Best Horror Movie You Never Saw: Road Games (1981)

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Welcome to Arrow in the Head’s The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw, which will be dedicated to highlighting horror films that, for one reason or another, don’t get as much love as we think they should. We know plenty of you horror hounds out there will have seen many of the movies we pick, but there will be plenty of you who have not. This column is for all of you!

This week we take a look at Richard Franklin’s ROAD GAMES (OWN IT HERE) starring Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis and Killer the dog!

THE STORY: Pat Quid is an American trucker hauling a ton of beef across the Australian outback. He becomes aware that a killer of women is out there somewhere, stalking the roads and looking for his next victim. When Quid spots the killer in the middle of burying his latest kill, the endless road becomes the scene of a cat-and-mouse game between trucker and psycho. Question is, who will come out on top?

THE HISTORY: After the success of their 1978 psychokinetic mind-bender PATRICK, director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Everett De Roche decided to team up again. Franklin gave the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rear Window to De Roche, who soon came up with the idea to do “Rear Window on the open road.” Nothing happened with the project initially, and De Roche sold the concept to a television show called “The Truckies,” with his episode actually being called “Road Game.” A couple of years later, De Roche and Franklin were able to acquire the rights to the story and turn it into a feature film.

The leading role of Quid was written with Sean Connery in mind, but it turned out Connery’s salary was much too high for the production. (That said, the budget of approx. $1.8 million was, by Franklin’s estimation, the biggest budget for an Australian production at that point.) Avco Embassy, the U.S. distributor, suggested Stacy Keach, who was a fairly well-established name at the time – an affordable one at that. To play opposite Keach, an Australian actress was originally proposed, but Avco wanted an American star in that role as well, so Franklin decided to seek out Jamie Lee Curtis, who at the time was only known for Halloween. Franklin knew John Carpenter from USC and asked him for Curtis’ contact information, and the actress was brought on board at the last minute. Subsequently, Curtis felt some animosity from the Australian unions and crews because she was seen as having stolen an Australian actress’ part, although of course that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

WHY IT’S GREAT: Movies like ROAD GAMES are why we here at AITH wanted to do this column. You see, I thought of paying tribute to the film before even watching it for the second time in 20 years. Yes, the last time I had seen ROAD GAMES was the summer of 1998 (I remember the specifics because I was laid up in bed for a month that summer), and though some of the memory was a little fuzzy, many of the film’s quirks and attributes remained clear. Having just checked it out again, I can confirm the film absolutely warrants a revisit, or a first-time view, depending on who you are.

The most memorable aspect of the movie, for my money, is the standout performance by Stacy Keach as Patrick Quid, verbose and eloquent driver of trucks (do not call him a “truck driver”). As written, the character is amusing – he’s intelligent and dry-witted, prone to talking to either himself of his trusted co-pilot, Boswell the dingo. He’s slightly cynical in spirit, while also displaying traits of a hopeless romantic. Quid is a man alone, but he’s not a lonely man; he’s able to keep himself rather occupied as he drives through the desolate Australian outback. He makes up funny names for the other drivers on the road and, on occasion, play the harmonica along with classical music. Keach is more or less perfect in the role; so much so that it’s hard to picture anyone else – Sean Connery included – portraying Quid. (Not that I don’t think Connery would have done a fine job, of course.)

The structure of the film is another key piece of the machine. Kicking off with a murder early on, the film allows us to absorb that shock while getting used to the idiosyncratic Quid as we await the inevitable moment he runs into the murderer. It’s a credit to Everett De Roche’s enjoyable script, Richard Franklin’s tense direction, and, of course, Keach’s performance, that we’re never bored during the film’s early stretches of Quid simply driving his truck, observing all that there is to observe around him. ROAD GAMES doesn’t feel the need to give us a new murder every ten minutes; in fact, there hardly any killings in it at all. All we know is that there’s a dangerous psycho out there, somewhere, and Quid’s got his number. And that’s enough. Hell, even the film’s secondary lead, the hitchhiker nicknamed “Hitch” (Jamie Lee Curtis), doesn’t really enter the picture until the second act, and after that, she disappears again for a stretch. De Roche’s screenplay powers along, fittingly, like a truck, only stopping for the bare minimum of exposition. The main character and the thrilling mystery he involves himself in are more than enough to sustain our rapt interest.

Let’s give it up to De Roche and Franklin; this is already their second appearance in this column, their first being PATRICK a few months back. These gents know how to make a psychological thriller. Franklin, as is well known, was a gigantic Alfred Hitchcock fan (which helped land him PSYCHO II after ROAD GAMES), and that’s always evident here, from the masterful framing of the cinematography to the build-up of suspense during several nail-biting sequences. Thankfully, Franklin isn’t a hack – you’re not just looking out for all the Hitchcock homages. He’s able to achieve his own identity while still clearly showing reverence for the Master. ROAD GAMES is his best movie, one you shouldn’t let slip through your fingers.

BEST SCENE: This is a tough one, but I truly dig the frightening visuals of the sequence where Quid goes into the back of his truck and investigates the many slabs of hanging meat within. It’s a simple scene, very quiet and eerie, and you spend the entirety of it just waiting for the other shoe to drop. (While frequently quite funny, ROAD GAMES can easily slip into a far creepier atmosphere anytime it wants.)

WHERE TO WATCH: Thank Zeus for Scream Factory yet again! The distributor literally just released ROAD GAMES on Blu-ray, and to say it’s the way to see the film is an understatement. Not only does the movie look great, but there is a veritable smorgasburg of supplemental material included to fawn over, from new interviews, to vintage featurettes, to audio commentaries. There’s even a script read from 1980! Seriously, it’s insane how many goodies are on this disc. The film can also be seen on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, YouTube, among other streaming platforms.

PARTING SHOT: I had such a blast with ROAD GAMES during my recent revisit; it’s a sharply-directed hybrid of Hitchcock thriller and slasher flick. Plus, you don’t see too many protagonists like Patrick Quid nowadays; he’s worth the price of admission alone.

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