Horror Bites - Crash Culture


While the immediate Mad Max comparisons are obvious from the Australian accents and the gangs riding about in garish junkers, Peter Weir's first feature is a little more difficult to define. Some of the poster art shows bloody lettering and a monstrous Volkswagen adorned with metal spines, the sort of thing the first act of Fury Road gave a nod to. And yet this isn't an action movie, it's not a pure horror story and the vehicles are not really the centre of attention. If I had to pigeon hole this at all it would fall into the broad category of 'weird people in backwater towns doing weird things' to with align it with other strange places in the middle of nowhere that film characters wish they'd never stumbled across.

Paris is a rural place with a lot of secret goings on, and after a suspicious car crash (that was definitely an accident) which kills his brother, timid protagonist Arthur realises it is going to be difficult to leave. The film is mainly a character piece, with a variety of odd eccentrics living in their own frontier town. A few of them seem to have a strange obsession with this way of life, as if they really are settlers in the outback wilderness. Others actually wear dusters and wide brim hats in some scenes.

However it's soon apparent that their little home grown economy is fuelled by a single industry - causing car accidents at night and stealing everything left in the wreckage like vultures. The mayor of the town is particularly obsessed with this idea; even his children are from past wrecks and he continually tries to keep Arthur around by giving him work and taking him into the family. He's one of the strangest locals but almost everyone else has something odd about their behaviour.

Even relatively normal residents like the town doctor seems to work exclusively on "research" with brain damaged crash survivors. Elsewhere child like killer Charlie (Bruce Spence) collects his own trophies in the form of hood ornaments from the victims, and makes a fuss when he doesn't get his share. They're all in on the roadside death business, which means that outsiders like Arthur and the local priest are treated with disdain.

Arthur's isolated situation is no less unsettling when he gets the position of 'parking officer' during a committee meeting with the mayor who has taken a shine to him. The juxtaposition of this nightmare scrap yard and the inane town hall politics lends the whole thing its dark but quirky tone. This conflict is what builds to the action hinted at in the film's title. This clash of ideals slowly spills over as the local youths begin to press back against the older residents and their increasing rules and regulations.

The lack of focus is probably the major issue here as it meanders between gory crash inspection and bickering locals. The tension as the young ruffians and the elders being to irritate each other isn't really the focal point which affects the pacing and drains some of the potential suspense. Most of the narrative is spent with Arthur as he slowly takes in all their creepy activities during his recovery time. Purely as a kooky black comedy the elements that work best provide a lot of bizarre moments; and the idiosyncrasies of the community Arthur deals with as he overcomes his own neuroses are all pretty entertaining.

Maybe the title should have been something else instead of something that seems to highlight the vehicles that only briefly feature. Alternative name The Cars That Eat People is probably just as unhelpful but it does at least highlight the overall theme and the way the town causes it's own destruction. Still it kind of works just as one of those stories that makes you think twice about what normal looking people get up to on the back roads after dark. Or in weird rural Australian villages. It's a weird, eerie film. It wouldn't say it's a classic by any means, but it remains essential cult viewing.