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.
Road Games (1981)
Stacy Keach engages in highway warfare in Road Games, an Australian thriller that drums up suspense from its assured plotting and direction, and generates humor from its star’s charismatic lead performance. Richard Franklin’s film opens with truck driver Quid (Keach) jealously watching as a man (Grant Page) driving a brown van picks up a hitchhiker and then snags the last room at a motel. There’s a maniac on the loose, Quid soon learns, which gives the stranger’s subsequent actions—watching intently as the trash gets picked up the next morning, burying mysterious objects in the middle of the Outback desert—greater and more suspicious meaning. So rather than doing his job and hauling a semi full of frozen pigs to Perth, Quid plays amateur Sherlock Holmes, with a young hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) as his de facto Watson.
Sharply written by Everett De Roche, Road Games creates tension not only from Quid’s pursuit of the would-be serial killer, but from his menacing encounters with a nervous hitchhiker, locals at a rest stop, and two cops who suspect him of being the psycho. Amplifying the overarching mood of anxiety is Franklin’s assured camerawork, which employs zooms (to a vehicle’s side mirror, or away from a windshield) to nerve-wracking effect. Though Curtis is mostly just along for the ride in a peripheral role, Keach is magnetic as a driver who loves Dostoevsky and The New Yorker. A sequence in which he talks to himself while his interior thoughts echo in his head (and criss-crossing traffic lines materialize over his face) deftly captures the character’s internal conflict over whether to hunt his suspect or give up the chase. Taut all the way through to its well-staged finale, it’s a superior genre import—and one that also features, in Quid’s silent travel partner Boswell, the finest big-screen performance ever by a dingo.
Availability: Road Games is out of print on DVD, though it can be purchased (for outrageous rates) through Amazon. Luckily, it’s also available to stream, in full, on YouTube—at least for now.