The Savage Stack: LONG WEEKEND (1978)

An idyllic vacation becomes a battle for survival in this low key Ozploitation classic.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The seventeenth entry into this unbroken backlog is the Ozploitation ”revenge of nature” horror slow burn , Long Weekend....

Screenwriter Everett De Roche is one of the unsung heroes of ’70s/’80s Ozploitation. After penning multiple episodes of crime shows like “Homicide” and “Matlock Police” (you don’t really have to strain to come up with their American equivalents), he wrote Patrick (‘78), an utterly bonkers precursor to The Smith’s ‘87 single “Girlfriend in a Coma”, and a direct riff on Brian De Palma’s Carrie (‘76) (though both De Roche and director Richard Franklin swear up and down Patrick’s a straight up Hitchcock homage). This first collaboration led to quite the lengthy genre career for De Roche, who would go on to work with Franklin a few more times; most notably on Road Games (‘81), which is essentially the duo’s “Rear Window in a moving vehicle”. He also provided his script services to a pre-Highlander Russell Mulcahy (Razorback) and future Free Willy advocate Simon Wincer (whose Harlequin [‘80] is undoubtedly one of the most unusual films ever produced). However, while many of those pictures would prove to be much more commercially minded (Road Games was, at the time of its production, allotted the biggest budget in the history of Australian film), none would match the pure paranoia of his sophomore feature writing effort, Long Weekend (‘78); a waking nightmare on sun bathed down under beaches, during which a couple is repeatedly castigated by the environment for their karmic foolishness.

Posters and promos screamed “their crime was against nature! And nature found them guilty!” The genius of Long Weekend is the film’s ability to immerse the viewer in the wilderness. Every tree and blade of grass hides snarling menace, longing to pounce once Peter (John Hargreaves) or Marcia (Briony Behets) turn their backs. Piles of ants are turned into landmines, waiting for the quarreling vacationers to step in them. Muskrats hang from the trees, baring their teeth. Muscular hawks swoop down from the clear blue sky, dive-bombing as they claw for eyes. Ominous dark shapes appear in crystal waters, slowly advancing toward swimmers. It all sounds completely ludicrous on paper, but director Colin Eggelston and his unbelievably talented sound department transform a day at the beach into a seriously stressful engagement. Even when Vincent Monton’s gorgeous cinematography is capturing what should be an idyllic landscape, there’s often a creeping wail on the soundtrack that never lets the audience settle in. It’s an unnerving marriage of 2.35 vistas with creep-inducing sonic design, and should be studied by anybody who ever wants to make a horror film during their lifetime.

Circling back to De Roche — none of the tension would work if the writer hadn’t crafted two incredible lead characters. Peter and Marcia are one of the more authentic couples to ever emerge from genre cinema. Taking their vacation as a way to try to forget their interminable domestic quarrels (that range from the innocuous to the thoroughly repressed), De Roche includes moments that make you love, understand and despise both parties. At first, Marcia is presented as a shrill harpy; chipping away at Peter for every tiny blunder he commits. But as the film progresses, her anger with her partner is revealed to be completely justified, as a destructive choice they “made together” seems to haunt the rest of her days. Peter is initially presented as the strong alpha, attempting to patch up a marriage with a wife he still loves despite all the grief she constantly gives him. Though unlike Marcia’s subtle arc, Peter’s is one that moves in the opposite direction, unveiling a drunken, abusive malcontent. It’s an incredible piece of character work that revolves around a series of expertly timed reveals, and invests us in this doomed duo’s ultimate fate.

De Roche is obviously not the only creative force deserving of credit for constructing such a lived-in screen relationship. The chemistry Hargreaves and Behets share is profound. When they fight, even the tiniest argument turns into a blistering battle. When they love — it’s sweet and tender; a stolen moment on the beach becoming so intimate the viewer is almost compelled to look away, as Eggelston’s camera is certainly intrusive. The duo are much more Jesse & Céline than Rick & Ilsa; a portrait of fidelity against all odds rather than a fantastical screen romance. This commitment to realism adds to the overwhelming sense of dread that exists beyond the elemental forces they combat. It’s easy to slip on either of the protagonists’ shoes, unsure if they’ll survive together even if they make it off of this beach alive.

That’s not to say that the two don’t deserve the full force of nature’s wrath. Like the careful reveal of character, De Roche paints their respective crimes against the planet as a series of tiny, callous cuts (and one big lump in the road) instead of some sort of genocidal crusade. As much as you feel for these people being battered by the (sometimes literal) storm, there’s a sense that they got what was coming to them. These thoughtless, tiny infractions make the situation that much more relatable, as most have inconsiderately tossed a burning butt from their window or accidentally hit a wild animal in the road. It’s this sense of “it could’ve been me” that renders Long Weekend that much more terrifying — we’re all committing our own heinous acts against Mother Nature, and someday she may come and (rightfully) make us pay the piper.

Long Weekend is available now on DVD/Blu-ray thanks to Synapse Films.