Rear Windshield and Other Hitchcock Tropes in Roadgames

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

The early ’80s saw a wave of thrillers that put a salacious, post-modern spin on the familiar tropes of Hitchcock, combining them with a more permissive giallo sensibility that exploded the sexual subtext of Hitchcock’s films. Of course, the name first associated with these films is always Brian de Palma, and rightly so. His films like Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double (which was, in my opinion, his masterpiece), marked him out as the modern heir to Hitchcock’s brand of tongue-in-cheek, psycho-sexual tension. However, he wasn’t alone in this movement with some other notable examples like Blood Simple and Body Heat, as well as many other un-notable examples, all competing to one day establish the erotic thriller as its own subgenre. Today, we’re going to talk about one of the very best of them: Richard Franklin’s 1981 Australian masterpiece Roadgames

Roadgames kicks off with a deceptively simple premise: Rear Window, but on a highway. While diving the 1000-mile journey across the Nullabor plain, trucker Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) comes to believe he’s sharing the road with a serial killer, preying on hitchhikers from his Green van. There are a lot of great, classic thrillers in that DNA, from the aforementioned Rear Window, to Psycho, Duel, and The Hitch-Hiker to later films like The Hitcher. It’s a pretty straightforward elevator pitch and you can easily imagine how a halfway decent movie could be made from it. But to make a movie this damn good? That took some real talent. 

Angle through the steering wheel as Quid descends into paranoia

Roadgames is exceedingly well directed and acted, but to examine why it’s so fun to watch, you need to start with the script. The film was written by Everett de Roche, a name likely familiar to most devotees of Australian horror of this period. He wrote many thrillers, most of which were also directed by Franklin, with their working relationship already established with 1978’s Patrick. De Roche’s work on Roadgames is a stellar showcase for efficient story construction, eloquent characterization, and brilliantly deadpan wit. 

It might be a misnomer to describe Roadgames as an erotic thriller since it’s so devoid of actual onscreen eroticism, but sex pervades the imaginations and motivations of the characters from the first frame. The film opens with Quid pulling up outside a motel, talking to his pet Dingo (Killer)—named Boswell, a knowing hint at his ironic delusions of grandeur, naming his companion/interlocutor after a celebrated biographer of one of history’s great thinkers—when he sees the killer pull up with a young hitch-hiker he considered picking up earlier: “It’s against regulations.” The killer and the girl check in together—we later learn, under Quid’s name, copied off the truck—taking the last available room, leaving Quid to sleep alone in his rig: “First he steals my girl, then he takes my bed!” The killer first arouses Quid’s notice by provoking his sexual jealousy. His suspicion comes later when, in a scene emergent straight from Rear Window, Boswell shows interest in the garbage bags outside the motel, and Quid notices the killer watching the dog intently. 

Framed, as his interest is by jealousy, Quid is quickly established as a biased and unreliable narrator. One of his first lines tells us he hasn’t “slept since Wednesday” and so he says, has begun “hallucinating,” as we have confirmed later on in one of the film’s few true jump scares. We quickly learn his habit of talking to himself, concocting dad jokes (genuinely hilarious ones!) and the game he plays, imagining backstories about his fellows on the road. Is this murder mystery just another of his flights of fantasy? He’s heard on the radio about body parts being found all over Melbourne, and this driver has inflamed his sexual jealousy through an apparent one-night stand Quid had denied himself. Is the conclusion inevitable given Quid’s active imagination and sexual frustration?

Both of these aspects of his character are further inflamed by the arrival of “Hitch” (Jamie Lee Curtis) a young woman on the road in search of adventure who quickly jumps on board of both Quid’s vehicle and his narrative about the driver of that green van. Their styles of investigation differ though and she encourages Quid to get into the killer’s head, asking, “What does he think of women?” Quid is enthusiastically resistant to this line of inquiry though. Perhaps it’s a little close to home?

Quid clearly has a strained relationship with sex. For a start, he’s obviously not getting any. When Hitch disappears on him, into the back of the killer’s van—after a hilarious set piece where Quid corners the wrong man in a restroom toilet before attempting to commandeer a motorcycle he doesn’t know how to ride—his initial panic slowly gives way to resentment and bitterness as he starts to abandon his theory about the killer, instead thinking Hitch has thrown him over for a more assertive, exciting companion. Psychologically, his anger at potentially being cuckolded supersedes his fear for her safety, leading Quid on a bitter, sexist tirade.

Quid’s sexual frustration is illustrated in another way, one that gives some picture of the film’s inspired and macabre sense of humor. Quid’s delivering meat, frozen sides of pork: pink, hairless torsos split in two and hung up in the back of his truck. Meat is consistently associated with sex in the film: the killer cuts up women and turns them into meat, Quid suspects the killer’s lunchbox contains a human head, and Hitch persistently asks if the killer “makes love to them first.” Most pertinently though, after a stop, Quid finds the back of his truck suspiciously open, and upon investigation, he finds his cargo is off, with one carcass more than he should: unfrozen, hung and tied differently from the others. With so much imagery linking meat and sex, it’s therefore significant that Quid is apparently vegetarian. He never says so, but his lunchbox is full of raw carrots and celery, even his boots, we’re told, are made of vinyl and not leather. It’s a deliciously playful way of reinforcing his impotence and celibacy. 

Quid stares through his windshield as his last night on the road brings hallucinations and madness

Despite his neurotic character, Quid is exceedingly likable and one of my favorite horror movie leads. That’s thanks in no small part to Stacey Keach, whose performance is a world away from the previous year’s The Ninth Configuration yet feels almost like the opposite side of that same coin, with Keach playing someone on the edge of their sanity, both roles making use of his giddy balance of intensity and levity. Through his running self-commentary, we get immediate access to the inner workings of Quid’s head and see him at his most vulnerable, unfiltered, ugly, ridiculous, and relatable, and the result is an extremely effective work of suture as the audience finds themselves cheering for Quid and laughing at him simultaneously, hoping he’ll get the chance to be the hero he wants to be.

Jamie Lee Curtis is of course terrific as well. Hot off of her star-making turn in Halloween, she’s given a meatier role here more in line with the wry, savvy, street-smart young woman that would increasingly become her brand throughout the ’80s in roles like Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda. She gets an early chance to flex her comic muscles here and it’s great to see. Despite their age gap, she and Keach have a surprising amount of chemistry, with Lee Curtis projecting a worldliness, amusement, and warmth that’s a perfect foil to Keach’s harmlessly self-deluded trucker.

There’s also something very Hitchcock in the way the film reuses its supporting cast, with memorable travelers like the motorcyclist with hay fever, the bickering nuclear family, and the fastidious boat-owner recurring later on down the road, resurfacing in fun, unexpected ways that make the film’s universe feel intimate and characterful. You get a real sense of community among the travelers and especially, you’re reminded how strange Quid’s actions must appear to these strangers. Early on, Quid is forced into picking up another Hitchhiker, Madeline Day (Marion Edward—nicknamed “Doris” in another Hitchcock homage) who quickly grows afraid of Quid’s bizarre, intense behavior. As well as being extremely funny, this also works to enhance the tension, fueling Quid’s spiraling sense of isolation and paranoia. 

Butchers Strike Again.

So why, if it’s such a trip, isn’t Roadgames better known? The obvious answer is that despite its A-list cast, positive critical reception, and even award nominations from the AACTA, it bombed. But why? At the time, Franklin blamed the marketing, which mounted the film as a slasher movie, presumably because of certified scream-queen Curtis’s connection (Halloween II was released the same year), but there may have been another reason. 

Jamie Lee Curtis in Roadgames

One of many layers woven through De Roche’s script is that in taking his cargo cross country, Quid is breaking a strike. Throughout the film, we hear of the meat packers’ strike causing shortages all along the West Coast, and we learn that one of Madeline’s husbands is an accountant who took his family into hiding after a campaign of harassment related to the strike. Quid is crossing the picket line by driving these “porkers to Perth.” Perhaps this production felt a little that way, both to those making it and those watching (or rather, not watching). In the 2008 documentary Not Quite HollywoodRoadgames is identified as a rare example of Hollywood stars coming to make a film in Australia, and the attitude towards this isn’t far from hostile. As that documentary’s title implies, maybe Roadgames was too Australian for Stateside audiences, but too Americanized to feel like a home-grown hit. It’s notable that at those AACTA awards, the film was nominated in four categories, including acting, but nothing for either of its American stars, despite how brilliant they both are.

Quid’s Americanness even enhances the film’s comic thrills. He’s not only behaving very oddly, but he’s an outsider, something you really feel in one of the film’s strangest sequences when he stops to report his suspicions to the authorities. He’s forced to hold an uncomfortably loud and public conversation on a rest-stop payphone with a very bad line (forcing him to loudly repeat his own name multiple times). Aussie patrons stare accusingly at this disruptive American and his raised voice, waiting impatiently for him to hang up so they can continue their pinball game. In one of the film’s most subtextually rich (and savage) moments, the camera slowly pans around to reveal not only these irritated patrons, but the mural painted on the bar walls around them, depicting the slaughter of aborigines by white colonizers, in light of which, the stares of the other patrons take on a more sinister character, the threat of violence just under the surface. No wonder the average Australian was none too flattered.

Whatever the reason, Roadgames has been done dirty. It predated De Palma’s more lurid takes on Hitchcock and displays a grasp of humor, theme, and escalating tension that any film in the genre should rightly envy. Its genre literacy is balanced by its idiosyncratic humor and originality, with a refreshingly spontaneous degree of deadpan silliness bringing life and color to its claustrophobic tale, which makes a specialty of narrative shocks and curveballs as funny as they are unpredictable. 

Despite its box-office misfortune, Roadgames was successful enough to turn some heads and supposedly won Franklin the job of directing Psycho II, another great underrated Hitchcockian thriller that deserves wide reappraisal for its great performances, subtly comic direction, and deliciously twisty plot. Psycho II deserves its reappraisal, with modern audiences seeking it out out of morbid curiosity and finding it to be a surprisingly worthy heir to the classic that spawned it. Roadgames is even better, with a leaner runtime, tighter pacing, and more of that eccentric gallows humor. 

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory, and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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