Director: Richard Franklin
Screenplay: Everett De Roche
Based on an Original Story by: Everett De Roche & Richard Franklin
Starring: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward, Grant Page
Country: Australia
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1981
BBFC Certificate: 15

Brian De Palma is famous for heavily referencing Alfred Hitchcock and has come under criticism over the years for ripping off the master in his work. However, a director that perhaps more closely draws inspiration from Hitchcock, at least within the trio of films he’s most famous for, is Richard Franklin.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Franklin reportedly fell in love with cinema after watching Psycho at the tender age of 12. He spent much of his youth making short films and eventually went to America to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California in 1967.

During his time at USC, Franklin was organising a retrospective screening of Rope and invited Hitchcock to attend. To the young man’s delight, the famed director agreed (surprising him with a direct phone call one day). Later, in return, Hitchcock invited Franklin to the set of Topaz, which proved to be another important experience for the budding filmmaker.

After graduating, Franklin returned to Australia and soon got a job directing a TV series called Homicide. A few years later he moved into feature filmmaking, with the bawdy comedies The True Story of Eskimo Nell and Fantasm. His follow-up to these was Patrick. This low budget horror/thriller was Franklin’s first clear nod to Hitchcock and proved to be an unexpected hit overseas (even if it didn’t do very well in its native Australia).

Franklin followed this by producing The Blue Lagoon, another massive international success. So, with two hits under his belt, Franklin was able to drum up $1.75 million for his next film, the highest ever budget for an Australian feature at the time. The title was Roadgames, a film that was even more clearly inspired by Hitchcock than Patrick, as Franklin had given his writer Everett De Roche the script to Rear Window as inspiration. De Roche came up with the idea of reimagining the film’s concept in a moving vehicle, out on the open road. Franklin loved it, and Roadgames was born.

Roadgames, sadly, underperformed at the box office, both in Australia and the US. It did receive fairly good reviews though, enough to help get Franklin the job of directing Psycho II, bringing his Hitchcock inspiration full circle.

Over the years, Roadgames has grown to become somewhat of a cult classic. Tarantino is among its vocal supporters, showing his appreciation in the popular Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. It’s through that documentary that I first heard of Roadgames. The film has been on my watchlist ever since, so I was thrilled to hear that Indicator would be releasing it on Blu-ray in a fantastic limited edition set.

Roadgames sees Stacy Keach play Pat Quid, an American truck driver driving a rig in Australia. He stops outside a motel one night and is suspicious of a man (stuntman Grant Page) in a green van who arrives with a young woman and leaves without her after suspiciously looking out his window at the dustbin men removing last night’s rubbish bags, early the next morning.

Quid isn’t sure what to make of it at first but, after hearing about a murder in the area over the radio, he believes the green van driver might be the culprit. They both seem to be taking the same route towards Perth and regularly pass each other (along with another group of road users travelling to the same destination). As they do, Quid grows ever more suspicious and, likewise, the mysterious man sees that Quid is on to him.

Part-way through the trip, Quid picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who is equally intrigued by the green van man’s activities. The pair become determined to find proof and stop his reign of terror but, in doing so, put their own lives in danger.

I enjoyed Roadgames a lot. I loved the way it adapted the Rear Window concept by substituting James Stewart’s neighbours for the fellow motorists Quid keeps passing. He gives them all silly nicknames like ‘Sneezy Rider’ for a motorcyclist that has a cold and ‘Hitch’ for Curtis’ character (another Hitchcock reference on top of it being short for hitchhiker and the actress being the daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh) as he drives the long, lonely Australian roads, talking to his beloved pet dingo Boswell (played by a dog called Killer).

The film is, in fact, filled with humour, particularly through Quid’s poetry-quoting dialogue. Like some of Hitchcock’s best work, the film can’t easily be pigeon-holed into a category, like horror or thriller. It’s a piece of all-round entertainment, with comedy, scares, action and even hints of romance (though Quid and Curtis thankfully never consummate their relationship – the wide age-gap would make it a little uncomfortable) all wrapped up in a road-movie mould.

This blending of genres is likely why Roadgames underperformed at the box office. The marketing made it look like a slasher movie, which were all the rage at the time. This wasn’t helped by the fact it starred Jamie Leigh Curtis, who was earning a reputation as a ‘scream queen’ back then. I must admit, I was expecting the film to be more along those lines, but I was actually pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t.

Much of the film’s charm comes from its central performances. Stacy Keach is a hugely underrated actor. Often used in tough-guy roles but actually being a well-educated man with a background in theatre, Keach is an unusual performer and proves perfect for this quirky part. Franklin originally wanted Sean Connery for the role, but he proved far too expensive. As much as I love Connery, I couldn’t see him fitting the part as well as Keach does. He’s witty and charming, but shows a vulnerability beneath the surface and also pulls off the tougher moments when Quid needs to step up to the plate.

More than matching up to Keach is Jamie Leigh Curtis. She was very young at the time, but already displayed great talent. Reportedly the Australian press wasn’t happy with her casting, as the country’s tax money was part-funding the project but both lead actors were American. Few actresses of her age, Australian or otherwise, could have done as good a job though. She’s only in the film for about 20 minutes but makes a huge impression. Her banter and chemistry with Keach are electric, so I could watch the pair simply shooting the sh*t for an hour and a half, without the need for a gripping mystery.

The mystery is there though, and De Roche and Franklin prove adept at keeping the audience in suspense. For the most part, we are privy to what is going on (unlike in Rear Window) but we still begin to question Quid’s sanity and innocence in the third quarter.

Though the film is less violent and action-packed than I expected, there are still a couple of great set-pieces. Franklin’s admiration for Hitchcock shows in his meticulously well planned and edited scenes of action and suspense. There’s a fantastic car chase involving a vehicle towing a boat, in which Franklin reportedly used Ben Hur for inspiration, and an opening murder scene unfolds in a wonderfully Giallo-like fashion, with stylised lighting and a gloved antagonist whose identity is obscured.

The finale is a little less successful. As recounted in many of the special features though, Franklin had planned a much more extravagant climax to the film but he was falling behind schedule and his contract wouldn’t allow him to go over it, so he had to cut a lot out of the script. There are still some tense and exciting moments, but it feels a bit rushed and a lot of characters come out of the woodwork at the end for no apparent reason. The scripted ending would have supposedly amended this issue, but as it stands the final scene is not quite as strong as the rest of the film.

Overall, however, Roadgames is a gripping and highly enjoyable thriller that does a fine job of emulating Hitchcock whilst adding enough of its own character, on top of an Australian outback twist, to set it apart.

Film:

Roadgames is out on 14th December in a limited edition Blu-Ray set in the UK, released by Indicator. The picture quality is great. I noticed a couple of very faint lines in places and some dark scenes early on lack detail due to a high contrast image but, otherwise, it has a nice natural grain and pleasing colours. Audio is solid too.

INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES

– Brand new restoration by Powerhouse Films, from a new 4K scan of the internegative
– Original mono audio
– Audio commentary with director Richard Franklin and film historian Perry Martin (2003)
– Audio commentary with cinematographer Vincent Monton, costume designer Aphrodite Kondos, production secretary Helen Watts, and film historian Mark Hartley (2019)
– Audio commentary with writers and programmers Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe (2020)
– Kangaroo Hitchcock (2003, 20 mins): archival documentary on the making of Roadgames
– Australian Long Haul (2019, 14 mins): actor Stacy Keach reflects on the role of Pat Quid and working in Australia
– Archival Interview with Richard Franklin (1981, 26 mins): the director discusses his early films and Roadgames
– Audio interviews with Richard Franklin (2001, 23 mins), Stacy Keach (2016, 10 mins), and stunt co-ordinator Grant Page (2016, 33 mins)
– ‘Not Quite Hollywood’ Interview Excerpts (2008, 64 mins): over an hour of outtakes from Hartley’s acclaimed documentary on Australian cinema, featuring Franklin, Page, actors Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, screenwriter Everett De Roche, and assistant director Tom Burstall
– ‘Roadgames’: A Lecture (1980, 131 mins): archival recording of Franklin, co-producer Barbi Taylor and composer Brian May
– Trouble Bound (2020, 13 mins): appreciation by film historian Neil Sinyard
– Script Read (1980, 117 mins): audio recording of a pre-production read-through, featuring Franklin, Keach and Marion Edward
– Music Demos (1980, 5 mins): excerpts from the Brian May score in demo form
– …And His Ghost May Be Heard (1973, 15 mins): rare short film directed by Franklin
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 80-page book with a new essay by Lee Gambin, archival interviews with Franklin, Keach and Curtis, Franklin’s 1980 Alfred Hitchcock obituary, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Mark Hartley on …And His Ghost May Be Heard, and film credits
– Limited edition exclusive double-sided poster
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 5,000 copies

Wow, what a package. Where do I start with this epic collection of special features?

‘Kangaroo Hitchcock’ is a decent coverall featurette containing interviews with Keach and Franklin about the production. It’s entertaining and has some honest comments about bits Franklin wasn’t pleased about.

Neil Sinyard’s piece discusses Franklin and how he’s underrated in his home country, as well as describing how Roadgames came about. It’s a concise, affectionately presented piece.

…And His Ghost May Be Heard is an odd, melancholic yet amusing short that follows a homeless man (reportedly the Swagman character from the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’) as he wanders around the city, struggling to comprehend its complex ways.

The ‘Music Demos’ recording is an unusual addition but, being a pianist myself, I enjoyed hearing the themes played raw on the piano. It helps you appreciate the work and skill of the composer.

Keach’s interview is decent. It’s quite anecdotal and fun, though he repeats a few stories and comments from elsewhere.

The archival Franklin interview also includes some clips from his earlier work, so is an interesting watch and it’s a fairly detailed and intelligent piece rather than a mere promo.

Franklin’s commentary is excellent. He seems to have a good memory of the time and has lots of stories to tell as well as interesting descriptions of his techniques.

The Vincent Monton, Aphrodite Kondos, Helen Watts and Mark Hartley commentary is very good too, with a largely anecdotal chat, including comments that question what Franklin and Keach said elsewhere. It gets a little bitchy so is fun to listen to.

The Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe commentary takes a more analytical approach, so the three tracks are markedly different from one another, which is great. The contributors on this track are engaging to listen to and make some interesting points about the film.

I was initially dismissive about listening to the script read through, but there’s also plenty of discussion about the material, so it’s actually a valuable analytical addition to the set. Franklin also goes into detail about what he plans to do from a technical standpoint in places so it shows how carefully planned everything was.

The audio interviews are decent too, particularly Franklin’s, which is very funny at times.

The Not Quite Hollywood interviews give us a chance to hear from Curtis and De Roche. Some of the other interviews here repeat some anecdotes we’ve heard elsewhere though. Keach is particularly repetitive throughout the extras.

The gem in the set has to be the lecture though. It’s basically a 2-hour condensed film school, examining the full filmmaking process in nuts-and-bolts detail from the initial concept, to finding financing, to scoring the film. I’ve never seen anything like it on a disc and it was fascinating. Your mileage will vary on how interested you are in the nitty-gritty of making films yourself though, as it’s very technical.

The lengthy interview with Franklin in the booklet is particularly good too, with the director discussing his techniques, influences and thoughts on Australian cinema, among other things. Once again it shows how knowledgeable the director is in the technical craft of filmmaking. There’s also an affectionate piece on Hitchcock, written by Franklin, that’s a pleasure to read, among other essays, interviews and period reviews.

So, all in all, it’s a phenomenal release. It’s going to be a close call between this and Second Sight’s Dawn of the Dead for single title Blu-ray of the year.

Disc/Package:

* Please note – the images used in this review are not indicative of the picture quality of Indicator’s Blu-ray

Roadgames - Indicator
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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