Roads girdle the globe
George and Arthur Waldo are driving across Australia, caravan in tow, to try to find work. While traveling a back road late one night, George loses control of the car and drives off the side of a steep hill. The accident claims his life and leaves his brother, Arthur, hospitalized. When Arthur recovers, he learns he is in the tiny town of Paris, under the care of a research doctor who swears he can "cure" him. Arthur is disoriented and upset over the death of his brother, but soon depression becomes concern as the town turns against him. Seems everyone, from the Mayor to the local lads, just won't let him leave. Attempts to depart are met with roadblocks and gangs of confrontational junk cars. He hears strange noises at night and sees groups of the town's people meeting in an old garage at all hours. It turns out that Paris is in the business of causing car accidents. They then make false insurance claims and salvage auto parts, all in an attempt to keep their impoverished province from going under. Any loose ends, like surviving victims, are either involuntarily "incorporated" into the village or experimented on by the deranged Doc. Arthur finally agrees to stay in Paris and is made "parking officer." But all this does is lead him to a face-to-face confrontation with the sonic youth of the town. They are a wild, unruly rebel bunch that drive their demolition derby style vehicles around recklessly to terrorize the citizenry. The Mayor and law enforcement want this insurgency put down, lest it threaten the town's viability. It all boils over into a gearbox generation gap standoff as the town officials prepare to face The Cars that Ate Paris.
When you hear of a movie entitled The Cars that Ate Paris, a lot of surreal, sleazy B-movie horror clichés come to mind. You envision maniacal Mustangs, killer Chryslers, and maybe even a vile Volvo or sinister Saab, all roaming the countryside with chrome grills snapping like murderous turtles as surprisingly cowardly French people flee in unhygienic panic. Blood is splashed across the fenders in impressionistic sprays and pale Parisian body parts dangle from horrifying hood ornaments. Eventually some screwball mad scientist or underworld escargot kingpin is discovered as the "breeder" of these anarchic automobiles and a suave, saintly hero saves the day (and both the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower) with a "new car smell" bomb that renders the vicious vehicles showroom new and hopelessly inert.
But then, when you actually sit and watch The Car that Ate Paris, you realize your not in for any of that: no brazen Buicks or ornery Oldsmobiles. Indeed, you see that this is not a fright flick in the traditional sense. This is really a dark comedy about customs (the town of Paris) versus encroaching commercialism (the opening sequences take-off on advertising is priceless). You understand it has nothing to do with psychotic Porches and everything to do with a mysterious outback village staging vehicular altercations for fun and profit. Exploiting their hillside location and dangerous dirt roads, this secret society based in the dented fender and twisted hubcap is on the verge of discovery and destruction. Their desire for privacy and maintenance of their way of life has lead to too many outsiders turning up as "rejects" in a local mad doctor's nuthouse. And now the youth of the town are rebelling via aggressive acts of sadistic sedan vandalism. In essence, The Cars that Ate Paris is not intended as a standard thriller. It's more like a political cartoon uprising, a coup de tat via coupe Deville.
There is very little conventionality in this first feature from respected Australian auteur Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness). More or less an experiment in impression and suggestion, The Cars that Ate Paris does a magnificent job of setting up a surreal, sinister tone for the people and location of Paris. Like a wily magician, Weir hints at hidden horrors (the late night car raids, the infirmary full of "veggies") and never lets his story get overly expositional. Many things are implied here and it takes an alert viewer to catch them all. Sometimes, things are too passive (the lead character of Arthur is so meek that he makes spineless jellyfish seem macho) and many scenes fail to connect. This leaves the narrative scattered and sparse and as a result, the audience often feels completely in the dark, unable to grasp fully what is going on. Still, this is an intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at making menace metaphysical through the symbolism of the worldwide fascination with the automobile. Like a death dealing Detroit, Paris has now become completely dependent on the four-wheeled wonder and few films have captured the love and lure of the vehicle as well. There is also some interesting Australian cinema history here. Careful eyes will catch a pre-Mad Max Bruce Spence (as the weird, loopy Charlie) and, indeed, many of the themes Weir works through—cars as freedom, the seductive power of the combustion engine—appear as precursors to George Miller's post-apocalyptic Road Warrior action epics. Weir has gone on to make a name as an artistic, subtle mainstream director. That meshing of the melancholy with the mysterious and murderous best describes The Cars that Ate Paris.
Also included here is Weir's 1979 TV film The Plumber. So ambiguous in its focus that it gets lost and relying on a formula so old (the mysterious worker invading the home of a prim housewife) that Methuselah rejected it as cliché, this is indeed an uninvolving retread, an unusual misstep for an otherwise adventurous director. Part of the problem lies in the setup. We know that this new, cracked pipe jockey is a little off his rocker when he jokes about rape, takes a shower while on the job, and offers the female lead herbal tea and "hash" cakes. But when his decidedly confrontational demeanor turns cruel and calculated, you sense this story only has one place to go. The fact that Weir subverts that stalker/victim conclusion to find another, if equally archetypical ending means that, as the foundation for a plot, the story of The Plumber really had no choice but to be routine. If he was really experimenting, letting the weird workman be a hallucinatory vision of a lonely academic woman or actually turned the violence and suspense up to eleven (instead of the .5 he achieves here) this could have worked. But while it's nice to have another entire film as a bonus presentation on this DVD, one view of The Plumber will convince you that the provider wasn't doing you any favors.
However, HVE does treat both The Cars that Ate Paris and The Plumber with exceptional care. Both movies look very good, with Cars being the visual stunner. You would never know this was a low budget, highly independent film from early '70s Australia. The colors are vibrant, the contrasts sharp without being over-enhanced, and images crackle and pulsate in this pristine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The Plumber, on the other hand, suffers from its made-for-TV roots, being a little too soft and faded at times. Still, in 1.66:1 it looks well preserved for something created 25 years ago.
Sonically, both films succeed as well. The Dolby Digital Mono is crystalline and there is no distortion to be found (there is real raw power in the roar of the engines in Cars). HVE even enhances the DVD experience by offering a couple of cool extras as part of the package. Unfortunately, one is The Plumber (and the only way it is cool is that it leaves you cold). The other is a sit down interview session with director Weir. By now a major player in world cinema, the gracious Aussie seems genuinely pleased to be discussing these early films. His comments on Cars really help to cement the odd ambiance he was trying to create (and he interprets his own plot very well). The Plumber comments are a little more cursory and cover some basics (story, casting) without going into much thematic detail. Even though they both only total about 20 minutes, these interviews show that Weir was very much in touch with his cinematic muse when he created these initial forays into film. Too bad they are such a mixed bag.
While The Cars that Ate Paris is an awkward and absorbing attempt at unhinging the horror film, The Plumber needs a fellow pipe fitter to help it down the sewage system where it belongs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• The 1979 TV Film The Plumber (77 mins)
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