Director: Abner Pastoll
Cast: Andrew Simpson, Joséphine de La Baume, Frédéric Pierrot, Barbara Crampton
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With a cast peppered with various British and French actors, and one American former scream queen in Barbara Crampton, British-Gallic co-production Road Games is a slow-burning thriller where a good chunk of the tension stems from giveaways being lost in translation, thanks to language barriers between the film’s ostensible lead and the unusual figures he encounters.
Cult movie fans concerned by the film’s title can rest easy, for this is not, in fact, a remake of the respected 1981 thriller of the same name that starred Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis. The shared title is just a tribute to another feature about horrors facing hitchhikers, although Road Games director Abner Pastoll offers a tale more concerned with a twisty spirit in the vein of Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan than it does the 1981 Australian film’s Ozploitation roots. That said, for all its twists and turns, miscommunications and misdirection, the roads taken by Pastoll’s games don’t really lead anywhere all that satisfying.
There’s definitely some initial promise, though, not least with turning the sun-soaked, picturesque French countryside into a backdrop for homicide and horrors. Drivers passing through the land are aware of a reported serial killer apparently targeting some rural travellers. This causes a problem for stranded British hitchhiker Jack (Simpson), who seems awfully suspicious to prospective ride-givers thanks to having nothing on him but the clothes on his back and his British passport. Through a strange circumstance, he ends up teaming with another hitchhiker, an alluring Frenchwoman named Veronique (de La Baume).
With romantic interest brewing (albeit not really conveyed so well, due to Simpson’s damp squib turn when it comes to sexual chemistry), they eventually get picked up by a peculiar, middle-aged local (Pierrot) keen on dining on roadkill rabbits, who invites them over to his country house for dinner. There, the man’s American wife (Crampton) proves just as odd a presence, encouraging Jack to lock his guest room door at night and generally seeming a nervous wreck at all times. Could her husband be the uncaught killer? Could Jack? Or could the couple be aware of someone else being behind the killings?
The major problem with overtly deceptive films that make it very clear they’re building up to a big twist is that if said twist is underwhelming-to-outright-poor, you need enough merit in what precedes the finale to lessen the blow. This is a big part of why a lot of people like, for example, Shyamalan’s The Village, despite its ending. With Road Games, you have a thriller with a twist that puts so much weight on its finale that a significant portion of its 95-minute runtime feels interminable, almost weightless. It’s a mood piece that languishes in baiting you with red herrings to such a degree that tension subsides into tedium, where characters being in actual peril is relegated almost entirely to the film’s final act. And then the twist arrives and it is, as you may already have guessed, the sort of twist that might be labelled ‘the kind that ruins a film’, were the viewer given much else to invest in beyond trying to pinpoint Jack’s accent and quietly admiring another decent performance as part of Barbara Crampton’s recent transition into middle-aged character actor.
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