Monday, October 31, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: Road Games (Richard Franklin)

Australian director Richard Franklin was an ardent admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, so much so that as a USC film student he was able to get the master of suspense to speak to his class. Franklin, who would go on to direct Psycho II in 1983 (my review) was definitely an alert student, and his dedication shines through in the wonderful suspense yarn, Road Game, where he takes the basic premise of Rear Window and molds it into something his own. Pat Quid (Stacey Keach), an educated American hauling pork across the highways of Australia, witnesses suspicious behavior and letting his imagination run wild, suspects a traveller of murder. Pat picks up a beautiful American hitch-hiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) who he names, ahem, Hitch, and together the duo gets wrapped up in these “road games” of proving their theories correct. But in a classic turning of the screws, the voyeur is finding himself an unwilling participant in a deadly game with the murderer who has been carefully, with the help of Pat’s sometimes erratic behavior, casting all the evidence of foul play towards the American driver.

Provided a clever script by Everret DeRoche, solid acting by the entire ensemble, and great location scouting, Franklin skillfully plays with expectations and churns out suspense masterfully. The writer and director create a community amongst the drivers and passengers on the highway, and Franklin is able to balance the suspense with some humor, as the film is essentially a character study with a murder mystery as a backdrop. With the exception of a final jump out scare, the film is light on gore, making it stand out from the other brethren of 1981 horror films. But don’t let the lack of splatter fool you; Franklin proves a deft hand at a major shock midway through the film. Like Hitchcock, Franklin flexes some major stylistic flourishes, especially in three scenes: the opening murder set at a motel which uses heavy stark white lighting from the bathroom as illumination and giallo like close-up on gloves and body parts; an impressive 360 degree shot that starts with Stacey Keach in the driver’s seat of his rig out to the road he drives and back to him; and a prolonged suspenseful scene where Pat is inspecting his load after discovering the latch open, and he walks through the eerily hung bodies of pigs (or "tomorrow’s bacon" as Hitch writes on the back of the truck), his air visible through the cold of the refrigeration.

And now we must praise Stacey Keach. Not blessed with matinee idol looks and sporting a visible hair lip when not covered by a moustache, Keach nonetheless was lucky enough to come to prominence in the 1970s, where a man of his unique physical looks and abundant talent was in demand. In films as disparate as Fat City, The Killer Inside Me, The Gravy Train, The Ninth Configuration, The Long Riders and this, Keach was able to show his versatile ability to hone thoughtful dramatic performance with a touch of humorous self-weariness. While it’s difficult to select only one from his career, I feel like Pat Quid may be Keach’s most essential role. Acting for most of the film by himself or talking to his dingo, Keach is able to project a history of the character. His character’s simultaneous boredom and joie de vivre is apparent as he has mapped out various ways to keep himself occupied and entertained by such tactics as creating identities and history for the fellow road travelers. Sure, this is aided by a well written character, but even with a good script, we have to spend a lot of time with Pat, and Keach’s laconic pleasantness is a joy. Even the love angle with Jamie Lee Curtis (making one of her final six horror appearances between the years 1978 and 1981) is tender and the duo has instant chemistry, despite the large age difference.

An accomplishment for all involved, Road Games is one of the best horror/suspense films of 1981, and a great way to close out our 31 day celebration of the year’s crop.


le0pard13 said...

Superb film to close out a great series, Colonel. I'm another fan of Stacey Keach, too. He's one underrated actor, and still one of my favorite TV dads ever (remember his Ken Titus from TITUS?). He's a very good voice artist, as well. Thanks for this.

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