The Cars That Ate Paris Review
The review below is a slightly revised version of the one I wrote in 2003 for the budget Fox Pathé edition of
The Cars That Ate Paris. Go to “The DVD” for discussion specific to this new edition from Second Sight..
George and Arthur Waldo are driving through the Outback when they follow diversion signs to the small township of Paris, New South Wales. Blinded by sudden lights in the road, Arthur (Terry Camilleri) runs the car off the road. George dies in the crash, but Arthur is taken to the hospital in Paris. As Arthur recovers from his injuries and shock, he comes to know the people of Paris, from the Mayor (John Meillon) downwards. Soon he finds out that there’s something very sinister about this town. The entire economy of Paris relies on luring unwary travellers to their doom and scavenging from the wrecked cars…
In 1973, Peter Weir was a documentary filmmaker employed by the Commonwealth Film Unit, later renamed Film Australia. Outside his work there, he’d made a short called Michael, the opening segment of a three-part film called Three to Go (1971). Also in the same year, Weir made a 50-minute 16mm black and white short called Homesdale, which attracted a lot of attention and won an AFI Award: (Michael and Homedale are available on an Australian DVD from Umbrella, Peter Weir Short Film Collection.) While he was serving out his contract at Film Australia, Weir was developing a project originally called Highway, which would in 1973 become his first full-length 35mm feature.
Cars is one of those debut films where the talent is obvious, but the results aren’t necessarily satisfying. The opening sequence is a parody of a TV commercial, in which a couple drive in a car, sipping soft drinks and smoking cigarettes, brand names prominently on display…before going off the road and crashing. The viciously customised cars themselves bear more than a passing resemblance to 1974’s film Death Race 2000. That may be more than a coincidence, as Death Race was a Roger Corman production and Corman bought the US distribution rights to Cars. (For the record, the late Paul Bartel, director of Death Race 2000, said he didn’t see Cars before making his own film, though Corman came to him with the idea of the cars themselves. Death Race 2000 was then developed from that idea, and apart from the vehicles, the two films have nothing in common.) Corman, for his part, cut Cars to 74 minutes, redubbed it so that Arthur became an American tourist lost in the Outback, and retitled it The Cars That Eat People. This version sunk without trace. The original version has played in the US since (it’s the only version ever released in the UK), and the film has built up a definite cult following over the years.
The acting is generally good, especially from John Meillon. There’s a strong supporting cast, many of whom became stalwarts of the Australian New Wave, including Max Gillies, Chris Haywood, Melissa Jaffer and Bruce Spence. Terry Camilleri, more usually cast in villainous roles, is a deliberately unimposing hero. Weir would use him again in The Truman Show: he’s the man watching the show from his bathtub. Ideas and energy the film has in abundance, but it doesn’t really hang together and certainly isn’t above dragging in places. It’s visually ragged, partly due to the low budget, partly due to inexperience. With his next film, Weir began an association with Russell Boyd, a world-class DP. John McLean, the Cars DP, simply isn’t in the same league. Cars is generally more interesting for seeing Weir’s talents in embryo than for itself. The biggest quality leap in his career took place between this film and his next, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Second Sight's DVD of The Cars That Ate Paris comprises one single-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. It is released simultaneously with a three-disc edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Cars was shot in Scope, with anamorphic Panavision lenses. This was unusual, so early in the Australian Film Revival of the 1970s, though another example from the same year is the very different Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. For some time, outside cinema showings, it was very difficult to see Cars in its correct ratio of 2.35:1. Arthouse's VHS release of 1990 was 4:3 pan-and-scan due to the lack of a widescreen master. (The same was true of Arthouse's releases of other Scope films from the 70s, Long Weekend and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. The former is now available on DVD in its correct ratio, while the latter remains missing in action on disc.) Although my first viewing of Cars was on Channel 4 in 1983, when it was shown in 4:3, the channel have shown it fully letterboxed at least once, though subsequent showings on Channel 4 and BBC2 have been cropped to 16:9. Fox Pathé released Cars as a budget release exactly five years before the present release, and I reviewed it here. That release wasn't much better, showing the opening credits in the correct ratio before switching to 16:9 for the rest of the film. Meanwhile in Australia, Umbrella released a Region 0 disc which paired the film with Weir's TV movie of 1978, The Plumber (which was released in the UK on its own as another Fox Pathé budget release).
This new release from Second Sight marks the first time that The Cars That Ate Paris has been commercially available for home viewing in its correct ratio in the UK. Watching it this way makes for almost a different film, as Weir and McLean frequently use the whole width of the frame – for a good example of this, see the screengrab above - and cropping it is ruinous. As for the transfer, it's probably the best the film has ever looked at standard definition on a small screen. Allowances have to be made for the low budget: it's not the best-looking of films by any means, and there is certainly grain to be seen. Shadow detail is poor in some darkly-lit sequences, but this film has always been like that (given that I've not seen it in a cinema).
This, like the Fox Pathé and Umbrella editions, is derived from a remaster that Weir did in 2001. The only changes as far as I'm aware – if there are any more, please let me know – are a dual copyright date and a Dolby Stereo logo added to the end credits. With the exception so far of The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir has remixed the soundtracks of all his mono features, everything up to Gallipoli. Given the low budget of Cars, a 5.1 remix might not have been possible, so the DVD has a 2.0 soundtrack instead. In my review of the Fox Pathé edition, I commented that the film's Dolby Surround mix was still basically mono, apart from occasional directional sounds and Bruce Smeaton's score on the surround. I don't have that edition to compare this one with, but Second Sight's sounded entirely monophonic to me. Maybe Weir simply added Dolby noise reduction. The dialogue is mixed some way down compared to some of the music, and I had to play this DVD at a higher volume than normal.
Less forgivably, Second Sight have not provided any subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. Nor are there any extras.
I'm not aware of any special edition of The Cars That Ate Paris. Five years ago, there were rumours that Criterion were preparing one, which has not materialised. Weir rarely does commentaries, and Umbrella's edition only has the trailer and a stills and poster gallery as extras (as well as, of course, including The Plumber with its own set of basic extras). (If I were compiling a special edition I would also include the Cars That Eat People version of the film, for completeness's sake at least. As far as I know it is unavailable anywhere.) Apart from that, there's little to choose between the two releases.