Thursday, December 4, 2008

Horror From the Land Down Under #3: Long Weekend

With Thanksgiving past we’re just a few short days away from the BIG holiday show featuring the beloved Can’t Stop the Music and the soon to be beloved Xanadu. With bad musicals on the brain I must confess it’s a bit difficult to ponder Australian horror, but I will bravely soldier on. For this installment, I’ve decided to focus on what is for my money the best entry in the 1970’s “when animals attack” film sweepstakes. Throughout the 70’s, largely as a result of the mega success of Jaws and real world environmental worries, studios sought to capitalize by churning out numerous variations of this theme. Stateside I have a soft spot for the William Girdler epics Grizzly and Day of the Animals, which are two of the most over-the-top films of the genre. In one you have a maniacal grizzly being shot point blank with a rocket launcher, and in the other you have a maniacal Leslie Nielsen engaging in a wrestling match with a maniacal grizzly (strange symmetry there). But these films I primarily love for the high cheese content. Hopping over to the land down under, they got in on the action as well but in a decidedly more solid artistic endeavor known as Long Weekend. This one dispenses with the cheese and plays it serious and creepy, a rare feat for this type of movie.

The plot of Lost Weekend involves a bickering couple who travel to the remote Australian wilderness for a weekend of camping. Things are clearly not going well in the beginning when the husband Peter (John Hargreaves) arrives home and pulls a hunting rifle out of his trunk and aims it at his unsuspecting wife Marcia (Briony Behets). Now granted she’s apparently been giving him a hard time about the camping trip (she would have preferred a posh getaway with all the luxuries), but this sort of attitude on his part is beyond the pale. Despite their differences they still pile in their Range Rover along with the family dog, and head for the country. While driving late into the night, Peter accidentally runs over a kangaroo and this is where things begin to get strange. Once they reach the forest Peter seems unable to get them to the designated spot where they plan to set up camp, even though he clearly is following the beaten path. It’s almost as if the forest is leading them into another dimension. Frustrated, they decide to sleep in the Range Rover for the night, and upon waking discover they are at their campsite. How they ended up there is a mystery, but they’re so relieved to have made it that they abandon any concerns over that particular issue.

As they set up camp and make an attempt at enjoying the trip, the two show a complete disregard for Mother Nature. They start fires, cut down trees, shoot at animals, destroy eagle eggs, etc. Now this probably sounds a little exaggerated, but the way it goes down is very believable. Basically Peter and Marcia are just completely careless and seem to think that the great outdoors is their playground. Of course this sets the stage for a little revenge action on the part of the environment, and here’s where this film stands out from the pack. Instead of being stalked by a grizzly, attacked by wildcats, or bitten by sharks, subtly disturbing events start taking place. Peter shoots at an eerie looking shape in the ocean, unsettling cries are heard on the wind, animals start taking menacing postures around the camp, bad weather sets in, and general hysteria ensues. Both characters begin to come unhinged, and the tensions already present in their relationship ultimately explode in a climax laden with outright panic and desperation. Much like the Weir films I’ve previously discussed, the sum of these parts adds up to a very atmospheric and disturbing mood.

A significant part of the success of the approach taken in Long Weekend is that it takes its time in building toward the climax, rather than constantly hammering the viewer with outrageous attacks. Events keep building on each other, until you feel the panic that the characters do. In fact, by the end of the film one actually has a little sympathy for Peter and Marcia, which is a minor miracle considering how unlikeable they are. Some have criticized that the characters are so unsympathetic that it brings the film down. I would have to disagree with that point. These are real people with flaws, and folks like this do exist in the world. To draw a parallel with a vaguely similar film think of the characters in The Blair Witch Project. They are not particularly likeable, and there is certainly no “hero” in the group. We relate to them because of the desperation they experience, and sympathize with them during the darkest hours. The same holds true for Long Weekend. The characters keep going further and further down the rabbit hole, and you just know things are not going to turn out well. The result is that the goings-on have a get under your skin quality usually absent in the other films of this genre that go for a more visceral approach.

So, if you’re looking to find the Citizen Kane of animals gone wild films look no further. Long Weekend shows that a great film can be made within the genre confines that balances genuine creepiness and an environmental message. In an era where environmental concerns are prevalent and very much in the social consciousness this film may not seem so revolutionary, but back in the day I’m sure it packed a bit of a punch on that front. Messages aside though, if the mysterious aquatic creature and inhuman wailing in Dolby 5.1 surround don’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck nothing will. As a bit of trivia I looked up director Colin Eggleston to see what else he had done. I figured he must have some other cool titles to his credit given how cool this movie was. Sadly the only notable film I saw in his filmography was the horrendous 1986 Indiana Jones knock off Sky Pirates (it’s every bit as bad as it sounds). Oh well. Be sure to look for my next entry on the surprisingly good recent outback horror fest Rogue, detailing the exploits of a killer croc!

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