Peter Weir achieved a career-high as the Oscar-nominated director of The Truman Show (1998). His directorial debut, however, could not be more different from films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976) and Witness (1985), with which he made his reputation.
The Cars That Ate Paris is a darkly comic tale of a small Australian outback town whose inhabitants deliberately cause car accidents involving unsuspecting drivers who are enticed off the main highway in order to harvest their cars – chrome, engines, spare parts, accessories, luggage – and provide Dr Midlands at the hospital with fresh participants for his ‘experiments’.
Terry Camilleri stars as the mild-mannered newcomer Arthur Waldo, who wakes up in a hospital in the quiet country town of Paris after he and his brother, George, have run off the road with their car and caravan. His brother is dead.
The mayor, Len Keeley (John Meillon, familiar as Walter Reilly in the Crocodile Dundee films) takes Arthur under his wing, but Arthur senses that things are not right.
The town’s feral youth take over the streets at night in souped-up cars, the hospital is full of brain-damaged accident victims – who Dr Midland calls his ‘veggies’ – and Arthur discovers he is not allowed to leave.
In the film’s final sequence – the mayoral fancy dress ball and the attack of the spiked monster cars – comedy and horror jostle for our responses, one heightening the other.
The mayor has warned a reluctant Arthur that “nobody leaves Paris. No one. Now you get into those clothes. You’re going to the ball”.
In the galvanised iron town hall the veggies are wheeled in wearing masks and stage-managed by the appallingly genial doctor.
Then the cars arrive, bent on reprisal for the burning of the car of one of the gang. The orgy of destruction which follows is directed with a fine eye for clarity and horror: the Mayor attacks the cars with a pole; someone else is caught on the spikes of a car while trying to spear it; and Arthur, forced to become part of the mayhem, regains his confidence by squashing a car and killing its yobbo driver.
Arthur drives out as traps are being laid to stop exit from the ruined town; his face, half-obscured by the darkness, is smiling triumphantly as he heads for . . . what?
Rough edges notwithstanding, it’s a sharp and vaguely unsettling affair, and fortunately, free of some of the portentous imagery that occasionally mars Weir’s later work.
The film was made for $250,000 and shot on location at Sofala, near Bathurst in New South Wales. It was retitled The Cars That Eat People for its US release as New Line Cinema assumed that American moviegoers would wrongly assume the picture was set in France.
The horror hot rods in the film were designed by Art Director David Copping. Old cars were welded and spray painted in a tiny Sofala garage while Transport Manager Alf Blight hunted down parts to add to the finished effect from used car lots in Bathurst.
Len Keeley, the Mayor