Contributor; Derby, England

Dean Francis' Road Train (aka Road Kill in the US) is terrible. Let's get that out of the way first; it's an awful, awful film, devoid of anything but the most basic instinctive scares and with a cast who simply cannot act well enough to sell the material on any level. The only parts that make it worth watching in any sense are those that suggest what sort of movie the director hoped to make and some kind of explanation as to how things went so horribly wrong.

While Francis gives every intimation he nurtures ambitions of producing something more meaningful, Road Train follows a pretty standard template; four young Australians (two couples) go for a trip across the vast expanses of the outback, meet a road train (an articulated container truck) that runs them off the highway, steal it from the driver in place of their own wrecked car, but discover a malevolent force possesses the vehicle that threatens to turn them against each other.

Clive Hopkins' script tries to flesh the plot out here and there, but never on more than a facile level; Marcus (Xavier Samuel, who's since moved on to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) feels his relationship with girlfriend Liz threatened by the knowledge she slept with virile alpha male Craig, who doesn't seem satisfied by innocent little Nina. Supposedly it's foreshadowing for the moment the road train starts to drag everyone's primal emotions to the surface, but mostly it's just there to justify a sex scene only minutes into the film and a gruesome death in the third act.

Not that a quick and dirty slice of exploitation is necessarily a bad thing, but Dean Francis can't seem to decide whether to go for that or to make Road Train something more cinematic, and his cast simply aren't up to deciding for themselves how best to deal with his indecision.

On the one hand, the film is barely more than eighty minutes long; it has its fair share of gore, some moderate nudity and a great deal of screaming. On the other hand, it features a succession of gorgeous views over the Australian desert, a grim, sweaty colour palette reminiscent of classic Ozsploitation titles and a tremendous score from Rafael May shot through with atonal screeches, chunky seventies riffing and some very well chosen songs.

But Francis doesn't seem to have a clue how to balance instant gratification with anything more textured and nuanced. He isn't a good enough director to capture any truly unforgettable visuals, merely some pretty landscape shots, and with little more than perfunctory backstory and no character development the more artistic parts seem like frustrating glimpses of another film entirely.

And he doesn't prove any better at orchestrating basic shocks - the film moves so fast it gives the group virtually no time before they're staring vacantly at the truck, haunted by visions of barking, red-eyed mutts, writhing maggots and cranked up scarlet cloudscapes. A more experienced cast could possibly have sold this, perhaps as breakneck, cheekily self-aware grand guignol, but Francis' young actors haven't a prayer.

Xavier Samuel is as bland and vanilla as they come, helpless to give any life to lines like 'You didn't take the truck... the truck took you!'. Bob Morley is horrendous as Craig, pitching delirious with pain more as stoned giggling, unable to convince as a psychopath for even a single moment. Georgina Haig and Sophie Lowe as Liz and Nina vacillate wildly between hysterical shrieking when anything supposedly horrific comes along then baffling calm, sometimes only seconds afterwards.

None are entirely at fault - again, anyone would struggle to convey mounting psychological stress when Clive Hopkins' script doesn't contain a single memorable line, much less any believable human behaviour. The group slowly fragmenting comes off as petulant whining, the plot is so hell bent on impressing on the audience how scary it is it ends up anything but and without any past history beyond an errant one night stand it's impossible to genuinely care what happens to these people.

It could have worked had Francis openly acknowledged how ridiculously over the top the film becomes, particularly in the later stages - while the truck doesn't literally come to life it does everything but. It could have worked had he realised how left to their own devices his cast just derail his every attempt at subtlety, to say nothing of the running time or his own overreaching. In the end none of it works. Road Train is a disaster, and only of any interest to audiences so undemanding they want nothing more than splatter and skin, or those after the very bottom of the barrel for some unintentional hilarity.

The DVD:

Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD release of Road Train, available to buy from the 30th of August, is arguably much better than the film deserves. While still fairly bare bones, it throws in a few modest extras and presents the eye-catching cinematography rather well. The film is divided into a mere eight chapter stops, and the picture is clean, clear, and relatively sharp with decent colour balance and no obvious flaws. The basic audio track is perfectly serviceable, crisp and audible even during the frequent yelling, and the score comes across beautifully.

The biggest flaw (certainly for some) is there are apparently no subtitles. The DVD itself contains no menu options for the audio. While watching on a PC using Windows Media Player Classic the program shows a subtitle option available, it appears to be inactive.

While there are only a few extras, they prove surprisingly edifying, if maybe not in the way Dean Francis would have hoped. There are six deleted scenes, available as individual menu options or one after the other. All six are largely the same quality as the finished film, and seem to be brief character moments (inasmuch as Bob Morley scratching morning wood is a character moment), presumably cut for timing.

The most interesting piece is the Making Of. At around thirteen minutes long it seems like standard electronic press kit material, but the things Francis and his two actresses say (Samuel and Morley don't contribute) offer a fairly convincing justification of why the film fails to impress. The girls seem far too overawed by the director - 'I thought I'll just give it everything,' Georgina Haig offers, 'and then Dean can tell me if it's too much or too little' - and Francis comes across as voluble but hilariously pretentious, overinflating the material at every opportunity and never touching on the most obvious reference points mentioned in Optimum's press release (Duel, The Hitcher, Joy Ride) suggesting even his distributors know more about film than he does.

A surprising aside - for those who didn't watch the credits - is the song playing over the final scene was actually written and sung by Sophie Lowe. Obviously its impact owes a lot to Rafael May's arrangement, but it still suggests the young actress (very sweet and unassuming in the Making Of) should think about going into the music business rather than pursuing acting any further.

Road Train is a ghastly misfire, hamstrung by a director who can't rein himself in or mix high and low art to any good effect, and a cast left high and dry who simply don't know what to do with the film. One of the worst films released this year, it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying it as anything other than an unintentional comedy, but for those who simply must watch or even own the thing Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD release is actually a fairly good one, despite the absence of subtitles.

(Thanks go to Optimum Home Entertainment for facilitating this DVD review.)

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