“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.”
– Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an adaptation of a novel by author Joan Lindsay who claimed it was based on her own experiences growing up in Australia while attending a boarding school in Melbourne. It accounts the strange story of a group of adolescent schoolgirls who plan a Valentine’s Day excursion to a sacred aboriginal spot known as Hanging Rock. As they frolic among the ancient primordial rock formations the young women are accompanied by instructors, chaperones and leering young men who observe them from the wild bush. Sadly, their romantic day trip comes to a terrible and mysterious end when three of the girls along with one teacher go missing.

Joan Lindsay remained guarded about the history of events described in her book although she was questioned many times. She also admitted that much of her story had come from dreams suggesting that it was more fiction than fact. To his credit, director Peter Weir (The Plumber [1979], The Last Wave [1977], The Cars That Ate Paris [1974]) was able to tap into the hallucinatory nature of Lindsay’s tale by playing with film frame rates and slowing down many of the dialog-free scenes. The dream-like look of Picnic at Hanging Rock was also enhanced by Russell Boyd’s award-winning cinematography. The resourceful camera operator used Vaseline to blur lenses creating a soft focus effect and shot sections of the film through wedding veil netting to give the sunny landscape a hazy appearance that evoked phantoms and apparitions where there were none.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

The cast is uniformly good and features British New Wave screen veteran Rachel Roberts (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning [1960], This Sporting Life [1963]) as the cruel and controlling headmistress of the school. Other standout performances include Dominic Guard (The Go-Between [1971], Absolution [1978]) and John Jarrett (Wolf Creek [2005], Django Unchained [2012]) as the two young men who witness the disappearance of the girls and are reluctantly (or knowingly?) implicated in their fate. But the real stars of the film are the young actresses portraying the budding schoolgirls on the precipice of womanhood, particularly Anne-Louise Lambert who plays the angelic Miranda.

Miranda is at the center of this chilly drama and her Botticelli beauty and curious nature enchant everyone around her. When she goes missing her disappearance causes the entire school to mourn but Miranda’s roommate Sara (Margaret Nelson) feels her loss more intimately than anyone. Sara is an orphan and the target of the headmistresses’ rage but she shares a special bond with Miranda that is permanently severed when the young woman vanishes without a trace. The allusion of unrequited love between Miranda and Sara is creatively implied in the artistic touches implemented by underground artist Martin Sharp. Sharp worked as Weir’s “Artistic Adviser” on the film providing the Victorian valentines, evocative scrapbooks, and cryptic bric-a-brac on display including a portrait of the sexually ambiguous poet Lord Byron. These romantic strokes allude to a passionate invisible world occupied by the girls that is hidden beneath the cold formal setting of the boarding school.

I refer to Picnic at Hanging Rock as a horror picture but its enigmatic nature makes the film difficult to classify. Many prefer to call it an “arthouse mystery” comparable to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], Red Desert [1964], Blow-up [1966]) or Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour [1959], Last Year at Marienbad [1961], Muriel, or The Time of Return [1963]). However you classify it, there’s no denying that some gut-wrenching shocks combined with mounting unspoken dread make Weir’s contemplative study of a girl’s boarding school and the mystery that surrounds it a harrowing viewing experience.

Horror films are often shot at night but in Picnic at Hanging Rock the terror occurs in broad daylight. In this regard, it shares much in common with folk horror films such as Eye of the Devil (1966), The Wicker Man (1973), A Field in England (2013) and most recently, The Witch (2016) where the sun offers no protection or defense against whatever evils may be waiting to pounce on our unsuspecting protagonists. In their loose fitting white dresses, the girls could be mistaken for sacrificial virgins being offered up to some pagan god. This imagery is further enhanced by the inclusion of Romanian panpipes in the soundtrack (provided by Gheorghe Zamfir) that evoke a more primitive time than the 19th-century setting. The supernatural aspects of Weir’s film are further ratcheted up by the use of natural recurring sounds, including a low rumble that implies a tectonic shift in the earth as the young women ascend Hanging Rock, while images of the natural world (birds, reptiles, landscapes) are repeatedly superimposed over their faces and bodies.

Curiously, director Peter Weir along with members of the cast and crew have obliquely mentioned uncanny occurrences that disrupted production during filming on Hanging Rock. These peculiar events include watches stopping without explanation (as seen in the film), electrical malfunctions, vanishing camera equipment and an overall sense of unease that permeated the shoot. Long before white settlers arrived in Australia, the indigenous people held sacred ceremonies at Hanging Rock including marriages and tribal initiations. Aborigines considered it a hallowed spot where our world and the dreaming world (or Dreamtime) appeared to merge. Is it possible that Weir and company unlocked some supernatural force during the filming of Picnic at Hanging Rock? That’s for each viewer to decide but there’s no denying that the film has cast a spell over many viewers including myself.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on FilmStruck.com in December of 2016