (he would go onto direct the underrated Psycho II). In fact he couldn't wait to let this blood spill out onto the big screen.
Road Games wasn't his first attempt at this (he had made the Psycho-infused Patrick in 1978) but it would certainly be Franklin's most high octane assimilation of his hero. There are car chases, grinding gears, smashes, crashes and the smell of gasoline. The road, quivering under the desert heat and goes on in an endless line while the surrounding civilisation grows more desolate. And while Jimmy Stewart was completely immobilised, Keach is a man of action, grabbing a twisted metal cudgel when he thinks he's got Smith/Jones cornered in a gas station. His truck too can become a tool to annihilate obstructing vehicles. Franklin seems unafraid to drive his movie at full tilt and even adds a garishness to the mise-en-scene that would have made the Master think twice.
The red lights of the truck become a recurring, and at times overwhelming, visual motif of warning. We first meet Smith/Jones in a motel room, wrapping a guitar string between his hands as a beautiful girl sits undressed on the bed. The room is filled with red light that adds a dreamlike unreality to the proceedings (and also brings to mind the baroque style of Dario Argento - himself a disciple of Hitchcock). As the film progresses, and the dusk sky becomes crimson, the films grows more hallucinogenic. Quid is without sleep and admits that he's starting to see things. In one of the films standout sequences, his mind wanders and the white lines on the road begin to blur and cross. And while at first this dreaming sequence recalls Saul Bass or Dali's work on Spellbound, we then witness a grotesque animal head lurch towards the screen, an image that drives the film deeper into the realm of nightmare.
Moments such as these are played with an absurdist humour - itself befitting of Hitchcock. Stacy Keach gives Quid a sardonic, seen-in-all-before, blue collar charm; his observation that, "one torso is pretty much like another" brings to mind the immortal line, "mother ... isn't quite herself today," from Psycho. These are moments that dare laugh at the darkness and revel in the world's blistering madness. But again Franklin doesn't stop there and adds missing body parts and lashings of Grand Guignol (stuff Hitchcock never would have gotten way with in the 50s and 60s). The film even has the audacity to leave us with the possibility that the missing bodies have ended up as someone's Sunday roast.
Road Games then is both deeply unsettling and ghoulishly funny - a ferocious and hell-bent (given an extra apocalyptic edge by Mad Max composer Brian May's pounding score) tip of the hat to Mr Hitchcock. But then this is the world of Hitchcock seen through the eyes of someone who doesn't wear a shirt and tie to work. And it's all the better for that.
1 Taken from Kangaroo Hitchcock: The Making of Road Games (2003) directed by Perry Martin