Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Mad Max speeding back into theaters, we go Down Under for some Ozploitation classics.
Peter Weir’s debut feature The Cars That Ate Paris isn’t scary or laugh-out-loud funny, and yet it’s usually classified as a horror-comedy hybrid, because it deals in the exaggerated and grotesque. Like Picnic At Hanging Rock and The Last Wave—Weir’s next two movies, both similarly difficult to classify—it’s equally unnerving and unnerved. It announces itself with one of those sequences that will never play as well as it did for its original intended audience—mid-’70s Australians, in this case—but remains a lot of fun to watch.
In a pitch-perfect imitation of the long commercials that used to precede features in Aussie theaters, Weir follows a glamorous-looking couple as they drive around the countryside in a convertible; extended, unmotivated close-ups of brand name products (Coca Cola, Alpine menthol cigarettes) preserve the illusion that the viewer is still watching the pre-show. Then, the convertible swerves off the road, killing both passengers. Cut to the opening credit: The Australian Film Development Commission presents…
What follows is the strange, eerie, often offbeat story of a small town where the main industry is luring motorists to their deaths. As a crash survivor (diminutive, balding Terry Camilleri) drifts around Paris, Australia, gradually learning its ways as a hospital orderly and then as a parking officer, a conflict breaks out between the status quo and the young goons who’ve grown up with the town’s automotive-death-trap cottage industry, who now trick out their own cars with spikes and bars.
With a cast composed almost entirely of Australian character actors, a visual sensibility heavy on kitsch, and the same sense of mystery that would distinguish Weir’s subsequent work, The Cars That Ate Paris creates its own alternate universe, and then shows how it falls apart. Though it mines that uniquely Australian vein of automotive terror—the kind that seems to come naturally to the land of “No fuel for 500 km” signs—its real satirical target is small-town aspiration. It’s no accident that Paris seems to be crazy for all things American, from Disneyland posters to Apollo 11 memorabilia. That fake-commercial opening sequence might be a prank on the audience, but it also represents the life that the old guard of the town wanted for themselves—even if it meant killing.
Availability: The Cars That Ate Paris is out of print on DVD, but can still be obtained through Netflix’s disc-delivery service. It’s also streaming on Hulu Plus.