Friday, 9 November 2018

Long Weekend

Cast: John Hargreaves, Briony Behets, and Mike McEwen

Director: Colin Eggleston

95 minutes (15) 1978
Second Sight Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Richard Bowden

One of a cycle of similarly themed films that came out of Australia in the 1970s, but perhaps the least well known of any of them, Long Weekend is a tale of enigmatic, lurking environmental threat made manifest. Like Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), and The Last Wave (1970), as well as being related to Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), it’s a work which steadily relates landscape to the faceless presence of elemental forces bound up in nature, especially those ready to snatch at humankind. And like Hitchcock’s related The Birds (1963), with which it shares its serious tone, it has the intelligence to leave humans to draw their own conclusions as to what went wrong.

It’s also director Colin Eggleston’s first, and best film. Eggleston, who also made films of such different quality as Fantasm Comes Again (1977), and Outback Vampires (1987) - this last admittedly admired by Tarantino - served out his apprenticeship in television, a training which paid dividends when he was able to first spread his wings in using the Panavision process in Long Weekend, but also enabled the director to work wonders with a still modest budget. Aided by an excellent script by Everett de Roche, who was also responsible for Razorback (1984), another film where nature’s representative wrecks havoc on people, the present film is a prime example of the ‘they don’t make anymore’ variety, being distinguished by subtlety, atmosphere and a mounting terror which the modern, CGI-laden Hollywood horror product usually only dreams of.

Long Weekend consists principally of the fraught interaction between just two characters, Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets). For the first part of the film there is some doubt of the source of their marital friction, a masterstroke of scripting which considerably adds to the growing unease. Instead, their unspecified frustrations and alienation are externalised, in a process that starts when the husband accidentally runs over a kangaroo, as between them the couple smash eggs, hack at trees, shoot off a gun wildly, and kill a dugong. Marcia wants to return to the comfort of a hotel; Peter does not. Eventually, we discover or deduce the real reasons for their recriminations, but by then a third, more ominous character has entered the drama: that of Nature, who apparently has little time for the self-centred couple so unkindly intruding into her realm.

It’s clear, however, that not everything can be explained even by the end of the film, and indeed one of its strengths is that Long Weekend ultimately refuses, or needs, to explain its mystery. Instead the spectacle of a couple tearing their relationship apart is mirrored by their increasingly aggressive surroundings, as if Nature itself has little patience with their attitudes, either towards each other or their environment - a condemnation of selfishness on a public and private level which seems ever more relevant and modern today in these times. “Spare me the grotty symbolism,” says the wife at one point; but it’s clear that is exactly what, on one level, the couple are: symbols either of an unwelcome intrusion into a natural landscape or of a modern, spiritual ugliness which has no welcome amongst the old. Thus nature’s attacks can be seen as punishment for the couple’s repeated and unthinking transgressions against its fabric, and the unforgiving landscape, elemental, and unhelpful, read as a metaphor for the childless relationship they now endure. But unlike The Birds, there is no feeling that Nature is turning against all of mankind, merely these two, who treat their surroundings with as much care as they do their relationship.

All of this is helped immeasurably by the cinematography, which, despite the film’s low budget origins, is often breathtaking in its depiction of the lurking and elemental. Whether following through the crowded bush threatening the couple, recording the assorted creature attacks, or merely revealing the misty, primeval sunrises that start their eventful days, Vincent Monton's camerawork (apparently at times he used a prototype ‘steadicam’) is a model of restraint, never forcing the pace, merely mounting suspense further without undue pyrotechnics. Add to this an award-worthy soundtrack, which subtly amplifies the threatening groans and rustles of surrounding nature into an ambience of unspoken threat, and you have a film which succeeds often through its sheer intelligence and design. In some ways this reminds one of the early work of John Carpenter, where one looks for threat from within the carefully arranged frame rather from outside it, and where the camera’s unhurried gaze at trapped characters is its own arbiter of terror.

That’s not to say that there are no moments of shock. While largely eschewing horrific set-pieces, Eggleston and de Roche do build in a couple of memorable shock moments such as the fate of the rival campers, while the dugong (a harmless black sea cow, shot as a threat by Peter) apparently making its tortured way, unseen, back up the shore line is truly the stuff of nightmares, and the one that most people remember most about the film.

Blu-ray special edition extras:
  • Audio commentary with executive producer Richard Brennan and cinematographer Vincent Monton
  • Nature Found Them Guilty: examining Long Weekend, a panel discussion with film historians Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Emma Westwood, and Sally Christie
  • Extensive stills gallery, accompanied by audio interview with actor John Hargreaves
  • Original theatrical trailer 

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