As I mentioned before, neither of the films I saw this past weekend can really be considered horror films. Nonetheless, Picnic at Hanging Rock probably creeps out a fair number of people. hanging.jpgAn Australian film directed by Peter Weir (and based on a novel of the same name by Joan Lindsey), Picnic at Hanging Rock is about a group of young ladies from a privileged all-girls college who go to the geological wonder named Hanging Rock for a school picnic on Valentine’s Day, 1900. A few of the girls wander off to explore the rock, never to be seen again. The subsequent search for the girls yields little evidence as to what actually occurred, and what few clues are uncovered only serve to deepen the mystery.

I imagine Picnic at Hanging Rock to be one of those divisive films that people either like a lot or else just plain hate. It’s a mysterious, well done film, but it nonetheless is really slow and somewhat of a challenge for contemporary sensibilities. Like Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (or its film adaptation, The Innocents), any terror to be found in Hanging Rock depends largely upon the internalized fears of Victorian culture. Such subtle fears are not always easy to capture on the screen, and even when done effectively, the results are not necessarily engaging. To those who do enjoy such films, however, Weir’s suggestive imagery of decaying beauty, repressed emotion, and inscrutable nature will likely strike a very haunting chord indeed.

Though not particularly a horror film, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a supernatural film in the most literal sense of the word.  One of its principle themes is that there are things that simply defy natural explanation. Victorians were confident that with industry and scientific ingenuity, they could harness the power and beauty of nature. The scientific demonstration in the greenhouse, the student pressing a dried flower into a frame, Professor McGraw studying mathematical diagrams as she gazes upon Hanging Rock – such imagery runs throughout the film and reflects the Victorian conviction that Nature could be fully understood and contained by the human intellect. Even the sexual repression that is so often commented upon in reviews of the film is part of this broader trend. In fact, the aristocracy’s ability not to give in to “cruder” impulses such as base sexual urges is one of the things that separates it from the lower classes (this belief, too, is represented throughout the film). It’s also yet another example of the Victorian perception that man controls his natural impulses and not vice-versa.

Such perceptions are challenged, however, by the events at Hanging Rock. Even before the girls leave to explore the mountain, there are signs of things being off. The watches of the two adult chaperones, for example, have both stopped. Once the girls leave, however, is when things really get strange, and they get progressively stranger as they approach the top of the rock. For me, the creepiest thing about the film was how the characters (not just the girls, but also Professor McGraw, Mrs. Appleyard, Michael, and Albert) seemed to have no logical motivation for their actions. It’s almost as if they are being compelled by an intangible force. Ultimately, it is this lack of logic in the initial events as well as in the circumstantial evidence later uncovered that makes it difficult to explain away the girls’ disappearance with the straightforward explanations of rape and molestation, even though that is the explanation that everyone seems to believe. Or perhaps to put it more accurately, they want to believe it because it’s the only way they can make sense of the situation. Likewise, the viewer cannot explain the events of the film, and it leaves one with a vague, haunted feeling of something being a little strange after the film is over.

Overall, I’d say I like this film. I had mixed feelings initially (the film is strange and slow in parts, and it does seem a little dated), but it really is one that grows on you, particularly the more you think about it. I also get the impression that the original book might be worth checking out as well, particularly since this seems like a great deal of it would be difficult to express on the screen. I’d have to say that the film probably isn’t for everybody, but those who like it will probably like it a lot.