Roadgames Review

Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis in Ozploitation cult item Roadgames, now on Blu-ray.

Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) is an American truck driver based in Melbourne. Due to a strike in Perth, he accepts an assignment to drive a consignment of meat to Perth, a journey of several days across the all-but-featureless Nullarbor Plain. Alone in the truck with just his dingo Boswell for company, he makes up names and stories about the drivers he sees on the road. One of them is the driver of a green van he calls “Smith or Jones” (Grant Page). But soon he begins to suspect that Smith or Jones is in fact the killer of young women that police are chasing…

Roadgames (one word on screen, not two) was Richard Franklin’s fourth feature film, though more than once in the extras on this disc you’ll hear him referring to it having just two predecessors. Missing in acknowledged action was his second film, Fantasm which he directed under the pseudonym Richard Bruce. Fantasm certainly isn’t any good, but maybe Franklin was reconciled to it later in his life, as he contributed to its DVD release which I reviewed for this site in 2004.

Born in Melbourne in 1948, Franklin was a film fan from an early age, shooting on Super 8mm from the age of ten. He had a stint as the drummer in the none-too-successful 60s band The Pink Finks before going on to study film at the University of South California. A longstanding devotee of Alfred Hitchcock, he met the man after he accepted an invitation to talk at the University. Returning to Australia, Franklin’s first directing credits were on television, with eleven episodes of the long-running series Homicide (no relation to the later American series Homicide: Life on the Streets). He was eventually fired for “undermining the fabric of the show” by introducing such things as dolly shots in the episodes he directed. His feature debut was The True Story of Eskimo Nell, on which he met a publicist called Antony I. Ginnane. Ginnane soon moved into production, determined to make Australian films with more commercial and international appeal than the overly-arty fare he saw being made. He and Franklin were a good match, as Franklin saw himself as very much a genre filmmaker and a storyteller. Ginnane produced Fantasm and also Franklin’s next film Patrick, which saw Franklin switch genre from softcore erotica to horror/suspense. Minus the fantasy premise of that film, that’s a direction Franklin followed in Roadgames.

American-born Everett de Roche had been the scriptwriter for Patrick, showing his flair for intelligent and witty dialogue while keeping a firm grip on the tropes and protocols of the genre. The initial idea for Roadgames was Franklin’s, taking inspiration from Rear Window. De Roche, possibly with his then current writing gig on a television series called Truckies in mind, suggested that this new spin on Hitchcock’s film take place on a moving vehicle. De Roche then travelled to Fiji, where Franklin was at work as co-producer of the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon and the first draft of the script was written there.

Roadgames is an intriguing, if somewhat slow-burning and a little overlong, suspense piece. Importing foreign actors was nothing new in Australian films, and indeed Franklin had brought in British actress Susan Penhaligon, then best known for Bouquet of Barbed Wire on British television, to play the lead role in Patrick. Franklin and De Roche’s original idea for the role of Quid was Sean Connery, but they soon realised that Connery’s asking price was more than their entire budget, which at A$1.8 million made this the most expensive film then made in Australia. So Stacy Keach was given the role. An Australian had been cast in the role of Hitch, but American partners Avco Embassy asked for another American in the role, as insurance for overseas sales, and so Jamie Lee Curtis took the role. The script wasn’t rewritten to accommodate her, but her presence makes what is really a supporting role punch above its weight. Apart from a couple of shots of the back of her head as she stands by the roadside, she doesn’t appear until thirty-seven minutes in and her disappearance around the hour mark kicks off the over-extended final act. Her casting did cause some controversy on set, with some of the crew asking her what it felt like to deprive an Australian of work. (The executive producer, Bernard Schwartz, may share the real name of Curtis’s father Tony Curtis, but wasn’t him.) As she and Keach are both playing their own nationality, this brings in an implausibility that could have been fixed with just a couple of lines of dialogue: while either American’s presence in Australia is plausible, the fact that they meet each other in the back of beyond is never remarked upon. Before Hitch appears, her role in the narrative is taken by the loud middle-aged Frita (Marion Edward), nicknamed Sunny Day by her husband, stealing every scene she’s in. Much of the film features Keach solo in his truck, so De Roche and Franklin give him a travelling companion, Boswell the dingo (distinguished from a dog by not barking, but actually played by a dog called Killer), silent listener to several quite extended monologues. Keach is a comfortable fit in the role, giving an engaging performance that holds the film together. Stunt coordinator Grant Page is a somewhat colourless villain, and isn’t given any dialogue. Further down the cast is Robert Thompson, who had played the title role in Patrick, as a motorcyclist Quid nicknames Sneezy Rider.

Franklin and DP Vincent Monton (who had photographed all of Franklin films except Patrick up to now) shot Roadgames in Scope (2.40:1), partly because much of the action is seen through a truck windscreen, which is Scope-shaped. It was Franklin’s only film in this wider format until his final one, Visitors from 2003, and his only one shot with anamorphic lenses. (Visitors was shot in Super 35. Franklin originally considered shooting Roadgames in Techniscope, a non-anamorphic two-perforation format, but eventually decided on anamorphic.) Franklin’s direction tends to be self-effacing though there are exceptions to this: a slow 360-degree pan around Yellowdine Roadhouse (actually a studio set) as Quid tries to talk to the police on a public telephone. The final act is, as I mentioned above, rather overlong, though Franklin does his best to maintain tension, including staging a memorable “bus” involving a kangaroo. Earlier in the film, he stages a chase including a towed boat. The final scene, sending viewers home with a final shock, was imposed by the producers and Franklin dislikes it. (He and co-producer Barbi Taylor can be briefly glimpsed in this scene.) Meanwhile, Brian May’s score, while effective, is too often reminiscent of Holst’s Mars the Bringer of War for my liking.

Roadgames did well at the box office. It was nominated for four Australian Film Institute Awards (for Marion Edward, Brian May, Vincent Monton and editor Edward McQueen-Mason), but none of them won. Within two years Franklin was in Hollywood making Psycho II a sequel to a masterpiece that’s a lot better than it has a right to be, even without opening with a reprise of the most famous sequence in not just the original but in thriller/horror film history. Franklin had mixed fortunes in Hollywood, and in the 1990s returned to Australia making rather more upscale fare such as Hotel Sorrento and Brilliant Lies. He taught at the Swinburne School of Film and Television in Victoria, Australia. He died in 2007 from prostate cancer, four days before his fifty-ninth birthday.

The Disc

Umbrella Entertainment’s Blu-ray is encoded for all regions. The Australian censor has given the film its advisory M rating, but parents of children should note that in the UK, Roadgames has a 15 certificate. In the cinema in 1981, it carried the now-obsolete AA certificate, restricting audiences to fourteen-year-olds and over. Not that I expect this film to have a great deal of appeal to younger children, in any case.

Roadgames has not previously being particularly well-served on disc. Umbrella’s earlier DVD was anamorphic and in the correct ratio, but a NTSC-to-PAL standards conversion. (I don’t have available a copy of Anchor Bay’s DVD which was at least NTSC.) Optimum’s (now StudioCanal) UK DVD release is PAL but crops the aspect ratio from 2.40:1 to 1.78:1. Umbrella’s new Blu-ray is in the correct ratio and is derived from a 4K scan and restoration. However, that 4K is derived from a theatrical print and not from an earlier generation (interpositive, internegative or original camera negative) which makes you wonder if those materials were still available or in fact still exist. If they didn’t, this would not be the most recent Australian film where that is the case. The resulting transfer is good, but you would normally see the difference with one originating in 4K and you don’t here.

There are two soundtrack options which are, surprisingly for a Blu-ray release, not lossless: the original mono and a remix into 5.1, both Dolby Digital. I have not seen this film in a cinema – only previously on television and DVD – but the soundtrack is clear and well-balanced and given its monophonic origins (the first Australian film released with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack was Mad Max 2, a year later) would never have been one to show off your sound system with anyway. The remix pushes May’s score and some sound effects – for example, the car alarm fifty-five minutes in – into the surrounds, but is otherwise as pointless as most mono-to-multichannel remixes are. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing for the feature but not the extras.

Many of the extras are carried forward from the Anchor Bay edition and indeed also featured on the previous Australian DVD. These begin with the commentary, which features Richard Franklin interviewed by Anchor Bay’s Perry Martin. This is a very informative, sometimes funny chat, with Franklin on good form talking about a film he clearly has a lot of affection for. Inevitably, much of this overlaps with the other extras, which include “Kangaroo Hitchcock” (20:20), a making-of featurette featuring Franklin and Stacy Keach. Franklin begins with his meeting with Hitchcock which started over the phone after Franklin tried to organise a showing of Rope at USC. Keach talks about the demands of his role, which included learning to drive a truck.

Next up, and half an longer than the main feature itself, is a lecture on Roadgames which took place on 20 November 1980 in Australia (130:20). This was shot on video, and there are quite a number of tracking errors and other artefacts. After an introduction, we hear from Franklin, Barbi Taylor and Brian May. It’s long, and undoubtedly too detailed for a general audience, but it’s valuable for anyone interested in how Australian films were made, financed (Taylor’s contribution) and scored. Everett De Roche and Vincent Monton are absent, then filming The Race for the Yankee Zephyr, which Franklin was associated with for a while but was eventually filmed in New Zealand with David Hemmings directing.

There are two archival interviews with Franklin on the disc. The first is a featurette from 1981 (24:33). A narrator and onscreen interviewer (unidentified) covers Franklin’s early career and time at USC and we also see extracts from his work, including a clip featuring a car chase that Franklin shot for Homicide (black and white as Australian television didn’t broadcast in colour until 1975). There are also extracts from Patrick and behind-the-scenes footage from The Blue Lagoon. The featurette is in 4:3, with the Patrick and Blue Lagoon clips open-matte and those from Roadgames poorly panned-and-scanned.

An audio interview from 2001 (23:29) has an unidentified interviewer. This was clearly recorded in front of an audience from the laughter coming from it from time to time. He begins by talking about USC, some of his famous fellow students including John Carpenter and George Lucas. He talks about the talks by visiting directors such as Hitchcock, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, whom he describes as looking like a derelict. This is an overview of his career rather than specific to Roadgames, stopping with that film and his leaving for Los Angeles after some of the critical sniping it faced (comments that it was written by an American wanting to be an Australian and directed by an Australian who wanted to be an American) and being offered Psycho II. Intriguingly, he mentions that Antony Ginnane flew De Roche to Fiji to write a sequel to Patrick but he wrote Roadgames instead. Patrick 2 was never made though the original was remade in 2013, directed by Mark Hartley, director of the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Talking of which…

The final credit of Franklin’s lifetime was his appearance as an interviewee for Not Quite Hollywood, a film which more than anything else popularised Ozploitation. That continues to this day: this Blu-ray is packaged as part of Umbrella’s Ozploitation Classics line, so the label (more about that in my review linked above) is clearly still a selling point. Included on this disc are the full versions of interviews Hartley carried out with Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, Richard Franklin, Everett De Roche, Grant Page and first assistant director Tom Burstall (63:16) in total. This item has a final dedication to Franklin and De Roche, both of whom have now passed away.

New to this disc are two audio interviews conducted in 2016. One is with Stacy Keach, clearly conducted over the telephone (9:14). Keach has a lot of affection for the film, which remains one of his favourites, though says that learning to drive a truck on the wrong side of the road (from an American perspective). Another challenge was to go from rehearsals, then flying halfway round the world to Cannes for the premiere of The Long Riders and then back to Australia for the shooting of Roadgames, so any exhaustion was not acting.

The second new interview is with Grant Page and is much longer (32:52). He has some anecdotes of the filming which aren’t elsewhere on the disc, such as his chess games with Keach, which continued by mail (one move per letter) after the film had wrapped and Keach had left the production to work in England. Due to the demands of one scene, he got to share a sleeping bag with Jamie Lee Curtis.

Also on the disc is a featurette on the 4K restoration, with Vincent Monton (11:01). This begins with a closeup of one reel of the release print used for the restoration. Monton talks about the limitations of filmmaking at the time. They were shooting on 35mm film (itself becoming less usual nowadays) and digital post-production did not exist, so no CGI or digital removal of safety cables. He sits with Charlie Ellis, the colourist working on the restoration. They are clear that a release print will have noticeable grain and contrast compared to earlier generations, but they made sure to retrain the heavy blacks and grain structure while removing damage. We see side-by-side comparisons of the print and the restoration. Monton is clearly no nostalgist for shooting on film and talks about the many advantages he sees in digital, enabling him to “push the envelope” in how darkly lit his scenes could be. Keach once told him off for going too dark, to the extent that the viewer couldn’t see his eyes.

A self-navigating gallery (32:25) intersperses stills and production materials with an essay by Lee Gamblin, “Lars Thorvald Hits the Asphalt: Isolation and Paranoia in Roadgames (1981)”, which is rather more of an account of the film’s making and less academic than it sounds from the title. Hitchcock aficionados don’t need to be told who Lars Thorvald was: Raymond Burr’s villain in Rear Window. Each image or essay page in this item is a chapter stop, 106 in all. The essay finishes at number 66 and is followed by original script pages and storyboards, the film’s production notes, promotional articles, a test screening survey and press and marketing materials.

Finally, there is the green-band US theatrical trailer, presented in HD (2:08).


Updated: Sep 18, 2016

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