Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975, directed by Peter Weir, screenplay by Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay.
I imagine in most video stores this is filed under "Drama," but in my book it's a horror movie. Of course, if I were running a video store, I'd put it in drama, too—I don't think most viewers would find this an adequate substitute for Saw. Still, there were parts of it that scared the shit out of me, and I'm not the easiest scare in the world. It's set in Australia in 1900, and tells the story of a group of students at an all-girls boarding school who go on a picnic to celebrate Valentine's Day... a Picnic at Hanging Rock, that is! On the trip, three of the students and one of their teachers disappear under mysterious circumstances; the movie is about their disappearance and its consequences. It's a mystery without a solution. Although Weir presents a few things that might have happened (there are other people at the rock that day, the area is known for poisonous snakes, &c.), in the end, they seem to have been swallowed up by the rock itself.
I'm not sure if it's really fear that the movie produces; there aren't any monsters (except, perhaps, for the headmistress of the school, played by Rachel Roberts), and there aren't any big shock scenes. It borrows from the grammar of horror movies a bit; there are some unexplained tracking shots and other places where the camera suggests that you're seeing things from someone's perspective, but doesn't tell you whose. On the whole, however, this is a very different kind of horror film. I think the conventional emotional arc of a horror movie is to build tension higher and higher until it breaks; you have these moments of revelation (it's Jason's mom! Samarra is evil! Norman's mother is dead!) where all the clues that have been floating around coalesce. Peter Weir managed here to make a movie where that release is missing; there are moments that feel like those archetypical scenes, but they don't reveal anything to the audience. The classic example would be the actual disappearance scene, which is hard to watch more than once. You know that you're witnessing something bad, or at least unsettling, and it's unbearably intense. But you don't know exactly what it is you're seeing, and you don't find out later, either. The most the movie offers you in terms of an answer are some phrases that are repeated; the sorts of things that seem innocent when you first hear them and then take on, if not a darker meaning, a stranger one. Two examples:
- Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.
- A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.
Those two sentences do about as good a job at capturing the tone of the movie as I'm going to be able to. There's not much else I want to say about this one, cause the experience of seeing it is very unique and I think benefits from knowing as little as possible about the movie. I defy anyone to watch the last scene with the headmistress without getting really creeped out.
- The score is performed by Gheorghe Zamfir. Yes, that Zamfir: the Master of the Pan Flute. It's pretty good, though.
- The Criterion Edition of this is different from the version that showed in theaters in several ways. First, although it's the director's cut, it's shorter than the theatrical version; occasionally (very, very occasionally), directors want to see less of their film on the screen. I don't know if additional scenes were added originally against Weir's wishes, or if he just decided to trim it a bit when given the chance, years later. Second, the DVD is remastered in Dolby 5.1. Which I'm not a big fan of, in theory; I'd like to see it with the same sound it originally played with. In this case, however, I think the movie gains a lot from the remaster, especially with the liberal use of the effects channel during some of the more intense sequences. So I tentatively approve.
- Peter Weir, of course, has done well for himself in America. He seems to be the master (and commander) of the movie that everyone talks about incessantly the year it comes out, and then everyone forgets completely. The Truman Show is probably the best example of that. Still, that kind of movie makes money. He's currently attached, in theory, to Pattern Recognition, which is my favorite William Gibson novel; it's at Warner Brothers but doesn't have a greenlight. Although Studio System lists it as being in active development, it hasn't had an update to its status since April of 2004, so it may be in turnaround by now. Peter: get this movie made and do it right.