by Briony Kidd
I’ve always been interested in ghost stories and the macabre, but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to identify as a horror fan. If you’d asked me earlier, at film school, I would have said I was into directors such as Jane Campion, Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch. Big genre names like Carpenter, Craven and Hooper were barely a blip on my cinematic radar. It surprises me now to recall that I didn’t attempt anything in horror back then (although in retrospect, my pretentious first-year film, about a woman who has a nightmare about a wolf, was hinting in that direction).
I wonder how much that stems from a subconscious understanding that horror was a masculine form of expression. Certainly, I was seemingly incapable of recognising that Jane Campion’s The Piano, a film that I admired greatly, could be traced directly back to the Gothic tradition from which so much of the genre is descended.
Perhaps for the same reason, I’d never thought of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its girls in pretty dresses and largely feminine perspective, as a horror film. It was, however, a film I knew had deeply affected me.
I would’ve been about eight when I first saw it and I remember debriefing about it with my sisters and cousins, with that gossipy blend of fear and prurience that might have marked playground discussions about Freddy Krueger’s latest antics. We wondered, Joan Lindsay’s ploy having worked, if it had really happened, and the wondering made it all the more seductive.
I still recall the feeling it evoked in me, and shadows of that initial effect linger when I watch the film today. It’s something visceral, as much a product of the juxtaposition of music and moments of awkward emotion— a scream, a look or a physical gesture— as to do with the story itself (although something similar is achieved through dialogue, with phrases like ‘red cloud’ and ‘in her drawers’ creating an image in the mind’s eye).
The overall effect is difficult to define but I’ll give it a go. It’s a film that evokes a sense of mystery and dread but also a compelling spiritualism. This is most obviously embodied in the subplot incident of Albert being visited by his sister Sara in a dream, his bedroom ‘bright as day’ and smelling of pansies. Why include this hint of a ghost story, or astral projection? It’s off-topic. Sara’s death has nothing to do with the rock directly. I think it’s important because it reinforces the idea of spiritual connections—between people and between people and places—that are beyond life and death. The film suggests connections to Aboriginal mythology in its depiction of the rock as a place of immense power. It explores the White Australian experience of existing on an ancient land while having limited understanding of it, and the potential for that to be both marvellous and terrifying.
And yet, the Aboriginal tracker who appears in one scene barely registers, showing no more likelihood of knowing what the hell is going on than any other man in the search party. This detail, insignificant as it seems, hints that the colonial experience depicted is only a wrapping for the deeper intent of the story, being an exploration of female sexuality and identity.
Is Picnic at Hanging Rock then an example of what is some are these days calling ‘female response horror’?
Okay, the film’s director and screenwriter are both male, but the story’s originator (Joan Lindsay) is not. There’s a tradition of female authors using horror to express their most intimate fears, going back to Mary Shelley and later embodied by the likes of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Is Joan Lindsay (and Weir, continuing what she started) part of that continuum?
I’d be interested to know if there’s been much written about either the book or film from a feminist perspective, and there’s still a lot I don’t know about it all—what Joan Lindsay’s life was like, what drew Weir to the material. But for the moment, I’m more interested in where it sits within the frame of genre.
The film is a whirlpool of emotions both primal and complex. It explores sexuality, repression, love, romance, guilt, shame and obsession, using the setting of a girls’ school in 1900 as a sort of laboratory for psychological observation. In this sense it’s a horror as you might so describe Persona — that of the human psyche stripped bare.
And yet, with its ‘true story’ conceit, slowly building to a horrifying reveal (at the midpoint rather than at the end) and heavy reliance on music, it’s also a horror film in the more literal sense, and we can see how films like Wolf Creek and Lake Mungo have carried on in its ‘metaphysical Australian Gothic’ footsteps.
On still another level, it establishes a sense of its own mythology (as was Lindsay’s intention), so that we feel it’s part of a larger truth. It cleverly evokes a nostalgia that lets us view the story through a lens of memory, so that we almost feel that it’s something we ourselves have experienced and now recall, ‘a dream within a dream’.
All these elements add up to one of the most accomplished examples of psychological horror you’re ever likely to see.
It’s particularly impressive that the lack of ‘answers’ to the mystery depicted doesn’t at all diminish the film’s effect. The Blair Witch Project, another successful horror film in the Picnic tradition, shows that that’s a strategy that still works. Audiences don’t feel cheated if there’s enough else to think about; they feel exhilarated.
But Picnic at Hanging Rock has long since attained the status of a worthy cultural landmark, a shining beacon of the golden age of Australian cinema. Partly for this reason, the image many people have of it is as a period piece with girls floating around in white dresses, all old-fashioned and chocolate-boxy, and basically irrelevant.
I contend that actually watching the film, as opposed to catching glimpses of Miranda’s retreating back in jingoistic montages or in government funding body brochures, puts pay to that view.
What I most love about the film is its stylistic boldness. It’s not a timid film, and it’s not particularly tasteful.
‘Tastefulness’ I define as that constraint which holds artists back, having a sense of what is required, the right gesture at the right time; a sense of nuance and maturity and delicacy. I don’t believe in it, hence my attraction to horror.
Interestingly enough, the psychological horror film, of all horror subgenres, is the one that is supposedly subtle. It’s also the genre that I’m most particularly drawn to. At this point I may be in danger of falling into a rhetorical wormhole of some kind but bear with me.
I think Picnic at Hanging Rock proves that psychological horror has no greater obligation to subtlety than any other kind of horror. It involves less blood and gore—but its ideas, and the impact of them, must be just as shocking. This can’t be achieved without taking artistic risks, and lots of them.
Consider the almost ham-fisted cutting back and forward between a shot of a white swan and a shot of Miranda. That’s symbolism of course, an ‘art-house’ technique. But consider: Michael is cracking up. He’s obsessed with Miranda, he’s fractured by his experience on the rock. He’s having flashes of remembering a girl he only ever saw once in his life and he thinks she’s like a swan. He doesn’t just think once that she’s like a swan, he’s bloody obsessed with it.
What some would call profound I say is verging on cheesy… but I like it. It’s the sort of thing that works in a horror film to show that a character is losing their mind. You can’t be in any doubt about such things you can’t afford to wonder, “Well, is this character happy or sad or what?” You must know what they’re thinking, and if they happen to be thinking something weird and nutty, Well, you know what? I’m just going to show it (so thought Mr Weir).
Neither does the film hold back camera-wise, with its dreamy soft focus, its use of slow motion and and randomly inserted close-ups of wildlife. The cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful, channeling Frederick McCubbin one minute and Monet the next, but doesn’t turn its nose up at a zoom when the mood strikes, and why not?
Musically it’s similarly unrestrained, with its potent blend of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Georg Zamfir’s panpipes, and original score by Bruce Smeaton—most memorably a fugue-like piano piece resplendent with Mellotron ‘choir,’ highlighting the ascent. It’s a glorious mash-up, and it’s intense.
The music drives the story, as with any successful horror film, and it drives the story into places neither the viewer nor characters themselves understand at all. The score knows things we don’t know; things that we probably shouldn’t want to know about, but that compel and fascinate us.
And what about that hysterical scream, accompanied by a zoom, when ‘the little dumpy one’ realises that her friends Miranda, Irma and Marion are going to keep walking up and up to the top of the rock and they’re not going to turn back, no matter how much she whines or pleads? Like zombies in reverse, the girls leave Edith relentlessly, embracing their deaths (their ‘doom’) with inhuman resolve.
That’s the moment when the film fully reveals itself, and it’s as thrilling as anything in Night of the Living Dead.
Like all great filmmakers, Weir understands the potency of the human face on screen. He calls it “the great invention of cinema, greater than sound or colour, 3D or CGI.”
I would extrapolate from this to say that fear evoked merely through violence or gore will never match the shock of a character’s realisation (and ours, through them) that everything they thought they knew has been overturned.
Nothing matches our horror at seeing reflected back at us what we innately know; that we will never truly understand.
[Images kindly sourced with permission from the National Film & Sound Archive]
About Briony Kidd: Growing up in Tasmania, and graduating from the VCA Film School in Melbourne, her most recent film, The Room at the Top of the Stairs, is a Gothic melodrama, described by Fangoria as “a haunting, poetic tale [that] absolutely sticks in your bones.” It has screened in numerous film festivals around the world, including as a semi-finalist at Moondance and the Canberra Short Film Festival and an Honourable Mention in the Best Director category at the Vancouver Viscera Film Festival. In 2012, with Rebecca Thomson, Briony founded the Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival in Hobart. Briony has several feature film projects in development as a writer/director, including a psychological ghost story called Salt of the Earth and a ‘giallo’ style horror film.
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