When one thinks about man vs. nature films, schlock, not shock, is the usual initial reaction. Be it Food of the Gods, a Giant Spider Invasion, the immense ants of Them! or the killer rabbits of Night of the Lepus, it's hard to find examples of serious speculative suspense when it comes to humanity against the wild. Alfred Hitchcock gave us the gloriously macabre The Birds, and his Italian counterpart Dario Argento delivered the psychic insect surrealism of Phenomena. But overall, the films forged out of such a concept are dopey and dumb. The poorly veiled pro-ecology leanings destroy any abject terror, and the four-legged fiends they employ are usually special effect-less. When something truly sensational comes along, it should be celebrated for the animal-based anomaly it is.
Long Weekend is one such stellar exercise. Directed by Australian Colin Eggleston (who also helmed the softcore sludge Fantasm Comes Again) and written by American ex-patriot Everett De Roche (responsible for the excellent Patrick) this is a thriller in the good old fashioned eeriness and goosebumps tradition. With a small cast and an even more minimal amount of dialogue, we're dropped smack dab in the middle of a camping vacation gone horribly, horribly wrong. Yet instead of giving us monsters and mediocrity, this is a thinking man's badass beast bonanza. The fear derives not from the cranky critters, but from what their newfound anger toward an inconsiderate husband and wife means to the whole of humanity. And the warning is very disturbing indeed.
Peter and Marcia are a married couple in free-fall. She is having an affair, and a resulting issue has driven a massive wedge between them. Hoping to rekindle their far-flung feelings, the pair head off to a remote beach locale for an extended holiday. Peter is ecstatic about the trip. He's spent lots of money buying the best camping equipment available and fancies himself an outdoorsman. Marcia would have preferred to go with their friends to a local resort. The tension is thick between the two, yet only gets worse as they reach their destination. While the setting is gorgeous, there are aspects that don't seem right. There are unnerving noises all around, the sound of nature in frantic, angry disorder. Before they know it, they are under attack, as random members of the animal family take out their rabid ire on the pair. As nature closes in, it looks like they may not survive this creepy crawly Long Weekend.
You sometimes have to wonder why certain films weren't more successful. Not every movie released can be critically acclaimed and embraced by the audience, but when an obviously well made and executed little thriller comes along, an exercise in controlled dread and eerie atmosphere that's really effective, you have to ponder the reasons why the vast majority passed on it. Early Australian cinema seems cursed in this category. Films like Mad Dog Morgan, Bad Boy Bubby, and Starstruck are all lost gems when viewed today. But upon initial release, audiences outside their Downunder domain barely knew they existed. We can now add Long Weekend to this list. An amazingly complicated and claustrophobic chiller (which is something, when you consider its great outdoors milieu) it is a film with mood, ambience and uncomforting elements in magnificently masterful hordes. Yet until recently, very few film fans knew this title existed, and if they did, they dismissed it as another man vs. nature novelty.
Long Weekend is more than just a bumbling B movie 'when animals attack' scenario. Indeed, a better way to describe the film's main focus would be "when a raped planet gets good and pissed off'. Clearly, Everett De Roche's excellent script is steeped in the mid-70s sentiment of ecology and environmentalism. But instead of making our leads the hapless victims of everyone else's thoughtlessness and carelessness, we get a couple of self-righteous litter buggers all our own. Admittedly, John Hargreaves' Peter is the more proactive punisher. He has no problem dumping on his home turf, using his rifle as a relaxation tool or an axe as an extension of his machismo. He's the perfect example of the wussified weekend warrior. Yet Briony Behets' Marcia isn't much better. While she delivers some minor respect to the wilderness around her, she is too caught up in her own emotional materialism to avoid obvious nature-based faux pax, like wondering where the toilets are or obliterating a family of ants with some insecticide.
This is a miserable couple, people who anger us from the very first moments they are onscreen. Each one is self-absorbed, arrogant, priggish and completely diseased in their own important thoughts. How De Roche and director Colin Eggleston decide to treat these individuals is interesting. Instead of making them the element in which the audience identifies, they are clearly the villains. Though the opening of the film has them stopping at a creepy gas station populated by several members of the Sawyer's Outback kinfolk, these proto-yuppies, with their thousands of dollars of camping equipment and multiple modern conveniences will be the victors here, not the victims (at least, not at first...). Indeed, throughout the entire first act, De Roche and Eggleston keep us constantly off kilter. They pepper Peter with some sentimental decency, and give us hints as to why Marcia is so mean...and miserable. But just like the notion of nature as vindictive, not just a passive part of the landscape, our filmmakers fudge with the rules, and before we know it, our perceptions and our preferences have turned upside down and inside out.
This movie is brilliant in the way it takes its time getting to the meat of its menace. Eggleston never stages scenes outright. He lets the regular course of events dictate what happens to the couple. While fidgeting with a spear gun, or stumbling upon an eagle's egg may seem like obvious setups for suspense, this director holds off on delivering an obvious climax. When they do eventually work their way back into the narrative, it is in unexpected and unnerving ways. Similarly, as Peter and Marcia continuously undermine the ecosystem for their own selfish needs, Eggleston gets us good and angry. He makes us hungry for vengeance, and disinterested in the reasons why the couple are so callous - not only to each other, but to their surroundings. Instead, we want swift and sanguine justice. Not surprisingly, De Roche and Eggleston are not up to letting us off that easy. This is not a movie where revenge is immediate and elemental. Long Weekend makes its main characters suffer - physically AND emotionally - before showing them who is really in control of their destiny.
This is a horrifying film, but not a typical horror film in the standard sense. We don't get killer shrews or mutant seafood. Instead, we have the great big mystery of nature nastied up for utmost unease. Sound is a crucial feature of the film, and just like the unnerving cry of the Falk monster in the otherwise goofy Legend of Boggy Creek, the animal noises echoing around our couple sound like the death throngs of the entire planet's population. Eggleston contrasts those far away wails with up close screeches and growls, growing nearer and nearer as each scene unfolds. The amount of tension built up by the director is delicious. We can't wait for the cathartic moment when all of this angst will be alleviated. Interestingly, Eggleston tries for something other than an all out release. Instead, just as he has built up the suspense, he equally releases the pressure. This is not to say that Long Weekend ends with a whimper. A better way to say it is that, once we understand what fate has in store here, we eventually give in to the inevitable. The fun is in watching it play out, not pay off.
Thanks to the attention to minor details (this is not a film of set pieces but of multiple layers of minor moments) and the overriding disquiet created by Eggleston and De Roche, Long Weekend becomes a lost classic. There are many memorable moviemaking moments (the long, spooky drive through a dark, sinister underbrush) and great performances from the entire cast. While not a bloody film, it is a haunting, harrowing experience, a realistic look at the exact instance when nature decides to stop taking a backseat to the uncaring tendencies of its human inhabitants and get even. It's callousness rewarded with cold-hearted killing. Proving that a lot of great cinema came out of the Australian scene circa the 1970s, Long Weekend will hopefully reclaim its place as a legitimate member of the masterful macabre. This is a wonderful experience in suspense.
Synapse's release of this terrific title is a masterpiece of remastering. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is just pristine. It is magnificently colorful, filled with contrast clear details, and epic in its use of wide-open natural vistas. Many of the shots are so cinematic that they literally take your breath away. While there are a few minor moments that give away the film's low budget approach (including a couple of faked night driving scenes), this is still one of the best looking transfers ever. It is an amazing visual feast.
Synapse also steps up sonically with an astonishingly atmospheric and ambient Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix. Again, sound is very important to this production, and the use of the multi-channel format is shockingly effective. We do get the impression of being lost in the Australian wilderness surrounded by all the hideous noises of nasty nature unleashed. While a 2.0 Mono track is also available, you really should stick to the speaker shuttling revamp. It is an intense aural experience, perfect for the film it compliments.
Sadly, several members of the cast and crew are not with us to add their insight into the making of this movie. As a result, the full-length audio commentary only features Producer Richard Brennan and Cinematographer Vincent Monton. Both have brilliant memories and add a great amount of detail and depth as to the production of this film. Brennan is filled with anecdotes about many members of the cast and crew, while Monton adds his expert opinion about several of the more technical elements of the shoot. They explain where scenes were "faked", where effects were used to keep actual animals out of harms way, and the lasting impact of the film on modern moviemaking. Though it would have been nice to hear Eggleston (who passed away a couple of years ago) or De Roche discuss the movie, this is still an amazingly interesting DVD feature.
Additionally, late actor John Hargreaves can be heard in an audio-only interview from a few years back discussing the various aspects of his career, as well as the making of Long Weekend. This Q&A is supplemented with a gallery of production stills from the film, including many behind the scenes glimpses of the horrific death scenes. Along with a trailer, and an insert featuring some interesting liner notes, Synapse delivers a professional digital package.
By now, it is safe to say that nature has more or less given up the fight for dominance. While it can still conjure up one Hell of a storm, its animal minions are not the scary soldiers they once were. Indeed, with so much of today's culture focused on our four feathered and furry friends, we've entered a kind of carnivore's truce with all of God's creatures. You don't eat us - and we'll try not to do the same with too many of you. Back when factories were fouling the water and air, when people were polluting the land with phosphates and fast food containers, Ma Wilderness was good and cheesed off - and she had the cheddar-based cinema to back her up. But Long Weekend is a more serious, sinister affair. It takes the threat from nature sincerely and gives us sensationally stellar and visceral reasons why. The environment may have eased off over the years, but that doesn't mean a big fat backlash isn't in the making. As this fine forgotten film shows us, when it wants to, the great outdoors can be one vicious variable.
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