Upon its release in the summer of 1981, Roadgames, the second (and final) collaboration of director Richard Franklin and writer Everette De Roche after 1978's Patrick, became the most expensive Australian film ever made up to that point (a title it would hold only for a few weeks, until the opening of Gallipoli). That is, honestly very hard to understand: by all means Roadgames is a well-made, confident piece of filmmaking, but the most notable thing about it would otherwise appear to be how very stripped-down and efficient it would otherwise be. It makes exemplary use of only a few resources, letting the mere fact of its impeccably-chosen location do a huge amount of the work, and with its only significant set being a truck: it feels like the kind of thing that an especially gifted independent filmmaker would come up with as an ingenious way to stretch a tiny budget. And yet, there it is: 1.75 million Australian dollars, at a time when that was real money.

It managed to lose this money after commercial releases in both Australia and the United States, which is a massive injustice, for this is a thoroughly terrific thriller with an especially offbeat, almost giddy sensibility. And heck, maybe that's even why it flopped: it does very unexpected things with tone, and if you've been primed to expect a certain kind of thriller - or a slasher film, which is how it was marketed in the States at least (it retains the reputation of being a horror film to this very day, which I find to be a pretty dubious categorisation) - and you get this decidedly silly quasi-comedy with serial killer elements instead, I can see where that would feel like the same thing as getting a "bad" movie. For me, the goofy elements are precisely what makes Roadgames such a special film, and in its way a prescient one: as the 1980s wore on, the Australian film industry would find that one of its most successful export products were offbeat situation comedies built around broad human caricatures, and over the course of the 1990s, this would become virtually the whole of Australia's cinematic export business. Roadgames is basically that, nestled inside the body of an Alfred Hitchcock homage.

Specifically, Roadgames is no more nor less than "Rear Window in a truck", and in fact the first step towards making the film was when Franklin handed De Roche a copy of that film's screenplay to study and then copy during the production of Patrick. The whole thing sounds like an asinine gimmick, but it turns out to be a particularly strong Hitchcock riff indeed, capturing the paranoid spirit of the original film while modifying it as needed to make the best possible version of this scenario. As for what that scenario entails, well, it begins with Patrick Quid (Stacey Keach) just barely missing out on the last room at a motel in Melbourne to a man (Grant Page) driving a green van. He also misses out on the chance to make time with the attractive hitchhiker (Angie La Bozzetta) that the van driver picked up, and Quid himself passed by, owing to company regulations against picking up hitchhikers. And so it is that he resigns himself to sleeping on the floor of his truck cab, with only his pet dingo Boswell for companionship. For our part, we stay awake a bit longer, enough to see the man with the van use a new guitar string to strangle the woman to death - technically, we don't see it at all, we just cut right to the net morning, with Boswell investigating some garbage bags that the man has set out. But we can assume.

The first sign of what kind of an oddball movie we're in for is that, now that we're like 93% sure that the man is a killer - and he's probably responsible for the dead bodies we hear about on Quid's CB radio - we immediately shift back into perfect alignment with Quid, for whom this is still just a normal week's work: he's taking a freezer car full of pork all the way to Perth, all the way on the far side of the continent, on the far side of the vast, flat limestone plain called the Nullarbor. And as he sets off on his long drive, the film seems perfectly ready to treat this all as a bright and buzz adventure, especially through the means of the musical score by Brian May (whose "Ozploitation films about driving through the desert" credentials were pretty well firmed up with 1979's Mad Max; later in 1981, he'd also score Mad Max 2). It's a remarkably peculiar score, and at first I was actively angry about it. We had seen, had we not, a horrible murder (almost)? And here's the music coming along to provide this bouncy, dipshit energy, the most blatantly comic element of a film that perpetually wants to flirt with comedy.

And the thing is, Brian May obviously knows more than me, because the deeper we go into Roadgame, the more that upbeat energy somehow turns out to be exactly right. Roadgames borrows plenty from Rear Window, as advertised - Quid starts to put two and two together, and figures out that the man in the green van is almost certainly the killer, but just like us, he can't actually prove it, and his attempts to do so, all while keeping a safe distance from the van, end up convincing everybody else that he's a lunatic - but it also pulls from the more generically Hitchcockian idea of the wrong man, when all the meager available evidence suggests that Quid himself is guilty. The big change that Roadgames makes to this set-up is to play it, basically, as a comedy of errors. This is especially true when he reluctantly picks up Frita (Marion Edward), a member of one of the parties he's been spotting on and off throughout his drive, and as he starts thinking out loud and figuring out what's going on, he does so in he most leading, creepy way, convincing her that he's the killer, teasing her. But throughout the movie, this is all treated more as an annoyance than an existential threat, sometimes erupting into full-on slapstick, as when he is obliged to destroy the boat trailer of a driver (Bill Stacey) persistently trying to block his path.

For all that, this is a thriller, and it takes itself seriously as such. The ample humor throughout the film flavors the tension and gives the film a hell of a lot of personality, but it never distracts from the more fundamental issue of how Quid, and the sassy American hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis, who I imagine was a substantial part of that budget - she was added at the insistence of the U.S. distributors, infuriating the Australian film boards) he picks up to keep her safe from the killer, later finding her to be an enthusiastic Girl Friday, are going to prove their case in the absence of any evidence whatsoever. At some points, the comedy and the tension are inseparable: Quid, as one will when one crisscrosses a continent with nothing but a dingo for company, has developed a habit of talking to himself, and while it's presented initially as just a quirk, his version of the caricatured humor that attaches itself to every other character, it's also a bit uncanny and confusing, giving him a slight edge of mania. Seemingly without meaning to, the film manages to introduce a note of ambiguity as to whether Quid actually is seeing what he thinks he's seeing. As the film develops, Quid's panic mixes with this odd behavior to result in full-on hallucinations, including a jump scare that's the one place where the movie actually plays like a horror movie.

Plus, the film benefits from one hell of a location. The Nullarbor is an extraordinarily hostile environment even by the standards of the Australian Outback, an uninterrupted flatland of the most meager desert scrub, marching for tens of miles to towering cliffs that drops directly to the ocean. Placing Quid's truck alone in this vast emptiness creates an exaggerated sense of danger and isolation, and as the sun drops, the landscape picks up a drab, rusty color. It's already tense simply existing in this space; adding the characters' increasingly desperate moods, and the film's shift in its last act to a humorless chase sequence, and Roadgames turns into quite an engrossing thriller altogether. It's not flawless, by any stretch: at 101 minutes, it has more time than it knows what to do with, and there are scenes that amble on past the point they're still being productive. Also, Curtis, as important as she was in the genre at this point in time, is simply miscast: "Hitch", as she's called, gets fairly little screentime, and having such a recognisable face in that role is deeply distracting. Besides, there's no good reason at all for her to not be Australian, and that, too, is distracting. But one can nitpick any film to death, if one's inclined; the weird and wonderful strengths of Roadgames are good enough for it to survive greater weaknesses than these, and the time is always right for a well-made Hitchockian thriller, especially one that refuses to be even slightly precious about it.

Body Count: 1, though it pays dividends at multiple points in the film.