Films That Haunt Me: PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK

As summer comes to an end, I’ll use our last days of heat to discuss a film that holds all the dreaminess – and infernal horror – of that season. Most horror stories tend to be set firmly in the atmosphere of autumn or winter, but there’s a haziness to summer that lends itself to dreams, and nightmares. No film portrays this more successfully than the intangible dread of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.

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The film begins innocently enough, following the students of a Victorian girls’ school as they embark on a special picnic at the mysterious and sublime Hanging Rock. (This is, scarily enough, a real landmark in Australia, and the film’s crew said they felt uneasy while shooting there.) Everything is going beautifully… until several students and a teacher vanish without a trace. As the area is searched and the surviving students begin to panic, it becomes clear that a greater mystery is unfolding, one rooted not in reality but in the mind.

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Horror aside, this is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Peter Weir constructs a serene and eerie atmosphere of a dream, and his cinematographer Russell Boyd ingeniously placed a stocking over his lens to make the images misty. The brilliance and sensuality of the visuals only heightens the dread of Hanging Rock. Like many films on this list, nothing is shown, and there is no real reason to be afraid – but yet I found myself feeling sick to my stomach with unease at times. The atmosphere is like a spider web, delicate and gorgeous but entrapping and inescapable. Like a pleasant daydream turned nightmare.

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This isn’t a story of a haunted landmark or a murderer, either. It’s a subtle musing on sexual awakening in a time when sexual anything was seen as sin. Like some of the best horror stories (“Dracula” and any werewolf tale come to mind), this one explores the terror of discovering your own sexuality. The sensuous visuals support this theme, along with the music – a riff on the Pipes of Pan, echoing the Greek demigods that were known for being devilish lechers. The girls that vanish seem to have discovered something in those strange hills that lures them, like Pan’s hypnotizing song, into a world from which they cannot return. But, Weir does not speak to this too directly. The mystery is one we are meant to unfold for ourselves.

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I keep saying this for these films, but I say it again – this is not traditionally scary. It is content to ooze atmosphere and suffocate you slowly, but not completely. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is more thoughtful than that, and it leaves you thinking, rather than trembling. That doesn’t make it any less of a horror film. It is sublimely crafted and uncannily disturbing while also being beautiful. And, as this review probably communicates in its confusion, impossible to pin down.

For any fan of cinema, this is a must-see for its visuals and atmosphere. For fans of horror who want something a bit more subtle and creeping, this is a perfect choice. In the last days of dreamy warmth, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” reminds us that dark things can be lurking behind the peaceful shimmer of sun. The Pipes of Pan are calling.

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