Friday, June 8, 2018

ROAD GAMES (1981) (Umbrella Blu-ray Review)

ROAD GAMES (1981) 

Label: Umbrella Entertainment

Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: M
Duration: 101 Minutes 
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono 1.0, Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.35:1) 
Director: Richard Franklin
Cast: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Grant Page

Directed by Richard Franklin (Psycho II) the Hitchocock-ian road thriller Road Games (1981) stars Stacy Keach (The Ninth Configuration) as American truck driver Pat Quid working in Australia, we catch up to the quirky driver as he's hauling slabs of meat across the Australian outback, playing what he calls "road games" to keep himself occupied on the long stretches, these games includes him peering into the vehicles of passerbys and making-up stories and dialogue about the occupants to pass the time, Dubbing the other drivers with names like Captain Careful and the Sneezy Motorcyclist, all the while carrying on a one-sided conversation with his trusty sidekick, a loyal dingo-dog. Quid picks up a feisty older woman whose husband seemingly abandoned her on the side of the road after an argument, she gets the trucker to stop for her by creating a barrier of what looks to be pink toilet paper across the roadway, but he seems happy to have the company and the pair play road games, during which she tells him off a string of rape/murders being committed by a serial killer on the loose in the area. The macabre story captures his attention and makes him think of a peculiar thing he saw at a roadside motel earlier in the film, with a suspicious man carefully eyeing the garbage truck as it picks up trash. With the murderer on his mind the conversation goes a bit darker, slightly upsetting the old woman who begins to suspect that Quid could very well be the killer in question, causing her to panic and flee the truck when he pulls over. This is when Quid spots a green minivan driven by the suspicious man he saw back at the motel, the driver looks to be burying a large black back in the middle of the outback, very odd indeed. 

Now increasingly obsessed with the driver in the green minivan Quid picks up a new hitchhiker, a charming young woman (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween) whom he dubs "Hitch", short for hitchhiker, and the two share conversation and further theorize about the motivations of the sadistic killer. They catch up to the minivan at a roadside garage/gas station, while Quid believes the killer is in the restroom, so he goes in looking to confront the culprit, meanwhile Hitch moves in to check out the could-be killer's vehicle and ends up in peril with Quid giving chase, hoping to save his new found friend from the killer before it's too late.

The film is an offbeat road movie with the affable but slightly loony Quid being a very likable character, it's a thriller set on the open road with director Franklin and the screenwriter making no bones about this being a straight riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window set in the cab of a semi-rig, and I liked it quite a bit, it's a good premise. Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis are likable characters, they work great against each other, though Curtis's character is a bit downplayed, but she does good work here opposite Keach who really makes the film all on his own with his brand of humor and charm, assisted by the very capable and technically well-executed direction and cinematography behind the camera. 

Road Games is a suspense film that I think gets short shrift because it's been lumped in with early 80's Jamie Lee Curtis slashers, but it's not that, the gore is nearly non-existent, but there's a nice guitar-string strangling at the top of the film in a seedy hotel room that has a giallo-tinge to it, but the movie lives and breathes on a clever script and good suspense. The film culminates with Quid pursuing the killer through narrow streets and into an alleyway, finally picking up some steam, delivering some car-crunching action there at the end, but while the film has had a boil going it never really boils-over properly at the end, though there is a fun scene earlier with the Quid's semi plowing through a wooden boat on the roadway, offering some Mad Mad style thrills.    

The cat and mouse suspense and the Keach performance kept me rapt throughout, the writing and visuals are clever and well-executed, the joy of this one is in the execution and build-up, keeping a steady boil going for the most part, but if you're coming into this one expecting an early 80's slasher starring Jamie Lee Curtis you're gonna be seriously letdown. However, if you're down for a road movie with oodles of suspense and some fine cinematic craftsmanship this one delivers the goods. I really enjoyed the darkly perverse nature of it, it's not graphic but the discussion of the killer's psycho-sexual motivations and the idea that there might be (and what happened to?) the slaughtered corpse of a woman hanging in the semi's refrigerated trailer is particularly twisted.

Audio/Video: Road Games (1981) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from Aussie label Umbrella Entertainment as part of their Ozploitation Classics line-up, presented in 1080p HD framed in 2.35:1 widescreen. This is a 4K scan of a release print, for reasons unknown to me it seems the original elements are not available, but it's easily better than the old long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD release but does have some issues that I would associate with it being from a release print, such as some occasional wonky contrast and lack of crisp details, this is something we saw from Scream Factory's Blu-ray of Hell Night, which was also sourced from 4K scan of print and not the original elements. That said, the source appears to be in good shape, there;s been some restoration to remove nicks and scratches and the results are goof without appearing overly  digitally manipulated, grain has been left intact and the colors look superior to the previous incarnations I've seen on home video, so I am pleased with what we have here even if the source is not optimal. 

Looking at the audio we get two options, both are lossy, Dolby Digital mono 1.0 and surround 5.1, though I preferred the more natural sounding mono track, optional English subtitles are provided. Despite the lossy audio it sounds good, the suspenseful score from Brian May sounds nice and full, the film is mostly dialogue driven without a lot of bombastic scenes, but when called upon the audio has some decent depth to it. 

Umbrella give this one a healthy dose of extras, porting over the great audio commentary with Richard Franklin and the 21-minute Kangaroo Hitchcock featurette from the long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD and adding quite a few new ones on top of that. The new stuff begins with over an hour of uncut 'Not Quite Hollywood' interviews with Jamie-Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, Grant Page, Richard Franklin, Everett De Roche,Vincent Monton and Tom Burstall, the Curtis interview is particularly fun and well humored, I like that she has such a matter-of-fact and unvarnished view of her career leading up to this movie, detailing what it was like on set and how she was received as an American actor an an Australian shoot.   

We also get a featurette about the 4k telecine transfer with an interview from the movie's DOP Vincent Monton, I love these extras that go into restorations with the before and after comparisons. DP Monton is on hand but sadly mostly speaks about the benefits of digital cinematography versus film.

There's an archival 1981 interview with the director, a 2001 audio interview with him, plus a 1981 lecture with the Franklin, composer Brian May and co-producer Barbi Taylor, the quality of this on is straight from VHS. Also produced for this release are two 2016 audio interviews with Stacy Keach and actor/stuntman Grant Page, the Keach interview regurgitates a lot of what he said on the vintage making of doc. 

The single-disc release comes housed in an oversized Blu-ray keepcase with a sleeve of reversible artwork, the a-side and b-side being the same familiar gloved hands strangling a woman with a guitar string, the b-side is minus the unsightly ratings box on the cover, the disc also features the same key art. 

Special Features: 

- Audio Commentary with Producer/Director Richard Franklin
- Kangaroo Hitchcock: The Making of "Road Games" - Featurette with Producer/Director Richard Franklin and Actor Stacy Keach (21 min) 
- Uncut 'Not Quite Hollywood' Interviews with Jamie-Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, Grant Page, Richard Franklin, Everett De Roche,Vincent Monton and Tom Burstall (64 min) 
- Newly-Discovered Two Hour lecture on the Making of Road Games from Richard Franklin, Barbi Taylor and Brian May - November 20th 1980 (131 min) 
- New Extensive Gallery accompanied by Essay written by Fangoria writer Lee Gambin: Gallery of stills, Production Shots, Storyboards, Newspaper Reviews, Promotional and Artwork Materials (33 min) 
- Featurette on 4k Telecine Transfer by Roar Digital featuring SD-to-HD Comparisons, Quality Approval and Interview with DoP Vincent Monton (11 min) 
- 1981 Interview with Richard Franklin (25 min) 
- 2001 Audio Interview with Richard Franklin (24 min) 
- New Audio Interview with Road Games Lead Actor Stacy Keach (10 min) 
- New Audio Interview with Road Games Stunt Co-ordinator and Actor Grant Page (33 min) 
- HD Theatrical Trailer (3 min) 

Richard Franklin was an unsung master of suspense in my opinion and he made some great slow-burn classics that are worth re-discovering, it's great to see this one get the deluxe treatment with loads of extras from Umbrella. Fans of road pictures and clever thrillers should really dig into this one, it's a rewarding watch if you go in with tempered expectations, just don't watch it expecting a slasher, it's not that exactly, but it's plenty entertaining and a good slice of suspense cinema set on the open road.

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