Social communities, no matter how insular their membership or seemingly benevolent their leaders, don’t make for reliable safe havens. Director Peter Weir has made this observation more than once: boarding school students and a teacher disappeared during a proper outing in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975); an Amish community held dark secrets in Witness (1985); and in The Truman Show (1998), chirpy neighbors and well-manicured lawns were a front for crass profiteers and the world’s largest sound stage.
Weir hinted at his interest in this theme, with his first film, The Cars That Ate Paris, shot over 27 days in 1974. The movie takes place in the optimistically named Paris, New South Wales, a town rife with conflicts that lead to a deadly orgy of auto-abetted violence. A box-office bomb, it is an uneven, somewhat routinely assembled blend of horror, dark comedy, and social satire, with Western iconography thrown in for good measure. It’s not frightening, funny or even very thoughtful, more an offbeat curiosity than a particular sign of Weir’s career to come.
With the new DVD of the film, the director’s original version is available again, enhanced with a clean new digital transfer. New Line Cinema had earlier re-cut the film and presented it in a mangled version renamed The Cars That Eat People, as Weir explains in an interview included on the disc. The package also features The Plumber, made for Australian television in 1979, and accompanying comments on that film by Weir, along with printed essays on both movies. Both films use thriller conventions, though the latter is far more accomplished, demonstrating Weir’s rapid growth as a filmmaker in the wake of the critical attention to Cars, screened at Cannes.
Weir, who had worked as a documentary maker and an actor in a comedy troupe, was inspired to make Cars after noticing the prevalence of abandoned, rusted-out automobiles around rural areas of N.S.W. Later, driving in France, he was stopped by two men in dayglow orange jackets and asked to make a sudden detour, even though neither road construction nor other roadway obstacles were in view. Weir recalls that he acceded, but questioned his willingness to obey the strangers’ instructions. He also began taking notice of the ever-growing numbers of fatalities resulting from auto accidents, and the general acceptance of those deaths as an inevitability of modern life.
He says that Cars means to question the willingness of the public (at home and in the United States) to go along with the pursuit of a war that was tremendously costly, in dollars and lives; in the movie, the villagers are asked to accept the routine, bloody car collisions as the price of doing business. “To some extent, it was thinking about the old politicians’ statement of ‘the end justifies the means,’” Weir says in the interview. “The older members of the town could deal with that. They could suspend their morality, in a sense, during a difficult period, but as a result of their immoral acts, the young people were corrupted, totally. They’d grown up with this kind of violence and were uncontrollable. So I thought this was a rather interesting kind of metaphor under the kind of homage to these horror films.”
Weir’s own horror film opens with a gambit that doesn’t quite work, a parody of the “beautiful people” advertisements that often appeared before the main feature in Australian theaters. A handsome man with Bobby Sherman hair, a white turtleneck, and dark sport coat, and an attractive blonde woman take their Datsun convertible for a Sunday drive in the country, sharing Alpine cigarettes and Cokes. Suddenly, a tire pops off, and the car rockets downhill, bound for certain destruction.
Following this seeming commercial, complete with pointed product placement, the wreck is a sudden shock, a setting up the rather ludicrous tale to come. In the wake of the crash, the camera pulls back, revealing a quaint little town nestled in the distant hills, and the story proper starts: Two men, driving the same terrain, suffer a similar fate; Arthur (Terry Camilleri), survives, the better to meet the freaks and geeks of the village. The denizens of this Paris might be called “grotesques.” The doctor (Kevin Miles), apparently taking a cue from Nazi surgeons, hints at the entirely invasive operations he performs on non-voluntary patients (the accident victims): “There’s a tremendous challenge out here in the country, just waiting to be picked up. This is where the really exciting work is being done.”
The sights and sounds of Paris, for Arthur, become increasingly unsettling. An old woman, rocking away on her front porch, idly polishes a silver hubcap. The local cop (Danny Adcock) wears black leather, looking like a cross between a Village People reject and Sergio Leone gunslinger, and strutting around town as if he’s on stage. A group of mentally handicapped patients, their woes caused by car accidents and/or the doctor’s drill, dance around, their heads variously covered with paper bags, bandages, and, in one case, an upside-down Rice Crispies box. A VW bug covered in silver spikes (is it a punk haircut or a porcupine?) impales one of the town fathers. The mayor (John Meillon), dressed in his costume for the upcoming Pioneer Days celebration, stands at a crossroads strewn with burning embers, and loudly declares that Paris will survive.
Arthur, despite his pangs of conscience, can’t avoid being swept up by the town’s profitable cottage industry—the collecting, and, apparently, sales, of auto parts scavenged from the crashes. The city council, in an effort to secure his loyalty, even gives him an official position, as “parking officer,” with a black armband bearing that title. During the height of the bloody, story-capping melee, he repeatedly rams a car into another driven by an acquaintance, one of the local hellions responsible for the siege of Paris. Shortly later, he manages to flee the oppressive community. Lit from below, he grins wildly as he drives away: He has either broken free from Paris, or gone insane trying.