The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Philip Booth

'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.'"

The Cars That Ate Paris

Director: Peter Weir
Cast: John Meillon, Terry Camilleri, Kevin Miles, Rick Scully, Max Gillies, Danny Adcock, Bruce Spence
Distributor: Home Vision
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: New Yorker Films
First date: 1974
US DVD Release Date: 2003-10-21

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.