I’m constantly amazed at how many really good films exist, even in a relatively narrow genre like horror, that I’m completely unaware of. A few months ago I stumbled across a description of Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, bought it, and last night finally sat down to watch it.
The story, set in 1900 at the end of the Victorian era, concerns an outing to the ominous, looming Hanging Rock by a number of students and teachers from Appleyard College, an exclusively women’s institution. While there, four students go exploring the labyrinthine mountain, followed soon after by one of their teachers, and only one returns, in hysterics. (This isn’t a spoiler, as a text introduction describes the disappearances at the very beginning of the film.) The teacher and the three students have disappeared without a trace, and most of them will never be heard from again.
The director does a masterful job of keeping a continuous, low level of tension throughout the film, leaving the viewer unsettled for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. The scenery and the filming are breathtaking. Hanging Rock itself is one of the main characters in the film, and shots of its irregular, craggy surfaces more often than not suggest faces looking or leering down on the people below.
What has happened to the missing girls? Hints, both subtle and unsubtle, are drizzled upon the viewer as the story progresses. Were they victims of a natural or supernatural threat? Were they victims at all? The film ends having given us more questions than answers.
Repressed, and suppressed, sexuality is one of the main themes explored by the film. The outing takes place on Valentine’s Day, and the girls give worship to Saint Valentine before the trip. Victorian era sensibilities not only hinder our understanding of what has occurred, but may have even been part of the cause.
The movie is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay written in 1967, which I now plan on reading. There is also, interestingly enough, a ‘secret’ chapter to the book which was removed from the text prior to publication, and only released to the public in the 1980s. This secret chapter evidently details the actual fate of the missing women.
All in all, I found Picnic at Hanging Rock an exemplary example of subtle, unsettling horror. We are most disturbed by what we don’t see and cannot understand, and the film gives us plenty of both.
Update: I completely forgot to mention that there are similarities between this story and a Ramsey Campbell story, The Man in the Underpass, which is collected in Alone With the Horrors. That particular story concerns a strange mural in a freeway underpass, and the terror it creates in a number of young children. Similar themes to Picnic at Hanging Rock are dealt with, albeit much more explicitly.