On this day: Picnic at Hanging Rock airs in the US

By Lydia Hales 31 January 2014
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An Aussie Valentine’s Day mystery novel-turned-movie wows international cinema goers.

ON 2 FEBRUARY 1979, in the lead up to Valentine’s Day, audiences in the USA were finally able to see a sinister Aussie film that had received rave reviews since its premiere in Adelaide in 1975.

The film, Picnic at Hanging Rock – based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book by the same name – is a mystery about two girls and a teacher, who disappear on a Valentine ‘s Day in 1900. Both film and book tantalised fans with questions over whether the events were fact or fiction for the next two decades.

The film, directed by Peter Weir – who went on to produce classic films such as Gallipoli and Dead Poets Society – was part of resurgence in interest in Australian cinema internationally. Many of these films focused on the harshness and mystery of the Australian bush.

It grossed just over $5 million dollars and is listed at number 12 in the Top 20 Australian Films at the Australian Box Office.

The horror of Hanging Rock

The film centres around a small group of schoolgirls, two of whom would disappear with a teacher, never to be seen again. Set at Hanging Rock, Victoria, we see a day unfold in a dreamily languid fashion.

“Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock,” wrote Lindsay in her book. “A shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.”

But at the picnic the mood quickly turns sinister when the four of the girls seem to be called up to the top of the rock by a mysterious presence. They then climb it, ignoring warnings of venomous snakes and poisonous ants. In the end the one girl who might have provided clues to the disappearance returned so traumatised, she either could not or would not speak of what she had seen.

The New York Time‘s Vincent Canby called the movie “spooky and sexy,” adding that: “Horror…may be a warm sunny day. The innocence of girlhood and hints of unexplored sexuality that combine to produce a euphoria so intense it becomes transporting, a state beyond life or death.”

According to James Ley, editor of website the Sydney Review of Books, the story contains themes prominent in Australian literature: something vaguely untamed and threatening about the Australian landscape, contrasted with the precariousness of those new to the environment.

Picnic at Hanging Rock: real or fiction?

Lindsay helped fuel the mystery surrounding this classic tale by never fully revealing her inspiration. She simply said: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.”

Adding to the mystery is that fact that Hanging Rock is a real place in the Macedon Ranges, Victoria. However, sleuths have pointed out that 14 February 1900, was a Wednesday when in the book it’s said to be a Saturday.

Omitted from the book was a final, mystery-solving chapter, cut at the suggestion of the publisher. This chapter was released, as per Lindsay’s request, after her death in 1984. In the chapter it is revealed that the missing teacher and girls disappear into the rock, possibly swallowed by nature or a time warp.

With the release of the new chapter, Lindsay’s literary agent John Taylor wrote: “Here, then, is the previously invisible foundation stone on whose absence the Australian film industry built itself…And for what they have received, may St Valentine make the film producers and Commissions of Australia truly thankful.”

And no matter what they believe as to the girls’ fate, enthusiasts can watch them disappear at least once a year after twilight, as the film is screened in the Picnic Grounds of Hanging Rock every Valentine’s Day.