Peter Weir’s directorial debut The Cars That Ate Paris, like a few other movies from the early career of the Australian filmmaker, tends to defy most attempts at classification and at fitting it comfortably into one genre or another. Most slap “horror-comedy”, a broad and unsatisfying label, onto films like this. While it’s certainly funny and creepily disquieting by turns, shoehorning The Cars That Ate Paris into a genre just so we may talk about it as “this kind of film” or “that kind of film” quickly becomes a useless exercise.
Set in the fictional hamlet of Paris in rural Australia, the film follows young Arthur after his brother George dies in a car accident just outside the town. The Parisians welcome Arthur and console him, but it soon becomes evident that Paris is no ordinary town. Arthur himself hardly seems to notice any questionable behavior apart from a few odd comings and goings – but we become aware very soon that the town of Paris thrives on car accidents from the dangerous outskirts roads, and that the townsfolk engineer accidents for their own benefit.
Silly set-up, no? What characterizes the tone of The Cars That Ate Paris is just that: a silly, comedic set-up that suddenly takes a darker turn, a bubbly Sunday drive turning instantly into a fiery wreck. While calling the entire thing a “horror-comedy” is too easy, it can be said that the tone of the film hinges on those two genres without ever slipping over into either for too long. The pivoting itself can provide comedy or shock, and Weir and Co. bring us back and forth over the course of the film more times than I care to count. The effect turns the film into a kind of tonal collage that’s tough to pin down at any one point in time.
Aesthetically, too, we have a collage of influence. Mad Max wouldn’t come around until 1979 with the Road Warrior sequel following in 1981, but the iron-and-leather getups and the post-apocalyptic landscape of portions of The Cars That Ate Paris are too similar to not have impacted those films. As a sort of bonus link, the importance of the cars themselves are portrayed similarly. In Mad Max cars are a valuable commodity, as they give power to the owner in an otherwise desolate world. In The Cars That Ate Paris, wrecked cars are torn apart and the parts divvied up amongst the villagers as if each piece held a bit of the power of the whole. People collect hoods and doors and exhaust pipes and make pins and mobiles out of hood ornaments. This is never really explained explicitly, but the feeling that the cars have some kind of weird power is definitely there.
A postscript Mad Max bonus comes via actor Bruce Spence, a major character in The Road Warrior that crops up here as the village idiot. Relatedly, another possible film influenced by Weir’s debut could be Death Race 2000 from 1975, which holds obvious similarities to the plot of this film.
The earlier films that influenced Weir himself are also apparent. A beautiful moment comes when Arthur is appointed Parking Official (“so that we may make Paris a beautiful place for people to park”) and is confronted by a string of hoodlums in cowboy hats in the middle of the street. A harmonica begins to play, immediately recognizable as a thinly-veiled cover of Ennio Morricone’s immortal score from Once Upon a Time in the West, and the score continues along this route for the entirety of the scene. The parallel is thus drawn to one of the greatest standoff scenes in film history, except that here Arthur isn’t seeking vengeance and retribution for the death of his brother. He’s just trying to get people to park conscientiously.
The Cars That Ate Paris is a weird little movie that didn’t even perform well enough to receive an American release until 1976. Cult drive-in status followed, but nowadays it’s probably the storied career of Peter Weir that brings people back to his first feature. Either that or people just Google “horror-comedy” and sift through the findings until they decide on this one.