Monday, October 9, 2017

The Halloween List: A Trip to the 70s with Duel, Frenzy, and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Duel (1971)

That Steven Spielberg sure earned his career. This was the movie that earned him Jaws, but rather than the tale of a shark, it’s one long car chase that’s truly harrowing. A salesman is out trying to make a meeting in another state when he tries to pass a slow moving truck; the truck responds by pulling ahead of him, then slowing down again. It’s a moment of impatience and tension a lot of us have driven through, but it begins a game of cat and mouse, out in the middle of nowhere, where no one can help him.

Especially for a 1970s made-for-TV movie, Duel is masterful. How do you keep such a simple film from getting visually boring? He films the cars from all angles, and ___ gives a riveting performance as a man falling behind the wheel. The use of music is sparing, often subtle, elevate the rumble of engines and the wind of the wilderness. The movie always knows when to take you in closer to our driver, or when to focus on the enigma of the truck. We never see the man that’s chasing us. There’s only his titanic vehicle.

The biggest difference between Duel and most modern Horror is that its stakes are so narrow and its plot so simple that a huge chunk of it feels plausible. I wouldn’t be surprised to read a “What’s your worst driving story?” Reddit comment that went like the first half of the film.

The greatest stretch of credulity is that the film requires is that a truck driver somewhere out there might be deranged enough to come after you. I love outlandish plots, and you will pry my supernatural terrors from my cold dead hands, but there’s a keen appeal to a story that’s this grounded, with so little unnecessary conflict. Duel is a manifestation of your worst fears when you’re the smallest car on the road.

Frenzy (1972)

If Duel was a reminder of one genius’s greatness, then Frenzy is a reminder of another genius’s fallibility.

Made in 1972, it was one of Hitchcock’s last films, and feels like one of his most indulgent, the kind of film that a studio should trim down but the director is too big to be denied. At nearly two hours, it gives a dozen points of view on the pursuit of a mass strangler, with precious few of those points of view illuminating anything, and almost all of them as an excuse to spout suspicious and clever dialogue.

The plot is made from leftover scraps of Hitchcock’s favorite tropes. There’s a serial killer raping and strangling women and he must be stopped! Our hero is a down-on-his-luck bar tender who ladies are just dying to fix! He winds framed for the crimes, and much of the intelligent cast runs around trying to support him! Meanwhile, pretty much any woman who so much as smiles at him is probably going to be killed.

Some Horror fan is going to decry me as a prude. I am not opposed to exploring problematic sexuality in Horror. I wrote last year about the fascinating work in It Follows and Under the Skin. This is a cumbersome and clumsy film, and when you screw up sexual violence, you’ve screwed up a big thing. The worst was that at a certain point, I started paying more attention to folding my laundry than to a rape scene. That’s a big thing to screw up that badly.

Frenzy is at its best when it is suggestive. From the first half hour we know who the killer is, and watch him roam around the film, charming women, getting closer to them, never dropping a hint of what he’s luring them into. This is creepy as hell, and reminds us that abusers walk among us. By far the best (and in its own way, worst) scene in the film is a single tracking shot of the killer walking a woman to an apartment. It leaves them at the door, then slowly walks us away, unable to hear a sound, downstairs, and out to the street, where the city life continues, pedestrians ignorant of what we know must be happening upstairs.

That crawl of a scene is chilling, and it made me realize a flaw that’s been present in many of Hitchcock’s films: he could not direct violence. The rape scene in Frenzy is a start, but even in his classic Psycho, when the guy gets thrown down the stairs into a green screened death, it looks ridiculous. When you think of great violence, like the shower stabbing in that same Psycho, it wasn’t filmed directly. It was done through rapid editing cuts and suggestion.

Was it the censors, the studio interfering, the culture of the time, a lack of actors with choreography knowledge, or his failure as a director? I don’t know. It’s something I’ll be looking for the next time I watch Hitchcock.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

A good friend gave me a copy of this for my birthday, and so I naturally saved it for a temperate night in October. I’ve seen very little Australian film, and feel entirely out of my depth in criticizing it in that context. But its tone and visual strength are totally comparable to the higher quality films from Britain in the 1970s, and it’s absolutely accessible for uncultured foreigners like myself.

Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t quite a Horror film, although I can see why it got swept into this genre. Horror has the strongest association with morbidity, and so movies like this feel closer to it than anything else. The story follows the class of a girl’s boarding school who go out for a picnic. Several of them disappear and later are found injured or dead. No one can explain what happened, included the delirious survivor.

This doesn’t result in their school being stalked by a vengeful spirit, or a vast conspiracy of depravity. The community has no answer for it, and pretty much never comes up with one. Instead the film profiles the girls losing faith in each other, students leaving the school, and faculty and adults trying to make sense of the tragedy.

It’s naturally tame compared to the blood-spattered movies we expect today. Even the discovery of the bodies is gentle, relying more on how horrified the adults are at the crime scene, or at the mere rumor of what’s happened. It comes from another era in film that is hardly uniquely Australian: there was a time when violence wasn’t so normalized in our media. These characters can’t shrug it off. It haunts them, and ruins their lives not because a career is over, but because it’s difficult to go back to living a normal life with those images in your head.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is worth watching if only for the hard counterpoint to how violence is treated in contemporary Horror. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the splatterpunk of Hatchet, the comedy of Happy Death Day, or the intensity overload of I Saw the Devil. But we have lost the ability to tell stories about how much violence matters. It’s something I hope the genre can regain. It’s the right genre to reclaim it.

Up next: It Comes at Night and The Autopsy of Jane Doe.


  1. It's been a while, but I remember Duel. I can see it really happening.
    Shame Hitchcock had to go out with a whimper.

  2. Even my non movie/television watching self remembers Duel.
    I am all in favour of leaving things to the imagination. Mine is an active beast.


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