Perhaps the most amiable serial-killer thriller I’ve ever seen, Richard Franklin’s 1981 cult Ozsploitation opus ‘Roadgames’ features an eccentric truck driver, a sassy hitch-hiker, a seemingly motiveless killer, a collection of oddballs who generally hinder our poetry-spouting hero, some squirmily tense sequences and more laugh-out-loud funny moments than any film of this ilk has any right indulging itself in.
We open with Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) berating himself for not picking up an attractive hitchhiker earlier in the day. His regret his compounded when he sees a van driver taking side hitchhiker into a motel, and coincidentally taking the last available room which Pat had kind of figured on checking into himself after several nights sleeping in the truck. Waking early the next day to pick up a refrigerated trailer full of meat, Pat notices the van driver at his motel room window, eagerly watching the garbage men hauling off some heavy-looking black bags.
He thinks no more of it and tools off to pick up his load. Then, in true Willie Nelson style, he’s on the road again, and the first half hour or so of ‘Roadgames’ unravels leisurely as Pat whiles away the miles talking to his pet dingo Boswell, spouting poetry and making up stories about the motorists he passes. Franklin fundamentally understands the ennui that essentially fills a truck driver’s day, even if – to use Pat’s much-repeated admonition – “because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver”. (I’m certainly hard-pressed, as the son of a trucker, to think of many gentlemen of that profession who listen to Mozart, even if they do try to keep up with the zesty pizzicatos of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ on the mouth-organ. My dad was more a Johnny Cash kind of guy. But I digress.) Franklin also understands the distances travelled and the tedium of the passing miles, never mind how rugged the scenery.
Then things take a darker turn when he witnesses the van driver burying something in the middle of nowhere. News reports of a “Jack the Ripper type” murdering young women flood the radio. Pat picks up sassy hitch-hiker Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis), an heiress looking to dodge the stultifying expectations of her upbringing and experience a little excitement.
The old adage about being careful what you wish for applies.
Franklin structures the film cleverly. An Hitchcockian murder scene in the motel gives credence to Pat’s concerns, yet the string of misunderstandings and embarrassing situations engendered by his burgeoning obsession with his van-driving nemesis gradually overwhelm the narrative to the point where it’s easy to believe that Pat’s overactive imagination has tipped him into the realms of outright paranoia. This interpretation seems to be consolidated by a sequence late in the film where Pat, sleep deprived and hallucinating weird patterns of yellow lines and jay-walking kangaroos, pursues the van into downtown Perth in what has to be the slowest chase scene in the history of cinema. The pay-off that Franklin delivers, however, is not just generic – which, in itself, isn’t necessarily a cause for criticism – but tortuously contrived: the aforementioned oddballs, all of whom have spectacularly got the wrong idea about Pat, converge in the unlikeliest of circumstances to point the finger as the cops close in.
But the gleefully macabre coda which solves the mystery of why Pat’s truck was running slightly overweight steers the tone back the admixture of droll black comedy and edgy suspense that makes ‘Roadgames’, notwithstanding its one narrative flub, such a winning and eminently watchable little film.