Saturday, October 25, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #1: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Okay, I’m finally getting back to a bit of a regular schedule following the Monster Fest whirlwind, and finally plunging into the Australian horror series I promised several weeks ago. Why focus on Australian horror you may ask? A couple of reasons. First and foremost, there are several great horror films that have come from the land down under of which many folks aren’t aware. This point was driven home to me all the more when I mentioned a few titles during a discussion at Monster Fest and received blank stares. The second reason is that like other international horror Australian genre cinema has a wonderfully distinct feel. In particular, the films tend to have some connection with the conflict between man and nature given the country’s geography and indigenous culture. While there are several places one could start, probably the best is to talk about a fairly well-known quantity in the form of director Peter Weir. Weir is pretty famous here in the U.S. for his Hollywood output including such titles as Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander among others. However, before making his way here he cut his teeth primarily in the horror genre in his native land with four terrific films: The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and The Plumber. I’m only going to discuss the middle two, but you really should check out the others if you get a chance. First up today is the creepy classic Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is loosely based on an actual event that happened in Australia circa 1900. The film takes place at a stuffy girls’ boarding school, which appears quite out of place given its location in the natural setting it is surrounded by. Basically it’s a setup highlighting the folly of the British attempting to impose themselves on a culture and environment that they do not fully understand. This point is made tragically clear when the film’s central event, a Valentine’s Day picnic, goes horribly awry. After a brief introduction establishing the characters and setting, the girls are led on the outing to a volcanic rock outcropping known as Hanging Rock (which is a threatening character in itself). Really, a hiker decked out in L. L. Bean’s finest would find trekking through the area shown in the film a daunting task, much less a group of elaborately dressed society ladies. As they travel along the jagged terrain the absurdity of staging a picnic in such a setting is made abundantly clear. It’s a classic example of man (or woman) treating nature as though it was his living room, and ignoring the visible danger all around. Unlike the weekend warriors of Deliverance and its ilk however, the characters of Hanging Rock don’t evidence the tiniest inclination that they are testing Mother Nature.

The trouble fully begins when four of the more rambunctious students decide to venture off and explore the nooks and crannies of the rock, ending up in a clearing far from the main group. Watching the girls travel further and further into the belly of the rock is nothing short of unsettling, as we know deep down that they are going way farther than is safe. What happens from there is a Blair Witch level incident. Three of the girls disappear after a dream-like sequence, with the lone “survivor” returning screaming and delirious. Search parties are organized, turning up another catatonic girl (evidencing strange markings) who cannot remember what took place, while the rest of the party is never found. Several other tragic and mysterious events follow in the wake of what essentially becomes an Outback X-File.

While there are some familiar horror conventions in this film (e.g. don’t mess with Mother Nature, don’t split up the group, etc.), Picnic at Hanging Rock is to this day something entirely unique. It’s one of those rare horror movies that really get under your skin and stay there. There are no monsters, ghosts, gore, etc., just the ominous mood set by the environment. It’s what I like to call a non-horror horror film. It’s certainly supernatural, and there is a body count of sorts, but it veers into artsy territory in which fare like Rats: A Night of Terror or Nightmare City (to name two wildly unrelated examples) never venture. Truly you could pair this up with something like Remains of the Day and not even feel guilty when springing it on a Masterpiece Theatre fan. Now in case alarm bells are ringing in your head that this is a boring period piece, that’s where I will caution you not to pass hasty judgment. This is the magic of Picnic at Hanging Rock. It manages to be an artistically high-brow outing, yet nevertheless totally satisfies the requirements of a great horror film (a somewhat rare feat in my opinion). Not that I’m saying that classic horror films (e.g. Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, etc.) don’t qualify as artistically satisfying – not in the least. It’s just that (unfortunately) the genre isn’t always given the credit it deserves and is therefore not typically classified as intellectual fare (which of course I completely disagree with). Hanging Rock manages to live comfortably in both worlds and is therefore part of a rare breed.

I’m as jaded a horror fan as anyone having seen so many films over the years, but this one never fails to creep me out. I challenge you to sit through the disappearance sequence in a dark room at 2:00 in the morning and not get cold chills. That’s not to say it won’t do the same on a sunny day at noon, but the effect is pretty much unavoidable in the first setting. In this regard, Hanging Rock is a film that is representative of the films I find truly “scary.” While I’m sure you could probably delineate classes of horror much more finely than I am about to, for me there are basically three main types of fright:

1 – Startling fright (e.g. when people are searching a dark house and a cat jumps out with the musical score providing punctuation);

2 – Unsettling fright (e.g. Silence of the Lambs/Lucio Fulci/Hostel/turn your stomach type horror);

3 – Bone-chilling horror fright (e.g. Blair Witch, Hanging Rock, The Exorcist, etc.).

While I can certainly appreciate each category, the final one is where my favorite horror films reside. This is because the bone-chilling variety is what I think qualifies as truly “scary.” The others tend to be roller-coaster thrill rides of a sort which, nothing wrong with that, just don’t stick with me in terms of the creepiness factor. Hanging Rock and its brethren are the type of films I find myself thinking about later and getting uneasy all over again. If I had to nail down why this is I’d say it’s because they often deal with the unexplained. For example, with something like Halloween you have a threat like Michael Myers which is very physical, and very real. Hence you can sort of deal with that through practical solutions (e.g. barricading yourself in a room or running away). Granted he’s endowed with otherworldly abilities, but there’s still a tangible course of action available. On the other hand, fighting the Blair Witch is a futile proposition as you can’t even see the threat, much less even discern what it really is. That makes the whole situation quite a bit more terrifying. The same is true with Hanging Rock. We never know really what happened or why, and therefore the unidentified menace is still at large and no solution is presented.

Weir does a fantastic job at creating a dreamlike atmosphere and this contributes to the feelings conjured. Some of his American films have this quality too, particularly his efforts with Harrison Ford. Hanging Rock and The Last Wave (to be discussed shortly) are the masterpieces though, and any horror fan would do well to check them out. Best of all, you can even use them as gateway films to bring the non-horror crowd into the fold. If they aren’t ready to experience The Evil Dead, they might be willing to take a chance on this one. After all, it has all the trappings of the finest British dramas. It even has a subtext concerning repression, with the girls’ disappearance serving as a metaphor for their escape from the constraints of European society. While I can appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of this proposition, the disturbing depiction of this metaphorical “escape” limits the appeal I would think. I guess Weir is of the no pain, no gain school of thought . . . still I don’t think I would opt for abduction by the Blair Witch to avoid having to deal with societal gripes! Nevertheless, the message is there for those who are interested in such things.

In summary, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a rare treat that both horror aficionados and fans of BPD’s (British Period Dramas) can agree on. A Victorian drama that morphs into a supernatural creep fest – how can one go wrong? So grab a vegemite sandwich and thrill to this 70’s Australian masterpiece if you dare!


Alice in Wonderland said...

What about some science fiction movies for the ladies, huh? Forget all the blood and gore, we’re longing to see Bruce Willis in “The Fifth Element”, Mel Gibson in “Mad Max” series , Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix”series, Kurt Russell in “Stargate” or “Soldier” and –of course-Arnold Schwarzenegger in just about anything! (We could even go further back to Charlton Heston in “The Planet of the Apes” series.) My all time favorite sci-fi movies aren’t always that scary , such as”Timeline”, “Jumper”, “The Day After Tomorrow” (Dennis Quaid!) and “Reign of Fire”. But I also enjoyed “Cloverfield” “Signs”and “Predator” which WERE scary and one that is funny – “Tremors”.

Jim Blanton said...

We definitely share the love for Tremors : ) You know, we have had a few of those guys featured. We've done Heston (The Omega Man) and Russell (Escape From New York). And hey, don't forget we have Yul Brynner and Bruce Lee this month (and who knows maybe even Kurt Thomas)!