Friday, January 4, 2019

LONG WEEKEND 1978

"Hey, farmer, farmer put away the DDT, now. Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please."    Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell - 1970 

The toxic pesticide DDT wasn’t banned until 1972, but the Environmentalist movement responsible for getting that particular ecological ball rolling is also credited with inspiring the “Nature Strikes Back!” genre of horror films so popular in the '70s. Environmental horror films (eco-horror)—movies in which wildlife and nature rebelled against mankind’s abuses—were an amalgam of the mutant monster movies of the Atomic Age ‘50s and the man-against-man paranoia films of the Cold-War ‘60s. In capturing the '70s zeitgeist, these "Green Panic" films (sensationalized, often vigorously silly cautionary tales couched in well-meaning relevance) were the anxiety-induced by-product of America’s post-Vietnam self-loathing and Watergate guilt, crossed with the onset realization that the prosperity-based corporate/industrialist “plastics” future satirically endorsed in The Graduate (1967) was slowly killing the planet.

I grew up at a time when the air was brown with smog, when it was not unusual to see motorists on the freeway dump ashtrays and entire bags of garbage out of their windows onto the road, and when city sidewalks were freckled with the dots of chewing gum, cigarette butts, and the flip top tabs of soft drink cans. Societal attitudes toward pets and animals were far less humane and sanitary during these pre-curb your dog, spay/neuter ordinance days, the lack of mandatory leash laws turning a child's daily walk home from school (me, being the child in question) into an impromptu episode of Wild Kingdom.
Long Weekend is the first feature film for Australian director Colin Eggleston, and the first feature-length original screenplay from American writer Everett De Roche, who followed this up with the telekinesis thriller Patrick (1978)

I was a three-year-old when “Keep America Beautiful” anti-littering ads began appearing on television, 13 by the launch of the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), and 14 when Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody debuted as the teary-eyed Native American symbol in that long-running series of national anti-litterbug PSAs. The few headlines at the time that weren't devoted to the war in Vietnam or our crumbling democracy were devoted to news of man-made ecological disasters, panic-pieces on the dangers of nuclear power, and the ecological risks posed by pesticides, deforestation, and unchecked industrial waste.

In the shadow of a senseless war, government corruption, and economic collapse, the rapidly deteriorating environmental landscape came to mirror the American public's eroding faith in its leaders and institutions. It has always been a given that self-annihilation was the inevitable endgame of man's inhumanity to man, but when this callous disregard for existence looked to extend itself to the destruction of innocent wildlife and the environment as a whole, motion pictures took up the cathartic mantle of providing defenseless mother Nature with a melodramatic avenue of recourse: violent resistance.
John Hargreaves as Peter
Briony Behets as Marcia
Though lacking in the kind of environmentalist score-settling that later came to typify the genre, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) is considered one of the earliest examples of “man vs. nature” horror. Come the ‘70s, the sleeper success of Willard (1971)—with its supporting cast of rampaging rodents—spearheaded the decade’s glut of “animals on the attack” films. Many of these films, especially Jaws (1975) the most successful and influential film of this ilk, simply inserted members of the animal kingdom into the classic sci-fi and monster movie template (Grizzly – 1976, Orca - 1977, The White Buffalo - 1977, Nightwing - 1979, Night of the Lepus). 
Others, like King Kong (1976) and The Swarm (1978), sought to combine both the monster movie ethos and contemporary environmentalist themes to the big-budget spectacle of the then-popular disaster film. But it was movies with titles like Food of the Gods (1976), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Empire of the Ants (1977), and Day of the Animals (1977) that established ecological horror as a standalone subgenre which sought to draw allegorical parallels between the revolt of nature and man’s abuse of the environment. 
Long Weekend, a 1978 Australian entry in the eco-horror cycle, is said to be a classic example of “Ozploitation”—the low-budget, sensationalist branch of the indie-film boom that saw Aussie features like Walkabout (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and Mad Max (1979) finding global popularity during the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Unlike those films, Long Weekend was not a success in its home country, so its 1979 U.S. release came without benefit of advance word-of-mouth or much in the way of marketing fanfare. Which may go to explain why I’d never even heard of the film before this year and why I don’t actually know if it ever had a Los Angeles release. More’s the pity. For I found Long Weekend to be such an unexpectedly taut and atmospheric exercise in dread and character conflict, I know it would have loved seeing it in my youth.
Long Weekend wins points right out of the gate in that it deftly combines elements of several of my favorite film genres: the domestic dysfunction drama (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Two for the Road, Closer ); the suspense thriller in which internal conflicts manifest as external threats (Black Swan, Images); the '70s disaster-survival film (The Poseidon Adventure); and the parapsychological haunted house movie (The Haunting).
Peter and Marcia, an unhappy couple living in the suburbs of Melbourne, embark (with polar opposite degrees of enthusiasm) on a trip to the Australian bush to camp, surf, and commune with nature over the course of a 4-day holiday weekend. Our introduction finds the attractive (if flinty) young couple barely on speaking terms: Marcia feeling Peter is behaving like “A real shit” for digging in his heels and dragging her off to rough it in the wild North when she’d much rather spend the weekend at a mountain resort with neighbors Mark and Freda; Peter, a gung-ho, weekend-warrior type who fancies himself a rugged outdoorsman, finds Marcia's "I don't want to go" peevishness to be suspect, so he masks his passive-aggressive dominance (i.e., a total disinterest in anything Marcia wants) behind half-hearted conciliatory gestures.
"Peter, I'm not the type for crapping in the sunshine and yawning around campfires!"
Marcia's resistance to the whole camping ordeal finds her insulated from nature in an expensive tent surrounded by creature comforts while she reads a Harold Robbins novel. (On IMDB it's cited that Marcia is reading the thematically suitable "The Inheritors" by William Golding (Lord of the Flies). Alas, it's the more character-revealing Robbins novel about greed and wealth by the same name.) 

As the two embark on their outing, encountering weather and traffic conditions which all but serve as banshee-screaming harbingers of doom urging the couple to “Go back!”, it isn't long before their ill-advised journey shows signs of becoming something of a metaphorical mystery tour. Past squabbles erupt, mutual dissatisfactions are aired, and along the way, a callous disregard for nature and the environment is evinced in terms reflective of their vacillating disregard for one another. It's in this manner that Long Weekend's cyclical (boomerang?) thematic structure is reinforced. The gross discordancy of Peter and Marcia's relationship (like cast-out Adam and Eve, they are given no last names) reverberates and revisits itself upon their surroundings, their toxic bitterness having the effect of despoiling the land and surrounding creatures until nature intervenes on life's behalf.
In an interview, the late Everett De Roche summarized the premise of his screenplay for Long Weekend: “Mother Earth has her own auto-immune system, so when humans start behaving like cancer cells, She attacks.”
An unattended spear gun goes off, narrowly missing one of the campers. The already-evidenced supernatural energy of the campsite (frequently, nature is heard to scream or cry whenever attacked) has the tree to appear to die from the spear, as though mortally wounded

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I discovered Long Weekend after spending an afternoon watching Joan Collins in the deliciously tacky Empire of the Ants and logged onto IMDB to see where this rather embarrassing foray into ginormous papier-mâché insects fell in her lengthy resume (plop in the middle of a fallow spell four years before Dynasty came a-callin’). The site recommended similar titles, among them Long Weekend which I’d never heard of, but whose plot summary I found intriguing.
Wholly anticipating a fun & cheesy exercise in “When Good Animals Go Bad”-style, nature-run-amok horror, I was caught off guard (and pleasantly surprised) when Long Weekend turned out to be a grippingly suspenseful, genuinely frightening eco-thriller with a compellingly fucked-up marriage at its center.
I confess to the snarky, Albee-esque “George and Martha Go Camping” angle being my favorite element of Long Weekend, but I’m equally impressed by the economy of De Roche’s crisp screenplay and the style of Eggleston’s direction. Making the most of its modest budget (purposefully underpopulated, the film pulls off the impressive feat of making the great outdoors feel encroaching and claustrophobic); simple theme (all livings things fight for their survival); and scenic locale (capitalizing on the ominously mystical quality of Australia’s undeveloped rural coast); Long Weekend tackles a lot of big issues by training its lens on the fine details.
Marcia and Peter's interactions are frequently filmed from a low, constantly moving angle,
giving the impression they are being watched by some unseen forest creature 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The cyclical indestructibility of energy—evil in particular—is a familiar theme in ghost stories and haunted house movies (how many films have used variations of the line “Evil never dies, it just changes form”?). In Long Weekend, humans are the generators of the malevolent energy that nature ultimately recycles and returns (with a vengeance) in a self-preservationist strike against the violent toxicity of mankind’s jackboot ecological footprint. Whereas a great many eco-horror films are built on the premise of humans terrorized by hostile beasts and wildlife invading urban areas of safety, Long Weekend cast humans as the unsafe and unwelcome intruders and despoilers of nature's beauty.
"What have you been doing to the tree?"
"Chopping it down."
"Why?"
"Why not
?"
Humanity’s entitled encroachment upon wildlife’s natural habitat is reflected in the film’s opening scenes which present Marcia, dressed in a green floral print, tending to her indoor plants (the “imprisoned” florae harkening back to the caged lovebirds in Hitchcock’s film), packing up a frozen chicken (which slips from her grasp, as though still alive and trying to escape), and ignoring a TV news report about flocks of cockatoos destroying homes in Sydney as they gnaw on the wood structures in an effort to correct a dietary imbalance brought about by overdevelopment. (A real-life problem that persists to this day in Australia.)
If Marcia is symbolic of mankind’s indifference to the environment (she would have Peter leave his dog alone for three days with one bowl of food “She’s too fat, anyway!”) Peter—with his arsenal of violent recreational camping equipment—is humanity at its most aggro. Peter’s master-of-all-he-surveys arrogance evident in the couple’s ceaselessly acrimonious interactions (rooted in possessiveness, betrayal, and the corrupt values of affluence) is the side of humanity that would seek to exert dominance over nature rather than contemplate a balanced coexistence.
Long Weekend is at its most unnervingly chilling when the corresponding themes of its cyclical structure (nearly everything that occurs in the latter part of the film has been telegraphed earlier) converge at the campsite, and the heretofore realist narrative grows sinisterly supernatural. Nature appears to respond defensively and in kind to the couple’s amplified aggressions, leading to the ultimate face-off…a tension-filled 20-minutes without dialogue…which is an unforgettable shock.

PERFORMANCES
Given my weakness for movies about screwed-up people in troubled relationships, I don’t hold to the axiom that characters in a film need to be likeable. Interesting and sympathetic perhaps, or, more to the point, empathetic works for me. Marcia & Peter are a pretty unpleasant pair as protagonists go, but as realized by British actor Briony Behets (at the time, wife of the director), and Australian actor John Hargreaves (who is truly splendid), they are believable as hell, and therefore, their flaws and weaknesses are compelling. If there's a sympathetic character to be found in the film at all, it's Mother Nature, whose army of disarmingly benign-looking warriors somehow manage to be both cute and discomfiting.
Gay actor John Hargreaves won Best Actor for his work in Long Weekend at The Sitges Film Festival (specializing in horror and fantasy films) in 1978, beating out Laurence Olivier in Dracula, Donald Pleasance in Halloween, and Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu. Hargreaves died of AIDS in 1996 and asked that his award be buried with him.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS  
The ‘70s are long gone, but in light of today’s concerns about global warming, climate change, and head-in-the-sand science deniers; I’d say the time was ripe for eco-horror movies to make a comeback. That is, until I happen to catch the news and am suddenly reminded that I'm actually living IN an environmental horror movie, and the idea loses all its entertainment value. Much in the way I've found myself over the last couple of years having no stomach for contemporary films about political corruption, with the threat of ecological Armageddon so real, I think I'm better of sticking with the Seventies. At least the ultimate message of those films was hopeful.
The third character in Long Weekend's three-character melodrama is the lush scenery of
Australia's Bournda State Reserve, New South Wales, and Phillip Island

And indeed, from the leading lady’s Samantha Sang hairdo to the leading man’s short-shorts, Long Weekend looks every bit the 1977 film it is (it took a while to reach the screen). But that doesn’t stop this Aussie import from still being one of the best of that decade’s Crimes Against Nature genre flicks; a timeless timepiece of suspense and retribution whose cautionary-tale take on the perils of pushing nature too far is (sadly) as relevant now as when it was made.



BONUS MATERIAL
Long Weekend was remade in 2008 by director Jamie Blanks from a screenplay by original screenwriter Everett De Roche. An Australian production that I believe went direct-to-video in the States (where it was given the awful title Nature's Grave).
This entertainingly faithful remake (down to duplicate shots and dialogue)
 stars Jim Caviezel and Claudia Karvan.

Screenwriter Everett De Roche makes a cameo appearance in the 2008 remake as a pub
patron at the Eggleston Hotel, a tribute to original Long Weekend director Colin Eggleston
Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. Wow! I'm completely unfamiliar with this. It looks beautiful and as if it would be captivating viewing. I will steadfastly avoid the remake... why???

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    1. Hey Posiedon
      Yes, the Australian landscape is absolutely gorgeous. Not being a fan of camping myself, I also find it and all those semi-cute beasts on display (Tazmanian devil, for one) appropriately creepy. Film's chief benefit is in being a relationship drama and capturing a kind of battle of the sexes tension that was very much a part of the late '70s. The remake is fine, but comes up short on creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension for me.

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  2. I saw this on video a few years ago - and yes, it sticks with you. While watching, something about it kept reminding me of the US film 'Frogs' (1972).

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    1. I Haven't seen FROGS in years, but the way LONG WEEKEND makes otherwise harmless-looking animals and insects appear threatening reminded me of that movie, as well. In fact, FROGS is exactly the kind of film "animals on attack" movie I thought LONG WEEKEND was going to be. So nicely surprised to have it be more of a character drama in supernatural disguise.

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  3. Never saw this before, but it was on Prime, so I watched it last night. Thought it was very well done. So many current movies seem so overblown, I really appreciate a movie that can do a lot with not much. A lot of mood--I like how it went right up to the edge of "the uncanny," but never quite crosses the line.

    And, sure, the guy's a jerk, but you can still empathize with him at the end (at least I can) and there's real suspense there. (Unlike Frogs, which I remember being a dismal slog toward the end.)

    Never saw it, but I wonder if this was the jumping-off point for Von Trier's Antichrist. The stories seem similar.

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    1. "I really appreciate a movie that can do a lot with not much." I think that is one of the refreshing take-aways I got from this film as well. To do the whole eco-horror thing so effectively small-scale...without special effects or over-the-top gimmickry made for a pleasing genre discovery.
      It does as much with mood and atmosphere as it does with the character dynamics of the two leads, and all without ever resorting to a the kind of "Big Finish" moviemaking we see today, where unless half the world explodes, viewers don't think they get their money's worth. There's a great deal of emotional and supernatural suspense, and a nice subversion of the "likeability" trope...for me, characters can bypass likeable if they are dramatically compelling and given some depth. I think LONG WEEKEND does a very good job of that, which isn't as easy as it seems. It's so much better than those FROGS and NIGHT of the LEPUS movies, but I suppose fans of those kinds of films would be let down by how human-scale the horrors are in LONG WEEKEND.
      I've never seen Von Trier's ANTICHRIST, however, but I'll look it up. Glad you checked out the film and shared your thoughts on it with us. Much appreciated!

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  4. Hi, Ken! I have so much catching up to do on your blog, and started with this entry about a film I'd never heard of (your writing frequently introduces me to "new" movies, as in ones that haven't appeared on my radar before). Once again I was struck by your knowledge of film - the piece is so thoroughly researched. Your ever thoughtful style of writing remains a joy to read. Thank you for bringing Long Weekend to my attention, I hope to catch it sometime.

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    1. Hi Sandra
      Do you have any idea how flattering it is to hear someone with you own extensive knowledge of film tell me that you have "catching up to do" in regard to my blog?
      This film journal of mine is so personal, I'm still so gratified by such kind words as yours.
      I selfishly write about a lot of films I wish there were more internet information about, hence the frequent odd title that few seem aware of.
      My taste is my own, but I don't think it's too far reaching to think that perhaps you might enjoy this film if you ever happen to come across it.
      I think I've said this before, but I always feel I need to print out your very nice comments and post them on the bulletin board above my workspace. Your sincere generosity always hits m where I live. Thank YOU!..For reading this and taking the time to make me feel like a million!

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