“On Saturday 14th February 1900 a party of schoolgirls from Appleyard College picnicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace…”
With this opening title card, Peter Weir’s iconic, genre-defying film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) begins. Based on the groundbreaking Australian novel by Joan Lindsay, the film takes the story of colonialism, sexuality, and existential terror to new heights of aesthetic execution. With its significant setting on Valentine’s Day, 1900 and its time-bending mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an ideal film to revisit in honor of a leap year February.
“Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock tells the story of a mysterious incident during a school picnic held at Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia on Valentine’s Day 1900. During the course of the day, four girls, ethereal Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), beautiful Irma (Karen Robson), analytical Marion (Jane Vallis), and immature Edith (Christine Schuler), venture on a walk to explore the volcanic formation. In a screaming panic, Edith returns. The other three girls have disappeared. Meanwhile, while the rest of the picnic party napped, math teacher Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray) also vanishes. The search for the missing girls and their teacher leads to a series of strange, unexplained occurrences and tragedies. Other than Irma, who remembers nothing of what happened, the missing women are never found.
“With its significant setting on Valentine’s Day, 1900 and its time-bending mystery, Picnic at Hanging Rock is an ideal film to revisit in honor of a leap year February.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock is notorious for its unresolved mystery. While the film and the novel on which it’s based is presented like a true-crime procedural, complete with suspects, investigations and clues, no aspect of the mystery is ever solved. In fact, each successive discovery only further tantalizes. This, combined with the film’s illusion, via dates and narration, that it’s based on a historical event, leaves many viewers frustrated. While the film was a critical and box office success, many reacted to it with anger when they found the story lacked a satisfying conclusion. According to Weir, when the film was screened for distribution in the United States, “One distributor threw his coffee cup at the screen at the end of it, because he’d wasted two hours of his life—a mystery without a goddamn solution!”
In fact, the unsolved mystery at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock makes it one of the most effective horror films to examine questions of time, perception, vortexes and existential terror. With its looming presence and the implication of its own consciousness, Weir molds Hanging Rock into a terrifying, Lovecraftian monster.
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To St. Valentine!
The dreamlike strangeness of Picnic at Hanging Rock has caused many to classify it as an art-house film before calling it a horror film. But it’s undeniably at home in the horror genre. Perhaps our failure to recognize this stems from the film’s sun-drenched, white laced, feminine aesthetic. In fact, not until Midsommer (2019) did sunshine and flowers crowd the frames of a horror film like Picnic at Hanging Rock. I would argue that the aesthetic of this film influenced Ari Aster’s film as much as it influenced Sofia Coppola. Like Aster, Weir uses pastel and feminine aesthetic to build theme and enrich the horror at work. The film ties the lacy dresses, gradually undone hair, and emerging sexuality of the girls to an ancient, natural force beyond human comprehension.
“…not until Midsommer (2019) did sunshine and flowers crowd the frames of a horror film like Picnic at Hanging Rock.”
As the film opens, we watch a montage of the Appleyard students waking, bathing, dressing, and reading valentines with swooning adoration. The sequence is accompanied by pan pipes, a significant choice. Pan was the Greek god of wild, untamed nature, sexuality, and the sudden, inexplicable fear said to strike people who wander too far into his lonely natural abode. Thus, his name is the root of the word panic.
As the girls sit for breakfast, they hold up a statue of St. Valentine, looking more like the pagan Cupid than the Christian saint. As they arrive at the picnic grounds, the horses shy and Miranda is startled by birds while opening the gate. The sequence that follows is the heart of the mystery, establishing the nature of the “monster” at the center of the disappearances.
“Waiting a million years, just for us!”
Hanging Rock looms over every shot at the picnic like an ancient god. From its emergence out of the mist at the film’s opening to its many eyes watching the girls — in the form of birds, insects, and reptiles. The rock wants the girls, and as they climb it, they fall happily under its spell. They shed their shoes and stockings, dance, and are strangely drawn to the peak of the rock. “Look!” shouts Miranda, pointing to the highest point. The camera follows her gaze, but we see nothing. We hear a deep, energetic hum in the soundtrack that suggests the vibrating call of the rock itself. As the girls travel higher, barefoot and silent, they sleep and let insects crawl on their skin. Meanwhile, Miss McCraw sits among the napping picnickers, studying her notebook of mathematical calculations. Suddenly she looks up at the same point in the rock, overcome with realization. Of what, we’ll never know. This is the last we see of her. The girls and their teacher subsequently vanish.
“Hanging Rock looms over every shot at the picnic like an ancient god. From its emergence out of the mist at the film’s opening to its many eyes watching the girls — in the form of birds, insects, and reptiles.”
Edith never embraces the rock’s invitation to return to nature, instead, she complains incessantly about the heat and her exhaustion. Earlier, as the group begins their hike, she frets about crossing a small brook, whining “I don’t want to get my feet wet.” Her awareness remains in the material world. She even needs to be prompted to look up at the rock instead of her own feet when they get their first good view of it. Thus, when Miranda, Marion, and Irma approach the peak, she begs them to stop then flees in a panic. Her scream is one of the most impactful in all of horror, unnerving in its rawness. As Edith runs down the rock, the music blares a distorted, unnerving theme.
An ever-present theme in the film is the contrast of the buttoned-up culture of Victorian British colonialism and the untamable Australian landscape. There are innumerable scenes that showcase the colonizers’ fruitless attempts to recreate their upper-class practices in the unforgiving nature of Australia. While no Indigenous Australians appear in the film, Picnic at Hanging Rock has a strong anti-imperialism theme throughout. The colonizers may try as they might to “civilize” the land, but they are in a place they will never fully understand. The land will ultimately consume them, or strike them with a Lovecraftian terror.
When the school party settles into Hanging Rock picnic grounds, ominous shots of the rock fade to Miranda cutting into a pink and pastel heart-shaped Valentine’s cake. She wields the knife like a slasher villain and slices the entire heart clean down the middle, on oddly violent action for such a delicate and stereotypically feminine event. Is she already succumbing to the wild call of the landscape? Or is she, like many of her schoolmates, falling into a more pagan relationship with the holiday and the land? Could it be caused by the unstable chemistry of their repressed sexuality and the energy of the natural world combined?
“The colonizers may try as they might to “civilize” the land, but they are in a place they will never fully understand. The land will ultimately consume them, or strike them with a Lovecraftian terror. “
After the four women vanish, we are offered a series of clues that lead both nowhere and everywhere. Edith recalls seeing Miss McCraw ascending the rock as she fled down it, and remarks that she was wearing only her undergarments. Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Gaurd), a young upper-class Englishman who was also picnicking at the rock that day, becomes obsessed with finding the girls. He ventures to the same peak and begins to experience visions of the girls’ actions there. He’s discovered by Albert (John Jarrett) his working-class valet, catatonic with shock, grasping a scrap of a lace dress. What he gazed upon or realized, we never discover. Later, Irma is found unconscious, but impossibly alive, with no memory of what happened.
Throughout all of this, we are given a glimpse into the lives of those affected by the search. There are Michael and Albert, who are close in a way that has a decidedly queer undertone, while Michael becomes obsessed with Miranda from the brief glimpse he got of her before her disappearance. At the school, orphan Sara (Margaret Nelson), who had pined for Miranda and write love poetry to her in the bathroom, wilts under the thumb of Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). And the headmistress herself witnesses her school crumble under the investigation that follows.
Everything we see and seem
While the experience of the film’s unsolved mystery could be frustrating, every clue we need lies in the film’s first thirty minutes. Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the most perfect exercises of Lovecraftian horror — or cosmic horror — ever executed. The sub-genre was made famous by Lovecraft but born of earlier authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood. According to scholar Vivian Ralickas, it’s characterized by “the fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.”
The first half-hour of Picnic at Hanging Rock works like a brilliant short story, pulling the audience into the magnetic call of the rock as it does the girls. As they venture further into its realm, we sense an inexplicable terror. When Edith screams, we panic with her. Her reaction channels the Lovecraftian madness of gazing into the void, as well as the ancient concept of “panic,” which is really the same thing. And what is the unknowable truth that Edith and Michael witness? What does Miss McCraw realize that causes her to shed her clothes and venture up the rock? What calls the girls? The answer is given to us in voiceover at the very beginning of the film, spoken by Miranda. “Everything we see and seem is but a dream. A dream within a dream.” It’s a line from Poe — one of the originators of cosmic horror. It’s the horror of time, of reality, and of realizing that neither are what they seem.
“It’s the horror of time, of reality, and of realizing that neither are what they seem.”
One last thing. The opening title card of Picnic at Hanging Rock states very specifically that the events took place on Saturday, February 14th, 1900. But historically, Valentine’s Day fell on a Wednesday that year. In such a carefully constructed work of pseudo-history, no detail can be considered accidental. Could it all have been a time warp? It’s a good question to contemplate during a leap year February. Happy Valentines Day, and don’t spend too much time courting the void.
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