The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Director Peter Weir
Writers Peter Weir
Starring John Meillon, Terry Camilleri, Kevin Miles, Danny Adcock.
Genre Machine
Tagline The Traffic in Paris is Murder

The Cars That Ate Paris marks the Directing debut of legendary Australian Director/Writer Peter Weir. While not being recognised as a horror movie maker by the intelligentsia surprisingly Weir has made a number of landmark Australian horror movies in his career. I've already had a look at perhaps Weir's best known film Picnic At Hanging Rock and wasn't as enamelled of the movie as some sectors of the local community, so how did I find the cult classic first feature from the Aussie Director?

Talk us through it

The isolated rural town of Paris survives from the wreckage of numerous car accidents caused by the locals. A thriving economy exists on the barter of wreak parts, the local hospital is doing it's best Nazi prison camp human experiment facsimile, and the Mayor is optimistic about the future.

Falling into the Paris world is Arthur, a survivor of a car accident who is adopted by the Mayor in one of the more far fetched plot developments you could ever hope to witness. Arthur learns what the locals are up to and in his role of traffic warden is instrumental in turning the town youths against the forces of authority. Rather than being a classic hero Arthur is more your accidental bystander as Paris descends into chaos.

Ready to get the Paris traffic report?


"We're talking about pot plants, smashed pot plants." - Policeman

Peter Weir is undoubtedly a talented movie maker, but I'm simply left wondering if horror is a path the Director should not have taken. In each of his horror outings I've watched to date Weir simply seems to not get what the genre is about and presents movies that would have been so much better set in calmer cinematic climes. While Picnic At Hanging Rock is arguably a classic Australian film, as a horror movie it simply falls flat. Weir spends way too much time exploring the transplanted English Public School with it's strict rules of conduct, and in so doing fails to adequately cover the mystery of Hanging Rock that is the prime reason for most viewers dialling in. Similarly The Cars That Ate Paris promises a lot but doesn't really get out of first gear as a horror movie. The Director serves up a heck of a premise but there really isn't that much under the icing to get excited about.

The idea of a town that lures motorists off the beaten track and then feeds on the resulting carnage is certainly worthy of a movie, and lets face facts here, in the right hands could have been great. But Weir simply wastes the underlying story as he fails to add the requisite atmosphere or money shots. Unfortunately the Director has decided to make a statement rather than an actual movie. I wonder what someone like Terry Bourke could have done with the material at hand. Peter Weir is focused on the Australian obsession with the car and in his mind the resulting damage this is causing. While an entire economy focused around cars is certainly an overstatement of the situation, the heavy reliance on motor vehicles is certainly close to home. Throughout The Cars That Ate Paris Weir has the stripped car wrecks dumped on the hill overlooking the town acting as a sort of Marsten House of vehicular overshadowing. While this worked in the King novel Salem's Lot it notably failed to provide the same effect in either of the movie adaptations. Weir tries further to animated the titular cars, that sort of have a mild snack on Paris, by having their drivers largely unseen in the final third of the movie. All this does is effectively remind viewers of the far superior Stephen Spielberg movie Duel that also sort to make it's protagonist the vehicle rather than the truck driver. Late in the movie one of the characters remarks that the cars are "upset over the burning", lets just underline that and throw some neon lights on Mr Weir. The audience kind of get what you are trying to do let's show them some respect! You gave it a good punt with the cars seemingly growling and strangely grunting like pigs.

Weir feels the need to neon signpost his rather heavy handed metaphor about Australia's relationship to cars rather than focus on making an actual horror movie.

Having decided to make a statement rather than a movie, wonder how long it took the scene designers to place all those car parts around the sets? - Weir further compounds his cinematic crimes by having one of the more inane protagonists that you could possible imagine in the form of the ineffectual Arthur. Besides one scene where Arthur in his position of traffic warden goes high noon in the best possible traditions of spaghetti westerns the character is pretty much a stranger in a strange land, the fish out of water, the NRL player at a feminist literary luncheon. Maybe I over stated that? Scene after scene has Arthur standing separately from various groups, observing but not directly influencing developments. Weir's major character is simply a bystander as we discover what makes Paris ticks and the whole movie swerves off the road, down the hill side, and into the swamp of ineptitude. About the only development in Arthur's personality is that he overcomes his aversion to driving. Arthur apparently can't drive due to having run over some old dude prior to the events depicted in The Cars That Ate Paris. He overcomes this mental block by killing someone with his new found driving prowess. Wouldn't that have compounded Arthur's driving unease? - oh and what about the local mad Scientist's driving aversion therapy? You get the feeling Peter Weir lost the plot completely with this character and sort of forgot a few details as filming proceeded. Can't say I blame Weir I was hoping to forget Arthur sooner rather than later as well.

There are some nice touches to The Cars That Ate Paris that perhaps explain the film's cult status. Let's face facts here folks something has to! The Mayor clearly has a few roos loose in the top paddock but his constant "light at the end of the tunnel" schlock did provide a direct influence on P. J. Hogan's Mayor in Muriel's Wedding, "You can't stop progress". The local Doctor has an electric drill with a red cross adorning it, Weir skates right up to the intended use of the Black and Decker but thankfully doesn't feel the need to immerse the audience in brain matter. And you just got to love the occasional punch line; "let's hand it over to the young people, it's their turn", queue the titular cars going on a rampage of destruction.

A couple of minor points and I'll move this review along. There's a whole bunch of product placements during the opening of the movie, cigs and soft drink for example, which I'm reliably informed are winks to the audience about adverts running at the time the movie was shot. Since I don't have anything to connect the dots there it appeared as simply product placement to me and may indicate the movie is slightly dated for modern audiences. During the conclusion of the movie we have a French song coming at us from left field, I'm wondering if Weir was trying to conjure up images from various war movies with his citizens leaving the town standing in for refugees? A sort of war against the car and civilian displacement thing happening. I could be reading way too much into the movie of course, Peter Weir might have had a Rob Zombie moment and decided since the town was called Paris he needed something from the French top thirty to round things out.

John Meillon (the Mayor) is pretty well cast as a sort of throw back to a 1950s local politician. Meillon has this quietly going insane in the hinterland thing happening that had me smiling. Was that a Jason recliner in his lounge room? Terry Camilleri (Arthur) either can't act or is hopeless miscast in the movie, I couldn't make my mind up over that one. Well okay it's a less than pressing issue to be honest. Kevin Miles (Dr Midland) did okay as the Doctor doing research into whatever, that seemed to simply involve giving his patients lobotomies. And Danny Adcock (Policeman), besides looking like an extra in a Sydney gay bar scene, was believable enough without bringing the house down.

There's a VW with spikes all over it, which probably has some sort of Freudian overtones, for those interested in T&A. Peter Weir really didn't get the ozploitation thing clearly.

Bruce Smeaton provided a score that is fair to middling. Typical period horror moves going down, but the score matches Weir's visuals so no one is likely to call a foul on it. Highlight for mine was the spaghetti western style music inserted at one stage to capture a sly wink Weir had given the audience. Client Eastwood wouldn't have been out of place in that scene.

Summary Execution

I know Peter Weir is a much better director than evidence by his movie reviews at ScaryMinds, but as a horror film maker the dude is seriously overrated. Both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars That Ate Paris are flawed from a horror standpoint, though in defence of Picnic the movie isn't intended as purely a horror outing. I sat through Paris hoping the film was better than I remembered it being but was sadly disappointed by the rather cinematically challenged offering I saw on my screen. At various stages I was wondering if I shouldn't just pull the pin and claim the movie didn't exist, but there was the odd scene that showed some talent was involved. Probably not a movie I will watch again in a hurry folks and hardly the classic of Aussie horror it's held up to be.

Seems ScaryMinds is going to follow in the footsteps of our initial sponsor and be pretty heretical toward some pillars that are critically acclaimed. Thus far I've managed to find fault with Tim Winton's dark genre novel and have pretty much put the boot into two Peter Weir movies. Next on my agenda is referring to the Sydney opera house as an overblown outhouse, but hey lets save that one to outrage people down the track sometime.

The Cars That Ate Paris is worth while having a look at if you are a fan of or student of Australian horror. The movie isn't going to work outside a local context and isn't the best example of horror film making in this part of the world. Peter Weir is clearly an excellent Director, unfortunately he isn't a horror Director, and that makes all the difference. I would consign The Cars That Ate Paris to the scrap yard and pick out something else to watch.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

The film isn't going to get your motor running, pop your fluffy dice on some other vehicle.