Every Halloween it’s fun to see the hordes of “best” horror film lists that pop up across the web. Usually a mixture of slasher flicks and psychological thrillers, there’s a sick excitement that comes from finding those obscure gems illuminated by particularly acute bloggers or critics. I have no intention to try to top any of those. I will fall far short. For me, the two most terrifying experiences I’ve had watching movies came from films that are not generally considered horror: Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Both of these films share a sheen of 1970s glee that rests as a thin layer in front of despair, chaos, and disdain. It’s that thin layer that separated hippie love from the Manson family or Easy Rider as a work of art from the realities of liberalism violently at odds with conservative thinking. Something about the aura that these films portray roped me in and then tore at my soul by providing psychologically haunting revelations. Here goes:
Picnic at Hanging Rock, an Australian picture directed by Peter Weir, tells the strange tale of group of girls who go on a field trip. One of the girls, Miranda, mysteriously goes missing, never to be seen again. Under a swelling score that seamlessly transforms from melodic and peaceful to demonic and hair-raising, the scene where Miranda moves forever into the cosmos, creeps up on your subconscious before the reality of the mystery even becomes clear. There’s impending doom, but it’s not force-fed. It’s as though bad was supposed to happen, literally pulling the girls into the rocks. As terrifying as it is, I’ve always thought something like genuine happiness must lay inside those boulders. The girls, after all, are trying to escape the stuffiness of their daily existences. Perhaps that’s the overarching metaphor of the picture. Shot in wide shots that slowly pan with the line of girls, every one of them looks exactly the same except for the complainer, whose thirst for adventure is so limited that she has no time for the experience. A horror film staple character, the complaining girl gets none of our sympathy even if she knows this won’t end well. Her shrill screaming at the end literally shook me, as if waking me from the same trance the other girls fell into.
Like in Picnic at Hanging Rock, a human instinct to discover something more draws us deeper and deeper into the psychological nightmare of Blow-Up. In some ways, the film works as a whodunit between one man and his need to rectify whether he actually saw someone dead behind a tree and whether his photos might contain the killer. The film spends much of its time painting its main character as a privileged snob in need of a comeuppance. As a result, we start to think he’s slowly going insane. That is until he blows up his image and suddenly, for a split second of dead silence, we see a man in the trees with a handgun. Chills. The most terrifying split second I’ve ever experienced watching a movie. Am I crazy? Probably. But the film does such a great job of setting up its world that this realistic moment – an image within an image – rips the rug out from under you and drops you on your back. Blow-Up has been written about, intellectualized, and over-analyzed since the day it was released. In this single moment it was a purely emotional experience for me.
There are similarities between another Antonioni movie, L’Avventura, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, as they are both films about a mysterious disappearance and the slow-burning revelation that death actually has no direct correlation to life. This frightens me also. Basically, those still living will continue to live, there’s nothing more they can do. As both films comment, in an increasingly commercialized and materialistic world, the value on life has diminished. The obsession with a “search” – somewhat self-righteous in all cases – lasts about as long as humans have the capacity to care. In a world all about “now,” this time span has shrunken further than in the 70s, making these scenes even more frightening to think about.
What atypical scenes scared the crap out of you?