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“ROAD GAMES” (2016; Movie Review)

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Following IFC’s release of the disappointing RABID DOGS redux and the thoroughly unnecessary new CABIN FEVER, it’s a relief just to note that their latest genre offering, ROAD GAMES, is an original, unconnected to Richard Franklin’s same-titled Ozploitation favorite.

Which is not to say that writer/director Abner Pastoll resists throwing little homages to past thrillers into his film. He scores the opening sequence with some very John Carpenter-esque music by Daniel Elms, throwing in a shot homaging HALLOWEEN, and toward the end, a character says he’s on his way to “the Chabrol barn.” That’s where the French Pastoll is headed too as his story begins, treading the same mystery/thriller-with-horrific-overtones territory as fellow countryman Claude Chabrol. Here, he works in two languages, introducing us to Englishman Jack (Andrew Simpson) as he hitchhikes his way through the scenic Gallic countryside. He’s not having an easy time getting rides, especially as the word is out about a serial killer stalking the local roads, but he soon finds a partner-in-thumbing in Véronique (Joséphine de La Baume from KISS OF THE DAMNED), after she becomes stranded following a fight with her boyfriend.

Their byplay introduces a key facet of Pastoll’s particular approach here: Jack speaks a little French, but not a lot, so he doesn’t pick up on the entirety of subsequent conversations (though they’re subtitled for our benefit), which becomes a serious issue when the story turns darker. Despite the language barrier, he and Véronique quickly bond, and they’re eventually picked up by the passing Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot), who takes them to his home, one of those elegantly appointed, multistory piles that always seem to turn up in French genre movies. Grizard is gregarious to a fault, which contrasts with his wife Mary (RE-ANIMATOR and WE ARE STILL HERE’s Barbara Crampton), who doesn’t seem to be quite all there, as if she’s been cooped up in the big old house for way too long.

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The already present tension further rises during a dinnertime discussion of the marauding murderer between the four leads, and the movie’s own tension builds from the possibility that one of the four seated around the table is that villain. For a while, ROAD GAMES is a whoisit rather than a whodunit, as Pastoll discreetly refrains from showing the killings, giving us only glimpses of the malefactor disposing of a couple of plastic-wrapped bodies. As a result, the film (most of whose games actually take place within walls rather than on the road) qualifies more as a character-driven suspenser than as a horror film for a while, though Crampton’s presence definitely makes it of interest to fans of the latter. Then, at about the hour mark, things rather abruptly take a turn for the much worse, taking the story into the realm of backwoods Grand Guignol.

Throughout, ROAD GAMES is a work of smooth, attention-holding if not truly gripping professionalism, nicely shot by FINAL PRAYER’s Eben Bolter on picturesque locations and moody sets, and well-paced by Pastoll (who also edited), lacking just the one or two extra surprises or story wrinkles that would truly put it over the top. There are a couple of twists along the way that are not overly startling, though neither are they distractingly obvious. Mostly, the film is worth a look for the efforts of its solid cast, and its canny casting of bilingual couples. Simpson and de La Baume have an easy chemistry and also convincingly play Jack and Véronique’s growing levels of suspicion and fear, while Pierrot and Crampton each suggest uneasy secrets lying beneath their opposing exteriors. They make it worth playing along with these ROAD GAMES through to the end.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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