Before he decamped to Hollywood where, after a series of well-regarded mainstream films (Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) et al) his career faltered, director Peter Weir made films that explored a strange version of his native Australia unlike anything that had been seen on screen before. Most, like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) or The Last Wave (1977), were very serious films, mixing “folk horror”, mysticism and Australia’s societal tensions into a heady brew that helped to spearhead the renaissance of Australian films in the 1970s. His first feature though, The Cars That Ate Paris (retitled The Cars That Ate People in the States, presumably to avoid any confusion), made after a series of short films, is an altogether more blackly comic affair.

The Paris of the title is neither in France nor Texas but is rather a small and remote rural town in out-of-the-way Australia where the locals eke out a living by causing passing motorists to crash, scrapping their cars and consigning any survivors to the less than tender mercies of the local hospital where they’re lobotomised and kept as “veggies” for medical experimentation. We learn much of this in a witty opening sequence in which a middle-class couple drives out of the city and into the country (always a bad idea in 70s horror films) in a clever pastiche of the sort of “come-to-Australia” tourist board films that often turned up as supporting features around the world. The next victims we see are brothers Arthur (Terry Camilleri) and George Waldo (Rick Scully) who are driven off the road in their caravan in an arranged “accident” that kills George. Arthur taken under the wing of the mayor, Len Kelly (John Meillon), who invites him into his home and family with his two young daughters have been “adopted” after surviving previous “accidents.”

Arthur finds himself unable to leave Paris, his pathological fear of driving after killing a pedestrian in an accident of his own, making escape virtually impossible, and he ends up first working at the hospital as a medical orderly and later as Paris’ new parking inspector. While all this is going on, simmering tensions between the town’s older residents and its gang of young hot-rod driving hooligans spills over at the annual Pioneers Ball when the gang (who drive that spike-encrusted VW Beetle that played a prominent role in the film’s advertising) besiege the town and in the closing minutes, the town degenerates into intergenerational warfare as the young drivers literally tear the town apart and the older townspeople respond with increasing violence of their own.

The deadpan performances from the excellent cast and Weir’s no-nonsense direction are initially disconcerting. On first viewing, it’s not entirely clear what it is that you’re watching. Weir presents the strange lifestyle of the people of Paris, salvaging luggage from their victims to sell for a living while the kids salvage the ruined cars for their own projects, as nothing particularly out of the ordinary. They’re not grotesques or monsters – they go to church on Sundays, celebrate their culture and history with real civic pride, no-one raises any questions about what they’re doing and they’re a commendably industrious bunch (the anarchic youngsters and their increasingly outlandish vehicles are the real monsters here it seems) and their parasitical preying on innocent passers-by is considered no big deal by anyone in Paris. The Cars That Ate Paris belongs to a potent strain of 1970s Australian horror films in which outsiders find themselves trapped in strange rural communities or locations with many a hidden secret waiting to be unearthed (Wake in Fright (1971), Summerfield (1977), Long Weekend (1978)). It also tips its hat to the western in a little vignette in which the puny Arthur tries to face down some of the car gang.

Taking off in the same absurdist vein as his earlier featurette Homesdale (1971), The Cars That Ate Paris doesn’t really sit comfortably in any one genre – there are dashes of science fiction (hints of some sort of mad science going on at the hospital), horror, surrealistic allegory and jet-black comedy but accurately pigeonholing it is hard work. And probably futile. It feels like the film should be spoken of in the same breath as J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash and George Miller’s Mad Max films (Bruce Spence, the gyro captain in Mad Max 2 (1981) and Jedediah in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), turns up here in an early role). Like those works, it takes a satirical sideswipe at 20th century fetishization of the car, which turned a utilitarian machine into a symbol of sex, power, freedom and wealth. Australia in particular has long had a thriving car culture and in The Cars That Ate Paris is an exaggeration of what Weir could see going on around him, the reductio ad absurdum of the impulse to soup up old cars, renovating and upgrading them, twisting them out of shape and refashioning them. The influence on the Mad Max films should be obvious (that spiky Beetle, or a close relation thereof, would cameo in Fury Road (2015)).

Weir hasn’t quite got the hang of pacing yet (his films were almost more leisurely than most but The Cars That Ate Paris sometimes gets side-tracked into odd little dead ends) but for the most part, it remains a solid beginning to the career of one of Australian cinema’s finest exports. An uncertainty about how to market the film on its original release seems to have damaged its box office potential but it’s become a cult favourite since, particularly since the 1980s when lower-budgeted Australian cinema really started taking off with the coming of home video. In a particularly odd turn that seems somehow appropriate, Weir’s script was subsequently adapted into a theatrical music by the Chamber Made Opera of Melbourne.