The Cars That Ate Paris March 10, 2017
Like Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), the action comedy that found its plot twist in the revelation that the conspiracy at the front and center of all the intrigue was actually a citywide phenomenon, 1974’s The Cars That Ate Paris also buys into the idea that idyllic, small-town living can be a deadly force. In the film, we find that the minuscule Paris, Australia has malevolently been orchestrating car accidents as a way to exploit clueless passersby for their finances and for their medical potential. For those who perish in crashes, pricy items from suitcases are sold or utilized for economic gain. For those who survive, transportation to the local hospital, lobotomies, and eventual medical experimentation are givens.
It’s difficult to say how long such practices have been going on, but because Paris is the metropolitan equivalent of Veronica Lake’s petite profile, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that its criminal offenses have gone unnoticed for so long that it’s feasible most don’t much realize that the wrongdoings running around so rabidly are actually wrongdoings.
But revolution arrives shortly after Arthur and George Waldo (Terry Camilleri and Rick Scully) come riding into town. Inevitably, George is killed, but Arthur survives, the city unexpectedly allowing him to skirt the usual routine of hospital-housed horrors to take care of the mayor, Len Kelly (John Meillon).
Festering under Paris’s seemingly idealistic surface, though, is a feud between the vicious older generation and the young punks they raised, who’ve become determined to overthrow the madness of Kelly and company’s mad practices. The naive Arthur’s sudden entrance into the cruel city turns out to be enough to incur anarchy.
And yet while The Cars That Ate Paris is frosted in a delectably bonkers storyline that seems fit for any classic American exploitation movie, it’s never quite as fun as it should be. It’s the first film writer/director Peter Weir, who would later find critical and commercial success with acclaimed films like 1989’s Dead Poets Society and 1998’s The Truman Show, ever made, and that lack of experience shows. As it goes for several revered directors, a debut, while not always perfect, is able to provide insight toward the illustrious career to follow, whether such notions come through inspired stylistics or a particularly good storyline. In Weir’s case, The Cars That Ate Paris boasts remarkable restraint and the ability to flavor seemingly minimal and dry comedic concoctions.
But Weir’s mastering of those characteristics is precisely the film’s problem: he treats the movie like it’s a grindhouse’s version of 1973’s Badlands when we should be given a wild horror comedy romp. All is too languid, too understated, to ever really work. Material like this calls for sweaty mania, and Weir doesn’t have the sensibility necessary to realize that he should be making inspired chintz, not high art within the grindhouse zeitgeist. For now we’ll have to consider it a precursor to his beloved Picnic at Hanging Rock, which would be released two years later and make him a hotshot within his profession. C