BY DAN BUSIKIRK FILM CRITIC
A great psychological thriller, intelligent, tense and scary, is a real rarity; I’d hate to let one come to town unnoticed, even if it is 29-years-old. Director Richard Franklin’s Road Games is one of the most entertaining examples of a long string of homages to the acknowledged master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock, showing just enough originality to escape that sort of airless mimicry foisted upon us by so many others who approached the throne. Exhumed Films is hosting a rare screening of this cult favorite, along with Franklin’s earlier comatose psychic flick, Patrick, tonight at the International House.
Franklin’s Hitchcock inspiration goes deep. It was a viewing of Psycho at the age of twelve that cemented his desire to become a filmmaker, no easy feat since his native Australia had no film industry in the sixties. Like so many other movie-obsessed geeks of his generation, Franklin ended up at USC’s film school in ’67. There he met Hitchcock after impetuously inviting his idol to speak at the school’s screening of Rope. Franklin moderated the discussion after Rope‘s screening and impressed the director enough to be invited to Hitch’s Topaz film set soon after. Franklin returned to Australia after graduating, intent on taking what he’d learned in L.A. back Down Under. He knocked out a couple of forgettable sex comedies before his supernatural horror film Patrick became a modest international success. This led to Road Games, which, at 1.8 million dollars, was the most expensive Australian film of its time.
The plot is basically Hitchcock‘s Rear Window on sixteen wheels. Stacy Keach (TV’s Mike Hammer) is independent trucker Pat Quid. He’s hauling a tractor trailer of dangling pork carcasses during a truckers strike when he spots a man in a blue van taking a hitchhiker into a motel room. The next morning Quid sees no sign of the hitchhiker but sees the man nervously watching the garbage men haul off some suspicious-looking garbage bags. Driving along an endless desert road, the van and the tractor trailer spend days eying each other while Quid notices things that cause his suspicions to deepen.
Quid, keeps bumping into the same travelers repeatedly while taking his pork to market but the majority of the film Quid by himself, talking incessantly to his pet dingo Boswell. Keach, a brilliant talent seldom used so well, makes the most of the role. His Quid has been on the road a little too long and Keach’s mercurial unpredictability helps underline the similarities between the alienated trucker and the killer he studies through the windshield. Keach’s classical training is apparent in this juicy role; although he is a very physical actor here he does most of his work sitting stationary behind the driver’s wheel, using his mellifluous voice to fill in the details of his character.
Although Franklin is effusive in his praise for Hitchcock, watching these elegantly-mounted suspense scenes come together I was reminded of another young film geek who headed to L.A. in the late sixties, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg also has a desert highway film on his resume (the ABC TV movie Duel) but watching slow-building sequences like the highway boat crash reminds you of the masterful set pieces on Quint’s boat The Orca in Jaws. Another U.S. star was brought in to bolster the international box-office, a young Jamie Lee Curtis (need I remind you, the daughter of Psycho‘s star) who is charming as an unlikely love interest for Quid.
Franklin shows real gifts as a subtle visualist, such as the criss-crossing highway lines that are reflected across Quid’s face, signaling the conflicting doubts in his mind as well as some of the most beautiful and believable rear-screen projection you’ll ever see through a car window. But what is also striking today is Franklin’s unhurried focus on character, letting us know and care about these endangered travelers while never losing focus on the narrative’s building suspense.
Road Games satisfies right to the closing shock, unfortunately things never again came together quite as well for Franklin, who directed the 1983 Psycho sequel before finally bombing out of Hollywood and returning to Australia in the 1990’s. He kicked around there, directing for TV before passing away of prostrate cancer in 2007. He left behind a shaggy filmography, with this dusty gem standing out as a transcendent tribute to the film master who set the director on his life’s course.
Exhumed Films presents Two Thrillers from Australian Director Richard Franklin, ROAD GAMES (1981) and PATRICK (1978) The International House, 3701 Chestnut St. , Friday June 11th, 2010, 8:00pm $10 at the door