Long Weekend Review

Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets) go on holiday to a remote part of the Australian coast, in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. The couple are careless: dropping lighted cigarettes out of their car window, running over a wallaby. But as the weekend progresses, strange things begin to happen: a chicken goes bad, the car won’t start, and Peter is attacked by a sea eagle and a dugong is washed up on the beach. It seems that nature is fighting back…

Long Weekend is one of those films that wasn’t a success at the box office but has a way of staying in the mind of people who see it. It was shot on a very low budget in 1977 (which is the copyright date) but didn’t have its Australian premiere until 1979. At that time the Australian film revival was well underway, and there was quite a lot of competition. And also, as executive producer Richard Brennan suggests in the commentary, most of the new Australian films weren’t genre films and there seemed to be some reluctance on the audience to watch homegrown genre work. Like Patrick, made in 1978 also from an Everett de Roche screenplay, it seemed to have a greater impact abroad. Although it had a British cinema release in 1980, it’s a fair bet that most people reading this will have caught it on a TV showing. That was how I first saw Long Weekend, in the late 80s on BBC2, a version that was panned and scanned from the original Scope format and had the film’s several “fucks” deleted. It had a VHS release from Arthouse as part of a series of Australian films in 1994, presumably uncensored but still panned and scanned. (No widescreen master was available apparently, which was also a problem with The Cars That Ate Paris and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.) As Brennan points out, this DVD is the first official release of the film outside cinemas in the 2.35:1 ratio.

The use of the Scope format is unusual but effective, as the film is basically a two-hander. In fact there are all of six credited actors, but for virtually all the running time its only one of both of Hargreaves and Behets on screen. It takes a little while for us to find out what has happened in their marriage, and we see them seesaw between what’s left of the affection they once felt for each other to painful, abusive arguments. De Roche’s script careful balances the marital drama with a slow build-up of tension, and this is ably assisted by Eggleston’s direction and Vincent Monton’s camerawork, which makes the landscape a third character in the film. Even before Peter and Marcia have left the city there are hints of wrongness. Birds fly up as Peter starts his car, and a television news item reports cockatoo attacks on Sydney houses. The film has a disturbing atmosphere which is hard to shake off.

Colin Eggleston began his career by shooting the sex comedy Fantasm Comes Again (under the pseudonym Eric Ram). Long Weekend remains his best film. (He did get to make Outback Vampires though, which was a favourite of Quentin Tarantino’s.) He died in 2002. Hargreaves died of AIDS in 1996, and Long Weekend was one of the films shown in tribute. Rightly so, as he was one of the finest actors in Australia in the 70s. He was possibly too “Australian” a type to sit well in overseas productions, so he didn’t have the international success of fellow antipodeans Mel Gibson, Sam Neill and to a lesser extent Bryan Brown. Long Weekend won him a Best Actor Award at the Sitges Horror Film Festival and you can see why. Peter begins the film as a very macho character, overconfident of his abilities in the great outdoors and completely insensitive to his wife’s needs. Behets has in many ways a more difficult role: as we don’t know at first the reasons for the marriage breakdown, her character risks being unsympathetic. (A brief scene showing her masturbating after an argument with Peter is the only real point where the film tips over into crassness.) Incidentally, Behets was Colin Eggleston’s wife, and possibly for that reason, not his first choice for the role. Although she had acted before and continues to do so, this was a rare lead role for her and it remains her best.

Long Weekend is very much in the “nature fights back” horror subgenre, of which the best-known examples are The Birds and Frogs. However, due to intelligent writing and filmmaking, not to mention two superior lead performances, Long Weekend becomes more than just an Aussie spin on familiar materials, and becomes one of those films you discover almost by accident but are certainly glad you did.

Long Weekend is released as part of the “Oz Classics” series from Umbrella Entertainment, and is encoded for all regions. As mentioned above, the transfer is in the correct 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphically enhanced. On the plus side, watching this film in original ratio adds to the film’s atmosphere: the wide format benefits the landscape and is also used to isolate characters in that landscape. The transfer is certainly acceptable, but more unforgiving viewing equipment won’t be kind to it. This is partly due to the original materials (images shot with anamorphic lenses tend to be softer and harder to get in focus anyway, particularly at low light levels) and partly due to a lowish bitrate, mostly around 5Mbps on this single-layer disc. Another reason is film grain: quite a few Australian films shot around this period use a filmstock which tends to look quite grainy on DVD. The image is certainly a little too soft, and there’s some noticeably unstable blacks in early scenes inside the couple’s house. It’s not a bad transfer by any means, especially in the more brightly-lit scenes, but it’s not up to the usual standards of discs authored by Madman Entertainment.

The soundtrack is mono, but it has a wider dynamic range than many stereo films. Dialogue (even if there isn’t a huge amount of it, especially in the last third of the film) is always clear and well balanced with the sound effects and Michael Carlos’s creepy music score. However, I do wish Umbrella Entertainment would start including English subtitles on their discs. There are eleven chapter stops.

The potential for extras is limited, as both Hargreaves and Eggleston are dead, and Behets now lives in Los Angeles and wasn’t available. So the commentary is provided by Richard Brennan and Vincent Monton. It’s a consistently interesting track though may be a little dry and technical for some viewers. But if you want to know how Monton and his focus puller got both Hargreaves and Behets in focus in the nighttime car scenes (answer: split-diopter lenses) then this is a track for you. The running-through-the-woods scenes near the end feature the first ever use on film of a Panaglide, the Panavision company’s answer to the Steadicam. (The company loaned the prototype to Monton and his crew in the last week of shooting. Unfortunately it got broken.)

Hargreaves does in fact show up on this DVD. As the stills gallery passes before our eyes, we hear an audio interview with him by Tony Watts, done in August 1995, five months before his death. This is more a general discussion about his approach to acting rather than being specific to Long Weekend, but it’s certainly an entertaining listen, running 4:43. The colour stills (the work of David Parker, later to be writer/DP of Malcolm amongst others) are shown as anamorphic 16:9. The gallery is completed by reproductions of the film’s original poster designs. Finally, there’s the theatrical trailer, in anamorphic 2.35:1 and running 1:57. It begins with a voiceover saying “Listen to the sound of evil” and tries to sell the film as a rather less subtle horror movie than it actually is.

Long Weekend is a film with some considerable cult reputation and is one that many people have “discovered” over the years. It remains a very effective little horror movie and certainly deserves its place in Umbrella’s “Oz Classics” catalogue and the extras are as worthwhile as usual. A pity the transfer isn’t better.

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