I have a confession to make: I run from horror movies. Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a tendency to hide behind whatever’s handiest when the shrieks start sounding and the blood starts flowing. Despite all that, I’m glad the New York Times recently did an article on what scares even the horrormeisters, because director Joe Cornish mentioned a very fine Australian film from 1975, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which ranks way up there for me on the terror scale. To this day, the sound of pan pipes makes me shudder.
Unlike “The Exorcist”, which was the majority choice for scariest film among the Times interviewees, “Picnic” shows nothing. It’s all indirection and suggestion, and the girls and their teacher disappear in broad daylight. Nothing makes you jump in your seat except for that eerie pan pipe sound track. But the feeling of dread nevertheless creeps up the back of your neck and stays, so that later in the film when you catch sight of a tattered “MISSING” poster tacked to a tree near the Rock, you gasp. Those whom you saw as vibrant and alive at the beginning of the story have now faded into history and will not return.
I saw “Picnic at Hanging Rock” when it was first released in the late ‘70’s, and idiot that I occasionally am, I saw it alone. Big mistake. I was so spooked out I drove home from the theater with my head and neck practically retracted into my shoulders. Unfortunately the director’s cut DVD released a few years ago falls a bit short of the theatrical version. Why? What I think is a crucial scene is missing: a young man who rescues a survivor from the Rock attempts to question that very girl about what happened. What results is a head-on collision between a man who not only wants to know—he needs to know, and the only person who would know can’t tell him. Or is it that she won’t tell him? Peter Weir, the director, explains on the commentary that he thought this scene slowed the film down too much, but I disagree–this is one instance when the audience needs more of the characters, not less.
However, this is a relatively minor blip that in no way diminishes the atmosphere of the film, which I can’t recommend more highly. The horror in “Picnic at Hanging Rock” comes not just from the events you see, but what you don’t see, and how people are forced to cope with the inexplicable. This, along with “Gallipoli,” “Breaker Morant,” and “My Brilliant Career” is one of the great Australian films from the 70’s and 80’s, and is a definite must-see, particularly with Halloween approaching.
Sleep tight and don’t let those pan pipes bite.