Such is the simple but gripping premise of 1981's Roadgames (often spelled Road Games on the poster art), which is often mistaken for another in the long line of early '80s slasher films usually starring Curtis after her breakthrough lead role in Halloween (1978). However, the influence here goes straight back to Alfred Hitchcock thanks to director Richard Franklin, an admirer of the Master of Suspense who frequented the set of Topaz (1969) after meeting him during a Q&A session at USC. Hitchcock's beloved "wrong man" plot device is the obvious borrowed element here along with the gradual evolution of a hero's suspicions about a murderer found in titles like Rear Window (1954). However, what sets Roadgames apart is its unique Australian locations, which place this squarely in the middle of the Australian New Wave which resulted in a slew of commercial, artistic, and exploitation films with a distinctive Down Under flavor. The drive-in side of Aussie cinema had already produced some notable films such as Mad Max (1979) and The Chain Reaction (1980), which featured groundbreaking, high-octane car chases and stunts. Roadgames was part of this trend as well with some nail-biting road chases which owe as much to Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971) as they do to George Miller.
As was common practice in both Australia and Europe at the time, American "name" actors were imported for several weeks to star in films for added international value or brought in for short periods to film enough scenes to be prominently featured on the poster and attract moviegoers. Roadgames features examples of both tactics, with lead Stacy Keach appearing in almost every scene of the film (in a part originally envisioned for Sean Connery). A colorful presence who first made an impression in a key supporting role in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), Keach had amassed one of the most surprising title rosters of any of his peers by the time he stepped before the cameras in Australia. Films such as End of the Road (1970), Fat City (1972), The New Centurions (1972), The Long Riders (1980), and even two Cheech and Chong vehicles (Up in Smoke from 1978 and Nice Dreams from 1981) had proven his extreme diversity in front of the camera, but rarely was he given the chance to play a "normal" leading role. Roadgames was the closest thing to an average Joe character he'd had in quite some time, though even in this film he gets to spend much of his time performing eccentric monologues in his truck with his pet dingo. After Roadgames, he became more involved in television work, and by 1983 he would begin performing his most frequent and arguably most iconic role as Mike Hammer in a series of TV shows and movies. To younger generations he is also familiar for his recurring roles on TV series including Prison Break and Two and a Half Men, while he also remains busy in theater, including a successful national touring production of Frost/Nixon.
While Keach was in Australia for the entire shoot, the film's biggest draw to horror audiences was only available for a much shorter shooting schedule. The daughter of actors Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Jamie Lee Curtis started acting with minor TV roles in 1977 but quickly leaped to stardom the following year as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter's Halloween, which quickly became the most successful independent film at the time. She and Carpenter reteamed for The Fog (1980) and Halloween II (1981), along with a pair of non-Carpenter slasher films in 1980, Terror Train and Prom Night. She then left the genre and pursued a career in more dramatic and comedic fare including TV's Death of a Centerfold (1981) and Trading Places (1983), though major stardom only arrived a few years later with A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and True Lies (1994). Though she dabbled occasionally in light thrillers, she only returned to horror to close out the story of Laurie Strode years later with Halloween H2O (1998) and an opening act appearance in Halloween: Resurrection (2002).
The twisty screenplay for Roadgames was concocted by Everett De Roche, an American-born writer who relocated to Australia to write for television in 1970. He and Franklin both worked on the early '70s TV crime series Homicide (no relation to the later American show), and both made the leap to mainstream feature films in 1978 with Patrick, one of Australia's first breakthrough horror films, about a comatose young man wreaking telekinetic havoc from his hospital bed. Franklin had dabbled in lightweight soft-core comedies such as Fantasm (1976) and The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975), but Patrick was his first foray into the suspense genre which he would be identified with for most of his career. Meanwhile, De Roche was writing thriller scripts which wound up in the hands of other directors as well, including Long Weekend (1978, directed by Colin Eggleston), 1980's surreal Dark Forces (directed by Simon Wincer), and the 1984 killer boar cult favorite, Razorback (directed by Russell Mulcahy). After the mid-'80s, De Roche mostly concentrated on TV work again but did make a belated return to the big screen with the gripping and gore-drenched Storm Warning for director Jamie Blanks in 2007.
After the success of Patrick and Roadgames (which appropriately nicknames Curtis' character "Hitch"), Franklin had become enough of a hot property to bring over to the United States under more auspicious circumstances. His demonstrated affinity for Hitchcockian suspense made him Universal's choice to direct Psycho II (1983), a highly controversial project which most critics and film purists regarded as heresy. Working from a reverent but unpredictable screenplay by future horror director Tom Holland, Franklin produced a film that far exceeded expectations and became one of that summer's most surprising success stories. However, the rest of his career was plagued with studio interference and marketing mishaps, including the poorly distributed spy thriller Cloak and Dagger (1984), the bizarre killer orangutan film Link (1986), and the popcorn sequel F/X2 (1991). One of the highlights from this period was his direction of the exceptional pilot for Beauty and the Beast (1987), which spun off into a successful four-year run without his involvement. Weary of Hollywood, he returned to Australia to resume a film career there in 1994 and directed several episodes of the Conan Doyle-inspired TV show, The Lost World. Shocking many of his fans, he passed away from prostate cancer in 2007 at the age of 59.
Producer: Richard Franklin
Director: Richard Franklin
Screenplay: Everett De Roche (screenplay and story); Richard Franklin (story)
Cinematography: Vincent Monton
Music: Brian May
Film Editing: Edward McQueen-Mason
Cast: Stacy Keach (Patrick 'Pat' Quid), Jamie Lee Curtis (Pamela 'Hitch' Rushworth), Marion Edward (Madeleine 'Frita' Day), Grant Page (Smith or Jones), Thaddeus Smith (Policeman 'Abbott'), Stephen Millichamp (Policeman 'Costello'), Alan Hopgood (Lester), John Murphy (Benny Balls), Bill Stacey (Captain Careful), Robert Thompson (Sneezy Rider).
by Nathaniel Thompson
"Kangaroo Hitchcock: The Making of Road Games." Featurette on Road Games DVD, Anchor Bay, 2003.