Leaping back to June of 1974, our first movie of this month isn't what you'd call a classic car movie. In fact, it's hard to say exactly what it is. The early '70s were a craze for driving movies, especially in the States where muscle cars ruled. No, this is an Australian movie made long before antipodean filmmakers got on the world map with the likes of Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee.
How does one correctly pitch The Cars That Ate Paris (aka The Cars That Eat People) to an audience, and for that matter, what audience does one pitch it to? For the past forty years, it's been known to cult followers as a horror comedy. It isn't quite horror, though, and it isn't quite funny. Intriguingly, it comes off like a '60s psychodrama, but it doesn't seem to want to be labelled at all. This is a movie that moves to its own beat.
The Cars Tha Ate Paris tells the tale of a strange young man who is saved from a car accident by the inhabitants of a small country town named Paris. Arthur is a shy, weak and socially inept guy, travelling with his brother as they hopelessly look for work. Travelling deeper into the sticks, when a nighttime prank on a country road causes them to crash, Arthur survives, but his brother is mince meat.
Given shelter by the town mayor and his family, it soon becomes apparent that the mayor decides he's going to "keep" Arthur. This is a strange town, even stranger than Arthur, and if you know your Autralian movies then you might have an inkling as to what I mean. There is English country strange, there is American hillbilly strange and then there is Australian strange. They're all respectively in a league of their own, but there seemed to be so much more room for strange in Australia back then; so much more adversity for different kinds of strange.
What's really weird about this town is their despise for cars. Regardless, as quiet a town as Paris seems, everybody has a car. Maybe this hatred has something to do with the car racing gang terrorizing the streets and country roads, looking like they're practicing for a Mad Max movie, while the town's lone lawman looks like he himself ought to be in prison for some disgusting crime. This here is a town where the conservative middle-aged and the elderly work-work-work and plan-plan-plan to keep the town the way they want it, while the youth dress like cowboys and nazis and generally do what the hell they want.
In a bid to keep Arthur around after the funeral of his brother, the mayor begins to play mind tricks on him in a bid to make him believe that he isn't capable of leaving. This involves playing on his renewed fear of automobiles. That, coupled with the racing gangs in their banged up old cars tearing up the roads, leaves Arthur stranded.
It turns out that Arthur once ran over an elderly person and killed them, which not only rendered him legally forbidden to drive, but also caused psychological damage, explaining why he's such a fragile little man. All those fears and insecurities come out of the woodwork when he realises that he is trapped and too meek and reserved to do anything about it. Preying on that, and Arthur's honesty, the mayor (something of a closet psychological bully) has him right where he wants him; as one of the family that the mayor has pretending that they're his own flesh and blood.
Not fully belonging to this League of Gentleman show, is the mayor's wife, Beth, who is also the victim of his bullying, and in between the sheer weirdness of this movie are more stable and intimate scenes between Arthur and Beth. It doesn't go anywhere, it just serves to tell us how truly fucked up our oddball lead character really is.
Yadda, yadda, yadda, Arthur is given the job of traffic warden, which really pisses off the gang, and when the townsfolk hold a ball (a party, not an actual ball) the gang decides to go to war on Paris, which results in the unlikely hero taking a stand against his greatest fear, namely by taking the mayors car and literally bashing the gang leader to death while he's trapped in his own car. The strangest of happy endings, Arthur realises that he isn't afraid to drive anymore and fucks off in the mayor's fancy car as the townsfolk walk out of Paris in droves, never to return. Two birds, one stone!
If there's anything comedy-related here, it's the nature of the ending. As for horror, there's a great little scene where a Volkswagen Beetle, souped up to look like a steel hedgehog chases down one of the town councillors and impales him on the bonnet, but there's an overall eeriness to this movie that is reminiscent of some of the less well remembered Hammer Horror films of the '70s. Two familiar faces here are the late John Meillon (633 Squadron, Walter from Crocodile Dundee) and Bruce Spence (Mad Max 2 and 3, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith). So untypically, our lead is none other than Peter Camilleri, who played Napoleon in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Right? Right?
The biggest surprise is this movie having been directed by Peter Weir, being one of his first ever feature films. Peter Weir is responsible for some of the most memorable and celebrated movies of the last century including Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, Fearless and The Truman Show, two of those repeating the same theme of a stranger in a strange community. Of course, if you've seen those and if you watch The Cars That Ate Paris, then I guess you'll know where it all came from.
If I had to rate this movie, it would get a 5 out of 10 sheerly for production and writing. There are some very supportive actors here, but overall, you may find yourself bored if you don't like older films. It may not have influenced a great deal of filmmakers since, either, but its director certainly did. As for Weir's writing, it showed a maturity in creativity that wasn't standard until decades later. How often is it that psychodramas really get into your head or understand how the minds of sick and twisted men truly work? It may look far from it, but The Cars That Ate Paris was well ahead of its time, and I suppose you could even call it Hitchcockian.
Join us in a few days time as we head straight into the '80s, thanks for reading and feel free to post your comments.