Back in the days of sail there were many hazards facing mariners. Few were more sinister than the infamous wreckers, who would set false lights to lure unwary ships to their doom, and the plunder their cargoes. Peter Weir’s 1974 movie The Cars That Ate Paris updates this concept. In Australia at an unspecified future date, a time of economic and social collapse, the town of Paris makes its living from car wrecks. The road into the town is treacherous enough, but the townspeople help things along by blinding unlucky drivers with powerful lights. Some motorists survive the wrecks. Some, horribly injured and with brain damage, end their days in the local hospitals as “veggies” while others are adopted into the community. One such motorist is Arthur. He is adopted by the mayor, but he soon discovers that the unconventional economy of Paris has created a dangerously unstable atmosphere in the town. The young people of Paris have created a kind of car cult, and their weirdly customised rebuilt wrecks are the terror of the town. Tensions are rising, and it is only a matter of time before the clash between the generations turns nasty.
I saw this movie years ago. I decided to have another look at it after reading an article on Australian gothic cinema and car cult movies (The Cult Film, Roger Corman and The Cars That Ate Paris by Jonathan Rayner, in Unruly Pleasures, edited by edited by Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper). This is a truly bizarre little film. Although it was clearly a major inspiration for the later and better known Australian Mad Max movies it has quite a different feel to it. It’s a odd hybrid, a blending of an American B-movie (with both Roger Corman and Russ Meyer appearing to be influences) with a European art film sensibility, and very large dashes of both the surreal and the absurd. It combines all these elements with some fairly biting social and political satire. Weir’s strong visual sense is very evident, the movies looks good, and the acting is good (especially John Meillon as the mayor). Weir was such an original and disturbing director earlier in his career, although there are few signs of this in his later Hollywood work. The Cars That Ate Paris has very little in the way of plot, but it’s a strangely entertaining movie and it’s worth checking out.