AKA The Cars That Eat People
DIRECTED BY: Peter Weir
FEATURING: Terry Camilleri, John Meillon
PLOT: Mild-mannered Arthur survives a car crash that kills his brother and finds himself stranded in the insular, automobile obsessed town of Paris, Australia.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Like its director’s last name, this one falls just a little short of “weird.” Park The Cars That Ate Paris in the oddity yard.
COMMENTS: You could look at The Cars That Ate Paris as a psychological horror, or a semi-surreal black comedy about a fish out of water, or as a satire of Australian car culture, or even as a dramatic character study of a broken, phobic orphan desperate for acceptance. The movie even starts, rather inexplicably, with what appears to be a cigarette commercial, for further confusion. Without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the town of Paris, New South Wales, an isolated burg with a junkyard barter economy based on salvaged car parts, and Arthur, an annoyingly meek wreck survivor with an automobile phobia who finds himself stranded in a community that insists on taking him in and teaching him their way of life. There are also out-of-control teenagers in roving automobile gangs and a hospital that, given the out-of-the-way hamlet’s low population, is surprisingly stocked with brain-damaged “veggies” (of the full, half and quarter varieties).
Cars zooms back and forth between understated comedy and looming horror, constantly grinding its gears. Scenes like the one where the town’s psychiatrist/surgeon slips disturbing photos into Arthur’s Rorschach-type test have a David Lynch dark-alley-of-the-mind quality to them. At other times, the movie jaunts off in a different direction, suddenly rolling into a Sergio Leone parody. The ending, quite naturally, is a violent demolition derby, complete with growling cars, wherein the entire town is trashed while costumed loonies wander the street. Cars offers a bumpy ride, and goes pretty much nowhere, but the scenery out the window can be astonishing.
Understandably, The Cars That Ate Paris was a hard movie to market. In the VHS era, it was housed in the “horror” section (sometimes under the misleading alternate title The Cars That Eat People) with a box cover that stressed the cool spikemobile and copy that suggested it was something like an Australian version of Death Race 2000. The movie got bad word-of-mouth through this mismarketing when legions of teenagers rented it expecting a fast-paced horror movie about killer cars and instead getting a thoughtful, weird little arthouse drama. Its reputation changed for the better after the Criterion Collection picked up the film, repositioning it as a cult classic.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Effortlessly employing surrealist and fantasy tropes in a story that is, ultimately, never very far from the possible, Weir steers us on a dizzying journey through autophilia, survivalist politics, and the darker side of human nature.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by the Awful Dr. Orloff, who believed it to be “much, much weirder” than Picnic at Hanging Rock. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)