I don’t want to undermine their efforts or talents, but you won’t very easily get me to watch an independent Australian drama. It is not because they are untalented or unremarkable or just plain bad, it is just the sensibilities of a lot of independent Australian filmmakers call for a lack of limit or boundaries of what they can do with film, with violence and grotesquerie being commonplace, because why not? Then you have an independent Australian drama based on a legendary mystery novel that combined children, disapperance and the supernatural, and add to that it is a film by Peter Weir, a man so disturbingly great as a filmmaker, and you have Picnic at Hanging Rock, which as of now is the creepiest film I have ever seen in my life.
What is so scary about four schoolgirls and a teacher venturing up onto a mountain one day and disappearing? Surely real horror movies with ghosts and zombies are scarier? I stand by my notion that the success to a great horror film is not what you can see – it is what you know is there, but you can’t see. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, but it can scare the hell out of you. What makes the novel and film so intensely creepy is that they could have easily revealed the cause of the disappearance, thus resolving it and allowing to viewer to gain closure. But no, they’re too smart for that – they don’t tell you or even imply the cause of the event, leaving it up to us to wonder what had happened, and I think that Weir has felt some sadistic pleasure in knowing that we will never find out what exactly happened (I’m disregarding the lost chapter of the book because that was simply non-canon).
But let’s discuss this as a film instead of a story and conspiracy, because then we’ll be here all night. This was a 30-year-old Peter Weir, with limited funding and a story not many people would be interested in – so there will definitely be problems. First of all, some of the acting was exceptionally hammy and overdone, with specific reference to Christine Schuler and Dominic Guard, who were so laughably bad at times that it threatened to bring the film crashing down. But what it lacked in acting ability, it made up for in directorial brilliance – Weir makes us feel the hot, dry atmosphere of the Outback, the seductive terror of Hanging Rock and the tension of what lurks just out of focus. From the smallest flourishes to the largest sweeps, Weir squeezes out all the potential for greatness and uses it to his advantage. Where actual dialouge and acting fails to bring the narrative to life, the visual and directorial achievement tells the story brilliantly.
I would be lying if I said I could sleep after I saw this film – and that’s strange, because horror films struggle to scare me, yet this film, which isn’t even a horror but instead an atmospheric drama, scared the living daylights out of me. I am going to disregard the poor acting and instead award this film a high rating because of Weir’s brilliance as a director, and for the fact that this film is so damn terrifying.