‘Roadgames’ or — Rear View Window?

(No spoilers)

It had been so long since I’d last seen Richard Franklin’s ‘Roadgames’ (1981) that all I could recall about it was Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis and a truck. And that was it. Maybe something about a killer on the loose but not much else. Yet the film had, albeit hazily, stayed in my mind over the years so I was curious to revisit it last night.

Patrick Quid (Stacy Keach) is a trucker with a dingo. Except he isn’t a trucker (and is that a dingo?). As Quid keeps telling everyone, he’s just a guy who happens to drive a truck. This is because Quid is pretentious and with a superiority complex; he looks down on people (often literally), recites poetry and although he plays the harmonica he plays it along to Mozart.

Then, one morning, he thinks he spies something suspicious. It could be nothing more than another garbage bag that happens to be the size of a severed head, but it could be something else, something more sinister. When radio reports start coming in of the grisly murder of a young hitchhiker Quid, with a lot of time on his hands driving these roads to ponder all this, starts to suspect he knows who the killer is, and he bets it’s that green van he’s been seeing around.

When Quid picks up young hitchhiker Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis) the two of them decide to figure out the mystery for themselves. But just who is Pamela? And, for that matter, who is Quid? After all, he’s the one having hallucinations and driving a truck full of dead carcasses.

So ‘Roadgames’ is ‘Rear Window’ (1954) in a truck. A strange idea sure, but not so much if you know Richard Franklin and his work. Like Brian De Palma Franklin was massively influenced by Hitchcock and wasn’t afraid to hide that fact. Indeed, this approach would lead him to make the excellent ‘Psycho II’ (1983) a few years later so when it comes to riffing on the master of suspense we’re in safe (or should that be deadly?) hands. There are definitely games being played here, and chances are we’re the suckers.

And ‘Roadgames’ does an excellent job of transposing ‘Rear Window’s device to that of the open road, with Quid able to look down on his fellow travellers from his perch as well as allowing all of them to act as potential suspects or victims; Jimmy Stewart had his bedroom window to observe the world, Quid has his widescreen windscreen.

But ‘Roadgames’ is more than just a Hitchcock homage because the film’s greatest strength is in its variation, and there’s A LOT of variation going on here.

For one thing it starts almost as a Giallo as we witness the murder of a young woman by a mysterious, gloved figure. It’s tense and brutal and shot with style. And notice the use of strings because this scene is all about strings; the strings of the garrotte vibrating in sympathetic resonance with the tightening strings of a guitar being atonally tuned.

Stuff like this happens constantly with director Franklin knowing exactly how to set up, stage and then execute cinematic devices for maximum implications of threat. Likewise when Quid tells Pamela that maybe the killer is “after their meat” meaning the pig bodies in his truck, but we know that’s not the type of meat any killer would be after. And isn’t there something unsettling about the expression “Universal Meats”? It suggests ‘Roadgames’ is hinting at whether human beings are human or simply animals, pieces of unthinking meat. But that could be me reading too much in my tealeaves.

But it’s not just tension and scares as ‘Roadgames’ is also surprisingly funny, often laugh out loud so. Quid’s comments about his fellow drivers are frequently fun and I could’ve happily watched Stacy Keach sitting in his truck and doing nothing more than talking to his dingo for 90 minutes. There’s also an intentionally hilarious slow-speed chase near the end that’s both a fantastic example of tension building and also sending it up; the climax was like watching ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) meets ‘Airplane!’ (1980).

This combination of tension, intelligence and wit means ‘Roadgames’, much like Quid himself, is a clever and cocky little movie, often almost threatening to deconstruct the killer genre entirely with its sly humour much like ‘Scream’ (1996) would go on to do years later. This is a very smartly written script. The editing and sound design are also excellent with both being nicely punchy and energetic, augmenting the tension and comedy when needed. There’s also a VERY satisfying 360 rotating shot in a roadside cafe that would make De Palma sit up and pay attention.

Not that the film is perfect with a unnecessary final shock that feels as chilling as simply finding a hair in your soup and takes away from the more uncomfortable shot preceding it that might be one of the best arguments for going veggie I’ve seen. But the film had been so entertaining until this point I didn’t care in the slightest.

‘Roadgames’ is great. If you’re a fan of character driven thrillers where the dialogue is more important than the murders then you’ll have a blast with this. Franklin’s handle on the material and genre is impeccable as he skillfully swings the movie from tension to humour to fear to comedy again. Stacy Keach also provides an excellent performance as the centre of this film.

At point Keach’s Quid say “No more games”, but this is a film that is constantly playing games with us… but that’s why we’re watching… and the film knows we’re watching and I have the suspicion I can hear Franklin chuckling away at us from behind the camera at every delicious twist and turn he has put in our path.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.