The premise of Richard Franklin’s Road Games is a delicious one: a laidback, eccentric long haul truck driver (Stacy Keach) and the free spirited young hitchhiker he picks up (Jamie Lee Curtis) spend a bit too much time people watching and suspect the driver of a mysterious green van in a string of serial killings. Did I mention it’s set in the Australian outback? What you have there is a recipe for perfect horror thriller material and yet… the film comes across more as a leisurely paced, quirky, cavalier, character based road movie with some horror elements thrown in almost as an afterthought. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I thought it was an excellent film, I fell in love with both main characters as they’re so well written and acted, the score and setting are to die for, the photography gorgeous, and Keach even has an actual dingo dog named Boswell as his sidekick, so really what’s not to love? His character is such a rare used archetype, and one I’ve come across in my working life more than once: the charismatic, well read renaissance man who happens to be working in a labor job usually populated by, let’s say, less intellectually inclined people. “Just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver” he proudly announces, considers himself an aristocrat and we believe him because the character is so well written and acted by the always awesome Keach, he feels like a dude you could run into in real life and not some caricature. Curtis is terrific as the hitchhiker he calls ‘Hitch’ (one of the numerous and deliberate Hitchcock references), a fiercely independent, strong willed girl who is blunt when discussing herself, sex, the highway murders and nonchalantly psychoanalyzes Keach which makes for stimulating banter and enjoyable chemistry between the two. There are a few scenes of killing, suspense, car chases, tension and violence but they’re put there to service plot and in this film it’s not plot that matters or immerses us most, it’s character. The scenes that I got the most enjoyment from and will stay with me aren’t killer related but rather Keach driving down the highway talking to his beloved dog, playing a harmonica, playing ‘I Spy’ to pass the time and sitting around a cozy campfire with Curtis talking about everything from politics to bunny rabbits. I was completely ok with the fact that this is more a laidback character piece than a thriller, and I enjoyed the horror elements as a sort of cherry on top as well. Just don’t go in expecting a full on white knuckle horror show or you’re gonna be hella disappointed. I greatly enjoyed this curious, ragtag little film and it’s comforting to me that there was a buddy road movie out there starring Keach and Curtis that in my 20 odd years of watching films I’d never come across, because now I wonder what other hidden gems are out there in the Outback of cinematic history I’ve yet to discover. Good times.
William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is tough to encapsulate in a review and pretty much impossible to tether to any specific genre. Picture a gum-ball machine full of primary coloured spheres and a few speckled throughout that are multicoloured and not just that but the colours seem to shift, migrate and elbow each other around the tiny globe like a scintillating oil spill. That’s not to say that the vast majority of single colour orbs don’t represent films that defy genre or think outside the box, it’s just that the multi hued mystery flavour ones head so far out past the stratosphere of genre playgrounds that they almost create a plane all their own. This is most definitely one such film.
Somewhere in the misty mountains of the Pacific Nortwest (actually filmed in Germany and Hungary) a giant, gothic castle plays host to a group of American ex-soldiers, committed to mental health treatment for PTSD and a host of other issues but left to roam free and act out their delusions more than anything else. Among them are Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a once great astronaut who wigged out and lost his shit minutes away from a moon voyage launch, Frankie Reno (Jason Miller) who is recreating Shakespeare plays using all canine actors and a whole team of others with their own set of eccentricities. Together they are a classroom full of clowns who at first appear to be irreversible loonies, but as we know in human beings, that is ever solely the case. Stacy Keach is Colonel Vincent Kane, a distant, disturbed psychiatrist brought into treat them and he uses methods that range from complacent to empathetic to just as bizarre as their behaviour. I’ve just described general plot but that does nothing in imparting the dense, deep and often elusive philosophical ideas this wondrous film has to offer.
Blatty we all know as the author of The Exorcist, and he’s made it very clear that this is the spiritual sequel to that story. It’s a tough film to digest and unpack but infinitely rewarding for a few key reasons: He is adapting his own novel here, and as such we get an unfiltered glimpse of his creative ideas that cuts out all middle men and is the purest form of his work on the page. This was mostly financed by Pepsi of all people, who made a deal with him that if he filmed at least part of it in Hungary (where they had landlocked funds) that there’d be no interference on their part on anyone else’s. This allows a difficult, unconventional but extremely rewarding experience to unfold onscreen. Wilson is brilliant as the spooked astronaut, hiding his true nature behind a barrage of nonsensical banter and getting as down to earth as anyone could in a heartbreaking monologue that outlines exactly why he wouldn’t go to the moon and pinpoints a good portion of humanity’s collective existential dread in the process. Keach is hauntingly detached as Kane, a man obsessed with duality and the nature of good and evil in our world, it’s a tough character to nail down but the arc is secure in his hands. This is one of those ‘like nothing you’ve ever seen before’ films that can actually say it’s earned it. Part psychological thriller, part cerebral mood piece with touches of dark comedy, sympathy for the afflicted and ambition to understand the turmoil and alienation of the human spirit. Absolutely brilliant film.
◦ I’m pretty sure that Walter Hill’s The Long Riders does something that no film had done before or after, least to that extent: pull off the biggest sibling stunt casting session in history. Based on the rowdy, violent exploits of the James Younger gang in the old west, Hill casts real life brothers as the troupe, a choice which could have been south of silly in any old director’s hands, but works like gold here. James and Stacy Keach play Frank and Jesse James, David Robert and Keith Carradine are the Younger clan, while Randy and a very mean, very young Dennis Quaid fill the boots of the Millers. It’s fairly brilliant, well organized and pays off nicely, especially if you’re a fan of any of these guys, which I am and then some. Now, the film. Most westerns about these hotshot outlaws take a quippy, cavalier standpoint and go for sterling silver charm. Not Hill, a notorious trend shirker and trailblazer whose tactics in casting, music, editing and tone have never followed the Hollywood grain. The film is downbeat, somber and mostly a series of vignettes that topple against each other like dominoes. The gang shuffles from robbery to holdup almost reluctantly, like it’s written in the stars and they have no choice but to commit crimes. They clash royally with the ruthless Pinkerton agency, who cause more than a few casualties on their side. The shootouts here are no sanitized 50’s Lone Ranger fluff, they’re brutal, bloody and amped up to extreme violence, which is always to be expected from Hill. The life of an outlaw is not glamorized here either, a choice rarely, if ever made in the western department. These are hard men resigned to their rough lives, not fast talking hot-doggin prince charmings like insufferable Young Guns type crap. There’s scattershot subplot about the brother’s lives, but mostly the focus is rooted in their exploits and run ins with the law. David Carradine’s Cole Younger has a cool knife fight sequence up against half breed injun Sam Starr (Hill favourite James Remar) over the favour of pretty hooker Pamela Reed. The actors are all gritty and grizzled, from James Keach’s long-faced, Moody Jesse James to Dennis Quaid’s volatile psychopath Ed Miller. Hill’s go to music guru Ry Cooder provides another achingly gorgeous score with echoes of his composition on Southern Comfort a few years later, a melancholic tune stripped bare of any action sequence swells or orchestral hoo-hah. Pretty damn underrated as far as big screen westerns go, with a tone and look that seems somehow far more genuine than many others in the genre.