After watching the wildly informative and entertaining documentary Not Quite Hollywood earlier this month, which charted the history of Australian exploitation/genre movies (horror, action, thriller, sex, etc), I decided to dive right in pouch-deep to check out some of the offerings from the period. I haven't gone into it so much as to watch a movie a day, but I do intend to try and keep up with a lot of the most promising titles from the period that the doc highlighted.
Starting off this week are two films by two of the most highly regarded exploitation directors: Richard Franklin and Brian Trenchard-Smith
The logline featured on that not-so-subtle poster right above here could give an indication of what to expect here, except that a little explanation - or just comparison - is in order. Richard Franklin's Road Games is the natural descendant of Spileberg's Jaws (the name 'Quid' might be a nod to 'Quint' in Jaws, though perhaps that's where it ends there as Quid is far-less a bad-ass than Quint if just as smart and instinctive), and especially Duel. One right remember in Duel how a madman truck-driver doggedly pursues a man in a station wagon for a minor road altercation (that is as much as I can recall from that picture, mostly the chase is what stays with the viewer after that ends).
In Road Games the situation is reversed and given more of a horror-movie edge to its road-movie aesthetic: the truck driver played by the ever-capable and solid Stacy Keach is a guy driving a truck over many miles to Perth and one early morning sees a guy looking through his curtains at a motel at the garbage being picked up. It's an odd moment, but one that Quid shakes off and then goes on with his day. He then notices a van, one and the same he saw the night before, following him. And the same woman with a hat keeps trying to hitchhike, which Quid resists. And that van seems to have a peculiar thing about it - especially when Quid sees said van off the side of the road in the desert, the man with it digging a hole there... which may tie into a report about a missing teenage girl recently abducted.
So it becomes a cat-and-mouse chase over the outback, where everyone on the side of the road seems to be in on something Quid can't quite pin-point. Could it be his dingo-dog who isn't really allowed out in these-here parts? Or does Jamie Lee Curtis' character, the woman in the hat, have something to do with this man with the van after she gets unwittingly kidnapped by him? The mind-games are quite intense in this thriller, and its the combination of smart writing and capable direction by exploitation-veteran Everett De Roache and Franklin that makes it as good as it is.
There are little moments where one wonders if it it'll go too far with Keach's talking to himself (er, his dog) after a good start with him being a kind of natural observer of the sort of odds-and-ends people he sees driving on the road as a trucker. But there's a great moment where this convention is challenged: he's driving at night, paranoid as fuck from the news report on the radio saying that a "man mid-40's driving a truck" is the main suspect after the Man-with-the-Van forged his signature as Quid's. He talks a little to himself, but in the same scene he talks in voice-over as well. I love when a character's voice-over and thoughts blend together just right with what's spoken (i.e. The Informant!), and this is another fine example, as Keach gives us a mind that is stuck between a rock and a hard place as the typical 'wrong man' on the run while tracking the killer.
While her role isn't that prominent, maybe Jamie Lee Curtis is the weak link here. It's uncertain whether or not she's meant to be the love interest, and is just a little too eager to make this a Scooby-Doo mystery or something to be totally trustworthy (she's a better written character than played). But she's on-screen for only a short time. The real stars here are Keach, who commands the screen while seemingly at times laid-back and playing his own games before getting stuck into the killer's terrifying ones, and Franklin's action set-pieces. One of these involving a confrontation with Quid's truck and a man driving with a boat attached to the back of his station wagon carries a total air of unpredictability as to who will ram into who or what will happen with that boat (it's also telling that while Quid is the good guy he does some questionable-embarrasing things like accusing a biker he doesn't see through a bathroom stall of being the killer). The other is near the end as Quid catches up with the Van-Man in Perth, and they're both in a showdown down a narrow alley with the cops stuck behind the truck. How this is resolved is a moment of bad-ass verismilitude and had me laughing at the absurdity while admiring the suspense therein.
Other scenes also provide Franklin and De Roache some fine atmospheric touches when Quid pulls off the road. There's a scene where Quid is on a (badly connected) phone line trying to spell his name and alert the police about the whereabouts of the guy with the van. During this time on the phone, the camera contemplates everyone else inside of this dingy pub that has a loud jukebox and people just drinking away and/or watching this intense man trying to get through on the phone. The camera goes in a 360, taking its time, getting in all of the scenery. None of this really goes too far to make the Aussies in the place seem so outrageous as to be parody, but their presence is known as "we don't take kindly to you, American asshole". It's this sort of scene that adds to the paranoia later on in the film, and Quid's need to clear his name. It's hopefully a high compliment to say that as far as knock-offs of Duel go, this is one of the few that get the tone right of man and machine in manic struggle.
ADDENDUM: Note, if you see Brian May in the credits for this movie for the music, is is NOT the same Brian May of the band QUEEN fame; I thought at first it strange, too, considering the score for this movie is your basic thriller score, nothing too fancy, not bad at all but nothing special to make it like something the man who wrote 'Killer Queen' would do. Indeed the *other* Brian May is responsible for many Aussie scores, including Franklin horror flick Patrick (1978)
Doesn't that sound like a Roger Corman movie-loglin: "The price of admission is the rest of your life!" As it turns out it's really like the mid-1980's (and VERY 1980's, I'll get to it in a moment) version of a Roger Corman cheapie from the 60's, only here given the Aussie treatment of post-apocalypse/tight-government/poverty angle. Rather, it's what one might call a sub-genre of the post-apocalypse movie called 'neon-pocalypse'. By this I mean that the landscape is not really gray (The Road) or deserty (The Road Warrior), but it's brighter with its primary colors, and its devastation is almost inviting in a kind of punk-rock way. Indeed if one is a 15 year old guy without much future jerkin the gerkin' to Kim Kardashian's ass and knee-deep in comic books, the Dead-End Drive-In looks like utopia.
The way it works is, as it usually goes with these movies, it's ten years into the future (in this case now the *past*, 1998), and Australia is in kind of a shambles. The government has taken over pretty much everything, and a lot of people are out of work. Oh, and as it's the Australia of post-apocalypse, there are a LOT of cars abandoned or ready to be junked along the side of the road, to which the protagonist works at as a towing-guy with his brother, name of Crabs (yes, a genital-itching name, played by a young Scott Glenn looking chap, Ned Manning). One night he and his girlfriend Carmen (hot Natalie McCurry) go to the drive-in on the (WAY) far-side of town - it's an unusual kind of place in that there's a big barbed-wire electric fence around it, and when they go inside for the movie they find after a little while that two of the tires of their car are stolen. How can they get out?
Well, basically, they can't get out: they paid the "Unemployed" price to get a cheaper rate, but this also means that those who enter under that rate can't leave. For how long? Well... here's the thing: if you're an unemployed runt in a no-future-or-hope post-apocalypse in Australia, why not just have a government-subsidized drive-in that plays awesome exploitation movies and has plenty of food and supplies and hair-spray? Crabs is a little uneasy about it as he technically has a life on the outside, but sticks it out for a little while, if only for his girlfriend Carmen, who gets into the hard-knock people all around them.
But as these things go, Crabs turns out to be the kinda prick of the lot of them, and tries to find a way to get out, especially when things get heated-up with the arrival of new acquisitions for the drive-in: Asians, who the unemployed whites don't like, not at'all. This is the point in the movie where Trenchard-Smith loses some of his footing: he tries to squeeze in this message-y portion about racial strife between white Aussies and other Asians in Australia and other parts nearby, and it doesn't really fly - not because it couldn't (see Romper Stomper for an awesome-angry examination of a racism-message movie with angry young Aussie punks), but because it's wedged into a plot that doesn't really need an extra bump, at least like this. There's already so much that could be explored with the various characters at the drive-in, the ones who are one step removed from a prison environment (if not just right in there), and it's a unique kind of set-up that Trenchard-Smith and his writers got going on. Adding to this the corruption between the guy who runs the place, a seemingly swell and well-intentioned dude, and the cops, and there's quite a lot of story to work from there.
Yet the real strength of Dead-End Drive-In is not it's "message", whatever it may be, save perhaps for the underlying one that of the drive-in as a fantastic if flawed experience (a place to watch movies with badly-installed audio and a wonderful set-up to have lots of sex for couples) that is dying out at the time. It's Trenchard-Smith getting to exercise his chops at commanding attitude, spectacle, and, when it pops up, action set-pieces. With so many cars it's a wonder that there isn't *more* car chases and violence by cars, but when it does occur, such as the last fifteen minutes of the movie as it charts Crabs' unlikely run-around through the drive-in in a towing truck, that adrenaline gets pushed, the stakes are raised, and mayhem ensues with lots of clever touches and dynamic cinematography.
|A member of the Bangles called, she wants her shirt back.|
The movie is an unapologetic romp through the style and attitude of just such a drive-in movie. It got balls, danger, outrageous comedy and a little brains and if you do dip out for a little making-out at just the right moment you can come back up for air to get some hard-knock action and cool cinematography. And the ending... Oh boy.