Picnic at Hanging Rock
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“…a dream within a dream….”

It's Valentine’s Day, 1900, in rural Queensland, where a group of schoolgirls, corseted and all in white, are sent by their stern headmistress for an afternoon picnic beneath a harrowing volcanic rock formation called Hanging Rock. She warns them not to venture into the steep rock itself, where many dangers wait, including venomous snakes and poisonous ants.

As the girls relax for their meal, the carriage driver and their accompanying teacher notice that their watches have stopped exactly at 12:00, even though they believe it must be much later. The hot, bright sun of the afternoon, the sounds of the meadow—insects, the wind in the grass—seem to make everything slow down. Four girls ask permission to walk to the base of Hanging Rock, so they can take measurements for the essay they must write about their trip, and the teacher approves. The girls head off toward the world of those mysterious, old volcanic spires and disappear. The school and the townspeople are never the same again.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not like your usual horror film, and yet it most definitely fits the genre. You won’t find slashing, chain saws, or brain eating—not even much gore. It’s much more Alice Through the Looking Glass than Freddy Kruger.

This first major film from Peter Weir, who went on to direct such masterpieces as Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander, is like stepping into a dream. The plot isn’t quite clear, nor does it really matter; it’s all about images, symbols, and feelings, letting the power of nature, mystery, sexuality, and freedom draw you into a place you’ve never been—a place inviting, enchanting--and terrifying.

Ultimately, though, the film is not about the girls who disappear. It’s about the people left behind, in the school, the families, and the town. Their reactions to this mystery are at first, as you'd expect, to hunt for the girls. But as the search drags on, they change, in ways that are tragic, terrifying, and sometimes just downright creepy.

The original soundtrack and cinematography provide just the right blend of seductive and suspicious. The images are softly grainy, all sun-washed meadows and dappled forests, bringing to mind children’s stories of evil lurking in the woods, of falling into trances from which you may never awaken. Those rock formations suggest far more than molten lava leftovers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an award-winning classic because it’s a film to be experienced rather than a neatly packaged story to be told. It’s a work of art that draws you in, and whose mystery and meaning are left up to viewers to discern for themselves.

If you are looking for a change of pace this October 31st, consider going on a summer picnic in Australia. You might just disappear into a mystery of your own.

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