• One Scene: Picnic at Hanging Rock

    By Graham Reznick

    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.

    One Scene: Picnic at Hanging Rock One Scene: Picnic at Hanging Rock

    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.

9 comments

  • By David Hollingsworth
    August 01, 2011
    02:13 PM

    This was one of the strangest, darkest, and most disturbing movies I had ever seen, but it is also one of the most beautiful works of art as well. Not knowing what happened in the film is part of the chilling magic that this film still brings. I think this masterpiece is definitely overdue for a new DVD/Blu-ray upgrade.
    Reply
  • By LJ
    August 01, 2011
    02:27 PM

    Could this be a hint that Picnic at Hanging Rock will be getting a Blu-ray upgrade in the near future? One of the most beautiful and haunting films, it invites the viewer to come to their own conclusions about what has happened. Great essay, thanks.
    Reply
  • By Alban Goulden
    August 01, 2011
    02:47 PM

    Of course the "monster" is the unknown. Death is THE unknown. And youth and beauty (especially female) sacrificed to this force with no logical explanation is one of our cultural nightmares--exacerbated by Victorian sensibilities about reason and control edged against the myth of wilderness. Aboriginal culture would have included--humanized, storied--this force within the landscape; westerners, however, both patronize and fear the landscape. The only story we can tell is a horrific 'here is where our control ends; beyond these bounds there be monsters.' Well, I guess we could send in the army....
    Reply
  • By Shaun Pearson
    August 02, 2011
    05:16 PM

    I'm fine with "weird" and I'm fine with films that lack narrative and leave you with more questions than answers, but I must say I don't like this film. I find it vacuous. Visual beauty holds enough weight with me that I could be won over on those grounds, but here too I found it's cinematography to be as namby-pamby and insubstantial as its other qualities. A twee bore of the highest order. Nothing personal - if you like it I'm happy it's coming to Blu-ray for your sake.
    Reply
  • By F@ckyoucriterion
    August 03, 2011
    10:08 PM

    An incredible film, full of atmosphere and beauty. So sad Criterion is not releasing this or Last Wave on a new edition, they rather edit shitty films like Y tu mama también...
    Reply
  • By Chris Decker
    August 05, 2011
    12:27 AM

    I remember seeing this movie when it came out in 1975. I was so glad that I saw it on a big screen because it gave the movie a greater dimension than DVD or television (or iPhone, for that matter). What was so wonderful about "Picnic" was that it provoked conversation afterwards because there was no logical explanation for what happened, nor were there any logical conclusions in the end. Relationships were tantamount in this movie, whether it was Michael and Albert, Sarah and Miranda, Mrs. Appleyard and Mlle. de Poitiers, or Minnie and Tom. Each was an important piece of the puzzle that couldn't be finished. (How ironic that the audience learns too late that Sarah's brother "Birdy" is actually Albert.) Mrs. Appleyard is, of course, the ultimate tragedy in the end. Was she offering herself to the Rock as the final sacrifice, or was she simply trying to find an explanation about why she lost two out of three of her students? Again, it's the stuff that provokes conversation -- and this is where cinema has its day.
    Reply
  • By E. D. Tremper
    September 09, 2011
    05:38 PM

    Good god, Criterion NEEDS to release this on Blu-ray! If they don't, I might have to get angry. And you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
    Reply
  • By Mark
    September 29, 2012
    10:03 PM

    and on DVD- a 2 disc set with the ORIGINAL 1975 cut of the film
    Reply
  • By Barry Moore
    July 17, 2013
    06:09 PM

    Joan Lindsay, author of the original source novel for this seminal Australian screen classic, wrote a concluding chapter which was suppressed at the publisher's suggestion, because it was felt to give too much away; the chapter was published on its own in 1987, twenty years after the novel's initial appearance, as 'The Secret of Hanging Rock'. In it, the reader is presented with an uncanny, unsettling episode in which Miss McCraw, Miranda, and Marion metamorphose into totemic animal forms and are absorbed into the Rock, with the pleading Irma mysteriously rejected, just as Edith had been earlier. It is a strange and strangely lyrical account which preserves the story's mystery even as details are fleshed out, highly recommended for fans of Weir's accomplished adaptation.
    Reply

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