There’s a book out by New York Times critic Jason Zinoman, called Shock Value, that acutely tackles New Horror (1970s on) as being defined by filmmakers who worshipped Hitchcock but hated the final scene in Psycho. Too much explanation, too much analysis. These new filmmakers (Carpenter, O’Bannon, Hooper, Cronenberg, etc.) understood that Truly Devastating Terror comes from only the most unknowable, motiveless monsters. Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock is not mentioned in Shock Value, but it fits right in, albeit in a subversive way. I’ve rarely been more frightened than by the monster it portrays.
Except . . . Picnic at Hanging Rock doesn’t actually feature a monster, does it? Maybe not, if approached from strict criteria. The “monster” in it is a narrative illusion created by cinematic hints—sensory impressions, particularly sound, that suggest a dangerous force that’s horrifying and indefinable . . . and motiveless.
Nestled up in the rocks, there’s a black hole, or a time warp, or a crack in space. Four girls climb up through the boulders and then fall out of the film itself. Maybe worse than that, they are pulled into its orbit . . . in a hypnagogic cinematic spell. Weir proves his mastery of image and audio by leading the girls to the gate of oblivion, and the viewers right alongside them.
Aurally, most of the film is strictly period—early 1900s Australia, as prim and proper as Masterpiece Theater, richly scored with pan flute (played by Gheorghe Zamfir) and Beethoven’s most tragically chilling piano concerto (no. 5, movement 2). However, in the sequence where the girls disappear, the soundtrack shrinks down nearly to silence except for a moaning wind whipping through the monolithic rocks. Only the wind isn’t wind: it’s a masquerading synthesizer, subtly tweaking us out of an ordinary pleasant afternoon. Moments before the girls vanish in slow motion behind a gritty wall of stone, a cascading, descending shiver of reverb creases the soundscape, crackling down our spines and crescendoing into a scream from the one girl left behind. That cascading reverb burned itself into my mind twelve years ago and still hasn’t left.
All this uncanny sound design serves a calculated purpose: something impossibly strange has happened up here—a mystery that can never be solved.
For a long time, I believed the monster in Picnic at Hanging Rock was the actual rock, or whatever magical void it seemed to conceal . . . but the real motiveless monster is the pure experience of not knowing. No rational explanation will suffice. The madness of not knowing what happened up on the rock relentlessly stalks through the rest of the film, torturing or killing all those who are unable to escape from its spell. Instead of a masked man with a knife or a vicious alien predator, Picnic at Hanging Rock features one of the most elusive monsters of all: an abstract human emotion.
Graham Reznick is a director and sound designer based in Brooklyn. His hallucinatory 2008 horror feature I Can See You received rave reviews in the New York Times, Variety, and the Village Voice. Learn more about Reznick’s work at aphasiafilms.com.