The thing about a title like “The Cars That Ate Paris” (1974) is that you will come with a ridiculous set of expectations that cannot be met; we have been spoiled by films like “Sharknado”, as you know exactly what you are getting. Unfortunately, this is not a film about giant mutant cars eating the City of Light, nor is it about aliens who look like cars eating the Eiffel Tower. Peter Weir’s first feature film (you may know him from directing “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)) , “The Cars That Ate Paris” is about life in a quirky rural Australian town, and while not precisely what the title suggests, is an entertaining film that is worth the effort of tracking down.
“The Cars That Ate Paris” is about the residents of a small, rural town of Paris, Australia which causes auto accidents in order to salvage and sell the scrap and luggage of the passengers as a means of economy. Any surviving car passengers are taken to the hospital and given lobotomies with medicinal power drills (literally: a drill with a red cross painted on it), and live in the towns’ hospital under the care of Doctor Midland (Kevin Miles) as “veggies” for his experiments. The younger men in the town, after the cars have been stripped, then salvage and rebuild the cars into crazy demolition derby style vehicles in which they terrify and harass the town for fun.
The film focuses primarily on the soft-spoken Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) whose car and caravan (camping trailer) crashes outside of Paris, killing his brother George (Rick Scully) as the two of them are searching for work. Arthur wakes up in hospital miraculously unharmed, and for some reason (he seems nice?), Mayor Kelly (John Meillon) decides that the town is going to keep Arthur around and bring him into the fold. When Arthur discovers the way the town operates, he tries to leave, but is unable to overcome his fear of driving, and is chased back into town by the youth in their crazy cars as he tries to walk out. The hooligans then wreck the mayors’ fence, get their retribution at the hands of the mayor and his cronies, and then decide to vehicular-ly attack the town on the night of the fancy Pioneers’ Ball, and in a way, eat Paris.
Again, this is clearly a first feature film: the pace is uneven and there are a few sections in the plot where you will be confused as it seemed like something else was happening. The hooligan gang, for example, just sort of appears in an odd way, as if it was always there, and then their conflict with the town suddenly becomes the climax of the film. Arthur is an interesting character, and there was a lot of opportunity to show him either becoming a part of the town, or rejecting it, or something, but he remains something of a weakling who is moved through the film, which makes him as a main character harder to relate to, if not less interesting. The start of the film has not aged particularly well, as it relies on a sort of spoof of the Australian cinema practice of running advertisements directly before a film, and is thus shot to look like a commercial for Coca-Cola and Alpine Cigarettes in order to fool the audience into thinking they were seeing another ad. Weir is using their misconception to provide a strong, shock beginning to this film, which is ultimately lost on audiences now (especially when watching the film on DVD or television).
There is also, for the record, a re-cut (read: shorter) U.S. version of the film called “The Cars That Eat People”, which I cannot speak toward, as it is the original Australian cut of the film which I have seen. It is, however, generally a good rule of thumb to try and see the original of any film (as the director intended) or a directors’ cut, and in this case it is probably the best way to do it as if anything were to be cut out, it would most likely be the scenes that give “The Cars That Ate Paris” its humor and charm.
All small quibbles aside, “The Cars That Ate Paris” is a first feature film worth tracking down as at the end of the day, it is an enjoyable and quirky look into an at once ridiculous, and yet mundane rural township with some odd elements of comedy, horror and mystery all mashed together in a dusty, car-filled package.