Monday, November 17, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #2: The Last Wave

Okay, after a brief trip down Seagalogy lane it’s time to get back to Australian horror. In my last entry I talked a little bit about director Peter Weir who is arguably the grand daddy of Australian horror directors. While I think Picnic At Hanging Rock is his masterpiece, his follow-up film The Last Wave (1977) is nothing to sneeze at. The film stars Richard Chamberlin (Shogun, the Allan Quartermain films) as a Sydney lawyer tapped to work pro bono on a murder case involving a group of five aborigines. The crazy part is that the cause of death appears to be drowning, although there was nothing more than a tiny puddle at the scene. To make matters more difficult, the group won’t be forthright with Chamberlin so he’s forced to go against the current (let the water puns flow). As he continues to work on uncovering the mystery of the case, he begins to have apocalyptic visions involving water. His transformative journey will take him from the rainy streets of the city to its ancient underground passageways, ultimately culminating in an event that may herald the end of the world. Heavy duty stuff indeed.

One filmmaking technique I find particularly effective in horror films (and other genres for that matter) is when a film opens with an exclamation point. This usually involves some sort of cool setpiece that sets the stage for the events to come, and really gets the viewer’s attention from the word go. The Last Wave opens at a remote schoolhouse in the outback, where small children are happily playing at recess. Amidst the frolicking a massive hailstorm suddenly erupts with not a cloud in the sky. The children are quickly rushed into the rustic school building as baseball sized hail pounds down, rocking the structure to its foundation. The storm then dissipates as suddenly as it arrived, leaving a bewildered teacher and a room full of terrified children. Words don’t do justice to this scene, as it is shot in such a way that you feel you are there. The hail seems to be unleashed from some otherworldly force intent on demolishing the building and those inside. If you have a fancy stereo setup, this is probably every bit the rival of something like Earthquake . . . total Sensurround territory. It’s quite an adrenaline pumping sequence, and is completely successful at capturing your complete attention.

Now fantastic openings are all fine and good, but many a film has managed to have an awesome beginning only to fall apart along the way. Thankfully that is not the case here. Weir creates a good pace that moderates between providing story and character information, punctuated with Chamberlin’s nightmarish visions (which are the visual highlight of the film). As I mentioned in my review of Hanging Rock, Weir’s style of filmmaking leans toward the dream state and The Last Wave is no exception. If anything it’s even more pronounced in that regard than Hanging Rock. Events unfold slowly and there is much that is surreal, to the point that one questions what is real and what isn’t. In the wrong hands that can be a recipe for boredom, but not so in this case. Like other great horror films that utilize the nightmare logic of dreams (Phantasm, Inferno) The Last Wave plays with perception and narrative, creating a mood that lingers over the viewer long after the credits have rolled. As solid as its other elements are, this aspect of the film is perhaps its most memorable quality.

In terms of themes, The Last Wave explores issues relating to the intersection of modern culture and the native Australian environment and peoples. Instead if colonial era mores (i.e. Hanging Rock) this time the focus is on urban sprawl’s impact on tribal society, with the plunder of nature as a secondary theme. While Weir highlights some of the negative behaviors and attitudes of the modern contingent, I appreciate that he doesn’t fall into the trap of making them cardboard villains. In a lot of environmental “message” films it is totally cut and dry that those on the side of “progress” are the equivalent of The Simpsons character Montgomery Burns. Pure, concentrated evil. That’s all fine and good when viewing cheesy exploitation fare (e.g. Day of the Animals), but every once in a while it’s nice to see a more balanced portrayal. Here the character representing the urban contingent is the well-meaning Chamberlin. Although he’s very much a part of the society that has imposed itself on the native culture, he is sensitive to the fact that there are many sides to the story. He readily accepts the murder case that lands in his lap, and makes every effort to understand and help the accused - even going so far as to have them to his home for dinner and share family stories. With Chamberlin as our guide and emotional center we have a complex individual, rather than a blatantly disconnected caricature who sees issues with hard boundaries. This is critical to involving the viewer in the story on a deeper level, and is a big factor in distinguishing The Last Wave from its fellow 70’s environmental horror brethren.

Okay, so what about the horror. Not to fear (ha!) because there’s plenty of that to be had. Just like Hanging Rock this is one of those films that get under your skin. I wouldn’t say it has any over-the-top cold chill moments as when the girls disappear in Hanging Rock, but rather it has a creepy buildup to a truly unsettling finale. It’s one of those movies that really need to be seen late at night when you’re a little tired to have the full effect. Hovering in and out of a sleepy state is perfect to tap into the dream that is this film. As far as proclaiming this an artsy film a al Hanging Rock, The Last Wave doesn’t have any period costumes so you’re probably out of luck in trying a bait-and-switch on your Masterpiece Theatre watching friends. Even so I think they’ll probably like this one. It has a distinguished world director in the form of Weir, and a star in Chamberlin that has fairly broad appeal.

One other thing I’ve found interesting in reading up on The Last Wave is that quite a few people have claimed it to be Lovecraftian. I’ve seen my share of filmic Lovecraft adaptations and tributes, and honestly I think this claim is stretching it just a bit. The film does make reference to an ancient power, and certainly Chamberlin’s character fits the mold of the hapless, accidental hero common in Lovecraft tales, but the connection is subtle at best. Truth is I wish I could count this one as a Lovecraft film because it’s such a great piece of filmmaking, whereas most straight Lovecraft adaptations are pretty awful. That said, I’d love to hear anyone who has seen The Last Wave throw in on that issue and make the case that this is a true Lovecraft tribute.

In summary , if you have a phobia of water this movie probably isn’t for you, but otherwise any fan of world horror cinema would do well to check it out. It’s a great capper to Weir’s horror run in Australia, and is probably the best thing you will ever see Richard Chamberlin in (I’ve always thought his movies were pretty weak, although I did dig his cowardly character in The Towering Inferno). And if you are into the tenuous Lovecraft connection that’s great too : ) For my next installment on Australian horror I will be tackling Long Weekend, which is sort of the Citizen Kane of 70’s when animals attack films!


Joe said...

Jim -

Gotta love Peter Weir. I agree that Picnic and the Last Wave are two of the most atmospheric films ever made.... but mostly I'm commenting on your blog because I just ran across the following announcement in an entertainment industry trade:

A&E Network began production on a new reality series "Steven Seagal: Lawman" based on the action movie star's nearly twenty year on/off stint as a New Orleans crime fighter. The series will follow Seagal as he works as a fully-commissioned deputy with the Jefferson Parish County Sheriff's Office. A&E will roll out the new show late next year.

Thought you might appreciate this....

Jim Blanton said...

This may be the most exciting news of the new year (and a wonderful early holiday gift for us Seagal fans)! I guess it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. I cannot wait to see how this goes down!! I wasn't aware of his background as a New Orleans crime fighter . . . except of course in some of his DTV features : )

On a related note, you have to check out the info on JCVD. It's an art house flick starring Jean-Claude Van Damme as himself. It looks to be an amazing project, the kind of which I would have liked to see Seagal try (although this new series sounds like a riot).

Anonymous said...

Hi, i was reading about the Last Wave online (would you believe it has never been released on DVD in its country of origin?!), and i read this line almost like it was meant just for me:

I’d love to hear anyone who has seen The Last Wave throw in on that issue and make the case that this is a true Lovecraft tribute.

I watched the Last Wave in 07 after tracking down a video copy and would have to say that Last Wave is not Lovecraftian in style, but that's an easy mistake to make. It would more correctly be called Fortean (as in the style of Charles Fort's writing).

Fort's style is of the same period's of Lovecraft's but
differs because where Lovecraft's work was an explicit attempt to create a modern day mythology that others could add to, Fort's was not created so much as culled from real life occurrances reported in the papers of his day, occurrances that did not and could not reasonably be made to fit with the knowledge of his time. Lovecraft's legacy is the Cthulu Mythos he started. Fort's legacy is found in such places as Parapsychology and UFO research groups.

this means that where Lovecraft has at heart unseen terrors, Fort deals more purely with the concept of the unknown and its mysteries. Fear of the unknown means that his ideas can be very scary, but unlike Lovecraft, do not HAVE to be horror. This parallels the way this film avoids sudden shocks of horror, but instead works on a slow, cumulative unsettling effect that is as much about the mental trauma of one's entire worldview being destroyed as about any physical danger.

Further, both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave directly use actual ideas Fort was concerned with - rains of frogs and black rain are ideas he mentioned directly (much as tentacled horrors signify Lovecraft), both of which are occurrances in The Last Wave.

I waffle though. Perhaps the tribute to the Last Wave that "gets it" best and says it much more clearly is the listing for "Fortean films" (Last Wave makes no. 3, Picnic is no. 2)

Jim Blanton said...

I had never heard of Fort (at least not that I recall), but my quick research following your comment leads me to believe your observation is right on the money.

While I do like Lovecraftian horror, there's something about this brand of horror (Fortean) that is more frightening to me (i.e. the unexplainable upending one's view of the world). After all, fighting monsters usually calls for a physical type of defense, but how does one battle mysteries such as those presented in Last Wave and Hanging Rock?

C.V. said...

Sorry to all who claims so, but absolutely NO Lovecraftian anything there.

The author's vision is far away from being Lovecraftian. The aboriginals aren't depicted neither as "degenerated" or "crazy". They are noble, powerful, and Civilization has done nothing to them but poor and needed.

A Lovecraftian vision would have depicted them as psycho, dirty, subhuman cannibals wich Civilization "saved" from their repulsive original state, if something.

This movie doesn't support civilization, indeed it's mostly on the side of the primitives point of view.

The protagonist isn't studying the aboriginals for knowledge ambitions, or anything Lovecraftian either. He is indeed trying to help them. Not a racist character.

And overall, the "powers" that lie "beneath" the surface are purely NATURAL, earthly forces, wich even though supernatural, DOESN'T COME from outher space not even from another dimension. No monsters, no aliens, NO "OUTSIDE" GODS either, only the wind, the water, the sky.

Nothing is pretending to "enter" in our world from another... Cause these forces are simply from our planet. Always was. It's the Planet Earth the only God (¿Goddes?) if such a thing exist on that movie.

And those powers are dangerous and deadly, but they are NEVER described as "evil" or "sadistic", as all the Lovecraftian monsters are.

Overall, the movie if something, is "shamanistic". As the literature of Carlos Castaneda and so. Lovecraft literature was indeed VERY "shamanistic", but twisted and brilliantly manipulated by the author's own personal world.

So, you might say Lovecraft used the themes of "shamanistic" tales, but not every "shamanistic" tale is Lovecraftian.

So, with all my respects to the people who claim otherwise, "THE LAST WAVE" is NOT Lovecraftian AT ALL.

Jim Blanton said...

I have to agree wholeheartedly with you C.V. The Last Wave might qualify as an interesting movie to recommend as a gateway artsy film to fans of more visceral horror, but one definitely shouldn't sell it hard to Lovecraft fans as Lovecraftian (else they should prepare for some surefire negative feedback).