"when there's trouble in nature"
As it's no doubt been obvious to the three of you who still bother to check in, I've been away: academic pressures have been a little more constant this year than semesters past, and I've been dating the Pixie Queen of Denver Geeks, so my time is especially precious. I barely have time to do my once-regular news cycle most days.
Anywho, I realized late Friday that the two-credit paper I'm finishing up is relevant to this blog, and I thought you Labrateers might be interested. Below's the meat of the piece, which I'm hoping to see published someplace where standards are low and pay is high.
Fear and Loathing in the Theaters
The connection between public anxieties and “the horror film cycle” had been more or less developed by writers on film by the early 1950s (Harrington 1952, Hill 1958), and an analysis of the relationship between communal dread and fear and loathing in the theaters, though richer and better informed in the decades since the Eisenhower years, continues to be a legitimate basis for explaining a horror film’s thesis: just as Wood (1980) perceived a correlation between America’s existential denial of the Vietnamese people’s humanity and the bleak cinema verite of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), contemporary observers have connected the contours of class/race privilege in the Reagan/Bush years writ large throughout 1993’s Candyman (Briefel and Nagi, 1996, 1999), pointed to the symbiosis of Nightmare on Elm Street’s head-monster-in-charge Freddy Kreuger’s popularity with Ronald Reagan’s during the feckless 1980s (Conrich 1997, 1999), or distilled the political economy of security and privilege of post-9/11 America in George Romero’s 2005 zombie apocalypse, Land of the Dead (Goldstein, Klawans 2005). While some commentators make the explicitly political reading that horror films manifest the Other that modern civilization represses or oppresses (Wood 1986, cited in Schneider 1997, 1999), others posit that a genre filmmakers’ work reveals the monster as metaphor for a society’s heretofore “surmounted beliefs” (Schneider 1997, 1999).
“When there’s trouble in nature”
But as informed and relevant works go, the “revenge of nature” film – defined by Wells (2000) as a film that examines what happens when the “everyday things that humankind take for granted in nature…cease to operate in the anticipated manner” and take revenge – doesn’t often register among critics or fans. As one reviewer (Gibron 2005) baldly put it, “overall, films forged out of such a concept are dopey and dumb.” However, the emerging narratives around global warming, or the climate crisis, as popularly dubbed by An Inconvenient Truth’s (2006) Al Gore, also represents a potential shift in how future filmmakers conceive the “revenge of nature” flick. Said Gore,
We are witnessing a collision between our civilization and the Earth…when my generation was born…the population had just crossed the 2 billion mark…If it takes ten thousand generations to reach two billion, and then in one human lifetime, ours, it goes to two billion to nine billion, something profoundly different’s going on, right now. We’re putting more pressure on the Earth. Most of it’s in the poorer nations on the Earth. It puts pressure on food demand. It puts pressure on water demand. It puts pressure on vulnerable natural resources, and this pressure’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen all this devastation of the forests, not only tropical, but elsewhere…
Making mistakes in our dealings with nature can have bigger consequences now, because our technologies are often bigger than the human scale. When you put them all together, they’ve made us a force of nature. (Guggenheim, Bender & Burns 2006)
To watch and hear the former Vice President tell it, the future sounds very much like the scenario from a “revenge of nature” movie. Indeed, the tag line for his Academy Award-winning documentary-cum-power-point-presentation was “The most frightening movie you’ll ever see.”
Political-cinematic reactions to environmental crises illustrate the possibilities for genre filmmakers to develop their own visions out of emerging global warming narratives. Since global warming and what James Kunstler called the “converging catastrophes of the 21st century” will touch upon nearly every aspect of our lives, and the post-climate crisis world will see profound deviations from the norm, the critical scope for a new eco-cinema, and in particular a new horror cinema (“eco-terror,” perhaps?) promises to be both broad and deep. Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006) writes,
The twenty-first century will in fact, be the Age of Nature. We’ll learn, probably the hard way, that nature matters: we’re not separate from it, we’re dependent on it, and when there’s trouble in nature, there’s trouble in society.
Wood (1980) writes that the responsible reading of a horror film, particularly a good one, is “an important phenomenon within our culture…since the genre [offers] the material for a radical and diagnostic reading of the culture.” But if in fact the “revenge of nature” film is “dopey and dumb,” the issue for genre filmmakers wishing to make a radical and diagnostic reading of the culture then becomes twofold: first, where to look, and second, why.
“If you go down to the woods today you won’t believe your eyes!”
Long Weekend’s back story is archetypal of minor film classics: Australian director Colin Eggleston had only one feature film to his name before helming 1978’s Long Weekend - a sequel, and a soft-core sequel at that, Fantasm 2: Fantasm Comes Again (1977). Before his feature work, Eggleston had slogged through the 1960s and 70s, directing for Aussie-television cop dramas like Matlock Police, Division 4, and Homicide (Colin Eggleston 2007). He would stay within shouting distance of the horror genre after Long Weekend – the wronged-woman thriller Little Feller (1982), the Aussie-expats-meet-slasher flick Innocent Prey (1984), and the Quentin Tarantino-fave Outback Vampires (1987) count among his follow-ups – but none of his subsequent films would be as well-received (winning Best Film at the 1978 Stiges fantasy film festival in Spain) or have the staying power (as late as 2005, genre director Eli Roth would cite the movie’s influence on him in the commentary track for his movie Hostel) Long Weekend has had.
Indeed, such a lasting success may have had something to do with the contributions of key collaborators: Long Weekend would be the only film Eggleston would work on with Everett De Roche, an American writer living and working in Australia (Gibron 2005). De Roche would be nominated for an Australian Film Award for his screenplay Patrick, about a coma-stricken, psychic murderer the same year Long Weekend was made. (Everett De Roche 2007) He would go on to write yet another “revenge of nature” flick also set in the Australian wilderness, the cult classic Razorback (1984), directed by Russell Mulcahy, as well as another Aussie horror fave, Roadgames (1981). Cinematographer Victor Monton dumped the shaky, hand-held look of many films set in natural environs for a smoother, steadicam glide that marks the outdoor scenes with the same uncanny feeling viewers would have wafting in and out of the chilly corridors of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) a couple of years later.
The project also featured excellent performances from leads John Hargreaves (“Peter”) and Briony Behets (“Marcia”). Handsome and rangy, Hargreaves would win Best Actor award at the ’78 Stiges for his role in Long Weekend, an accomplishment he was so proud of, according to the film’s producer Richard Brennan, he asked to be buried with the award when he died in 1996. Brennan also notes that Behets, while married to Eggleston, was not an initial choice to play Marcia: this may have had something to do with the fact that she had been cast mostly in broad comedic roles up until Long Weekend, but here she manages a 180 degree turn to inhabit the moody, pinched Marcia. (Brennan and Monton 2005)
To be sure, under Eggleston’s guidance Hargreaves and Behets give viewers something quite remarkable, since they’re the only two actors we actually see in the film for any period of time. Described by some critics as a genre variation on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Long Weekend concerns a pair of Australian yuppies, Peter and Marcia, whose relationship has touched bottom: instead of bringing them some cosmopolitan thrills, a turn with suburban sexual experimentation has punctured their marriage, so Peter decides the best thing for them would be to take advantage of a long weekend, the two of them alone, at a place far out of town called Munda Beach, located somewhere “just before the abattoir.” To do what exactly is unclear, as Marcia eventually remarks to Peter that they’re not really roughing it with the extra-large tent, surfboard, brand-new rifle, and lanterns they bring along - a “$2,000 shell,” she snaps. In the meantime, there’s hardly a moment in which Peter isn’t gloating over Marcia’s hapless discomfort, or Marcia isn’t likewise seething at Peter’s juvenile clowning. But their capacity for violence isn’t limited to one other, and within the first few moments of their long weekend – in fact, before they even leave - the contempt they have for each other’s already overrun their fractured marriage and is out in the world: a key early scene has Eggleston holding the camera on Peter’s dog Cricket, watching the couple argue with a terrorized, stricken look in her eyes. During the rainy drive to Munda Beach, a flicked cigarette sets fire to the roadside brush, and in a graphic scene soon after, Peter smashes into a kangaroo.
Following a brief, unsettling encounter with some blank-eyed locals (none of whom have ever heard of a Munda Beach), and an even eerier drive through a brooding patch of forest (where the couple are hounded by the insistent caterwauling of an unseen creature that will pursue them for the rest of the movie), Peter and Marcia arrive at their destination spot, but it appears that Munda Beach has somehow been waiting for the tiresome couple – a Tasmanian devil, hidden from view, bares its teeth at Peter when he steps from the truck for the first time to change a flat, and the next day a dark, oddly proportioned shape menaces him when he tries to surf. In numerous shots, Eggleston and Monton pin our POV drifting high above the couple as they walk and talk, or in the brush, hidden just out of sight, sometimes bobbing up and down as a lurking animal might.
In spite of their constant sniping, Hargreaves and Behts shade their performances with just enough sympathy to keep us watching in the hope that at least one of them might find what it was they came to Munda Beach look for. But the consequence of their dalliance, their “original sin,” an aborted pregnancy, continues to haunt them, whether they’re alone or together, and they don’t hold our compassion for very long: when Marcia wakes the first morning at Munda Beach to Peter attacking a tree with an axe, she asks why he’s chopping it down; his answer is a hollow and caustic, “Why not?” Instead of quiet reverie, sullen Peter stalks off alone to drink and shoot wildly into the woods around the beach. Marcia pushes Peter away when he tries to make love to her, and shamefully hides her otherwise lovely body under wretched leisure wear or a long dressing gown. In a rare moment of on-screen tenderness between them, she asks Peter, “What would you have done if I died?” following the presumably difficult abortion. His wounded, sharp reply –“You didn’t die, so let’s forget about it” – is echoed later by his gruff assertion that he’s “not sure he heard anything at all” when Marcia asks about the ghostly animal call that hangs over their campsite, the one that “sounded like a baby crying.” Their sin, their pain over it, and their inability to talk about it is compounded after Marcia smashes an eagle’s egg in yet another distressing and graphic scene (“You didn’t have to smash it!” Peter yells. “I didn’t have to have an abortion, Peter!” shouts Marcia wildly), and again later, when Peter shoots a female dugong (manatee). When he muses that she might have been swimming with her baby, Marcia, revolted, hisses “Ugly,” through clenched teeth.
But by that time, however, nature, and indeed the world, has answered Peter and Marcia’s overflowing poison and their accumulating, thoughtless violence with vicious animal attacks, as well as raising the specter of murdered children and missing parents elsewhere on Munda Beach. The realization that they’re in danger does little to bring the pair together - instead of offering Marcia comfort and support, a jeering Peter plays on his guitar, “If you go down to the woods today you won’t believe your eyes! If you go down to the woods today you might get a big surprise!” By this time, the couple are lost to one another. Marcia’s threat of divorce becomes a final primal separation when she strands Peter and his dog at the campsite, and by the film’s end, Peter is unable to tell his wife’s cry for help from wildlife sounds. The world is unable to hold what Peter and Marcia has been pouring into it, and all of the pair’s “callousness is rewarded with cold-hearted killing” (Gibron 2005).