Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t a horror film, but with the way it handles so many tropes from many of its subgenres, it is nearly a perfect one. At different times throughout Peter Weir’s naturalistic drama it elicits feelings of a ghost story, a slasher, an Argento-style giallo, a backwoods trauma film, the occult, a teenage girl psychodrama, all without fully being any of them. The haunting score, the secluded environment, the innocence of its characters, and eventually its centerpiece mystery all combine for one of cinema’s truly unique experiences and a film that can still creep out, confuse, and shock. Even the opening scroll, setting up the mystery to come, seems like Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s alluring prologue trying to trick its viewer they are about to see something real.
Hanging Rock is brilliantly built as something mythical, making for a tense location. The rocks, we’re told, are millions of years old [which is both very, very old, but nothing in the history of the planet] and perfectly formed as steep walls. Before the group even heads out for their picnic excursion, we are warned about how dangerous the grounds are—the girls are forbidden to explore even the lowest slopes. Let alone the high temperatures in the Australian outback, the setting is well known for any matter of poisonous snakes and insects. It doesn’t take long to wonder why this trip would ever be sanctioned or encouraged. They seem to be asking for something to go wrong. It isn’t exactly a travelogue to the island continent—at least anyone with my temperament in the great outdoors. And Weir shoots Hanging Rock as if there is some ancient evil ready to peak around every formation.
How do you take that haunting setting and raise the stakes? Fill it with a group of young school girls. While none of Picnic’s central characters are full-on “scream queens” they fit the mold for the perfect horror film heroines: they are young, pure, and innocent, borderline angelic in their clean white uniform dresses. Individuals in the group stand out in this perspective, too. Miranda [Anne-Louise Lambert] is young girl the film pays most attention to with her strikingly ethereal look. Flashbacks continue to go back to her face and long blonde hair in beats of cloudy memories. Though she isn’t the only girl who disappears on the trip, she becomes our Laura Palmer. Strangely, Sara [Margaret Nelson], the only girl who isn’t allowed on the picnic has the most supernatural feel—if the film revealed her to have telepathic abilities that caused the traumatic events, it would have been a perfectly satisfying ending. She’s the type of lonely girl that could teeter on being the hero or the villain in the slasher heyday or in Carrie, Firestarter or Phenomena. And how can I not mention the overbearing headmaster, Mrs. Appleyard? She would certainly be the type of character denying the horrors around her right up until she gets it.
So, then, why isn’t Picnic at Hanging Rock a tried-and-true horror genre masterpiece? The prime reason is how it builds. Once the mysterious event has taken place, the characters don’t respond like they are in a horror film but a real-life drama where the supernatural just isn’t a realistic option. The survivors are saddened, angered, even suspicious, but there isn’t a villain for them to fight [physically or metaphorically]. Frankly, if you come to Picnic at Hanging Rock purely with horror in mind, you may find the film’s second half quite dull.
It is possible that Weir was explicitly tapping into horror, but I’m not so sure. There is no doubt a dreamlike quality that could border on a nightmare which is built through the film’s quietness. The hazy cinematography is met with visions that are just a bit out of the normal—an iguana crawling near a sleeping child, for example. This tone is perfect for a horror film set-up and yet Picnic at Hanging Rock doesn’t fully provide the typical release—the mystery doesn't have to be solved in a horror film [Zodiac], but Picnic almost seems defiantly against providing answers. One could view the strange opening acts of the film as a meditative, introspective experience, which usually doesn’t jive with a horror sensibility. Both of these readings are there and the film seems to let you decide what it is.
Though it may not be a horror film, Picnic at Hanging Rock has undoubtedly inspired many of the genre’s best film since. It probably isn’t a coincidence that many of the films that came to mind while I was watching the film [and a wide variance of films, at that, like Suspiria, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, Twin Peaks, and others I've already mentioned] were all made after and remain the defining entries into horror’s many subgenres. While Peter Weir’s eclectic filmography never really approached horror again, his work on Picnic at Hanging Rock alone makes him one of the most important and unappreciated genre filmmakers. Thankfully, other film artists seemed to have taken notice.