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Hipster Holy Grail: Incident at Raven's Gate (1988)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:  Incident at Raven's Gate, which Wikipedia calls an "ozploitation" film, is billed as an arthouse science-fiction thriller.  It is simultaneously tense, confusing, and intriguing.  Like any good arthouse piece, it seems that there is just enough meaning beneath the surface that you want to investigate further, although it's entirely possible that you're just projecting a lot onto it.  I have no idea what was going on, but I feel like you oughta see it anyway.  My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The longer bit for people who like film discussion:

A lot of times when I set out to do an HHG review, I start panicking and second-guessing myself.  (Panicking about silly things on the Internet is kinda just my thang.)  I almost always stress about the same three questions:

1) Does the Internet need another fat nerd to talk about movies?
2) Is this movie actually under-seen enough to merit being classified as a "Hipster" movie?
3) Am I going to have enough interesting stuff to say about it that people should read my review?

Invariably I worry that the answer to all of the above is, "No," and then I wonder if I should bother.  Come to think of it, why bother doing anything?  Why does anyone bother doing anything?  How do writing careers even get started?  I bet Roger Ebert starting writing about movies when he was seventeen and everybody was like, "Hey Rog, quit being a pussy and come play football."

Anyway, the point is that Incident at Raven's Gate is a pretty good metaphor for all of this because it's about a bunch of people doing things that may or may not be meaningless for reasons that may or may not exist.

This is Rolf de Heer's first movie - de Heer being the guy behind Bad Boy Bubby, which I've previously gushed over.  So, before I even get into the movie - can I ask all the Australians / New Zealanders out there how big this guy is in your neck of the woods?  It's pretty clear to me that virtually nobody in America has heard of him, but I get this vibe that maybe de Heer's stuff plays on the Australian equivalent of TBS's "Up All Night" or something, and all the 30-something Australian movie nerds out there grew up watching TV-edits of his stuff when they were supposed to be in bed.

C'mon guys.  I know you're out there searching for Woop Woop screen-caps.  Surely you can weigh in on this one.

I'm not sure how to describe the events of Raven's Gate.  It's kind of like the film equivalent of literary science-fiction - things happen, but there's not really an explicit plot.  But basically, it's about two intertwining stories that center around a tiny Australian town (villa?) called "Raven's Gate."

The first story takes place in the present and involves a cop who is investigating a burned-out shell of a house.  He is accosted by a peculiar man who is apparently a hell of a lot stronger than he looks, because even though he calls himself an astrophysicist and looks like an accountant, he manages to disarm the cop and then hold him hostage for the rest of the movie.  The astrophysicist forces the cop to do his bidding as he... investigates the burned-out shell of a house.

(Look, I'm not one to tell astrophysicist how to do their jobs or anything, but it seems to me that you're both here for the same thing.  I don't know what you learned in grad school, but you can probably drop the Gordon Freeman thing and just, you know, ask nicely for things.)

The cop/physicist story never really pans out into much.  They argue with each other, the cop never trusts the physicist, and then the cop gets killed.  Honestly, so little happens during that storyline that I'm halfway convinced that they just added it as an afterthought.  The cop is played by Max Cullen, so maybe it's just a case where they managed to get him in the cast as a favor, but they'd already started filming and so de Heer was just like, "You know what, let's write a bookend for this movie."

The second story takes place five days previously and centers around Eddie, a young guy with groovy sunglasses that I'm sure will be featured somewhere on this blog.  Eddie works on a hydroponics farm with his brother, Richard, and sister-in-law, Rachel.  Eddie and Richard have a terse, but overall loving relationship, and there's more than a little bit of flirting between Eddie and Rachel.

Eddie also has some kind of bizarre rivalry going on with the local sheriff, Skinner.  They square off multiple times for various reasons - Eddie is having a fling with a barmaid that Skinner has a crush on, Eddie races Skinner in the desert, etc. - and they're played off each other like they've got some kind of love-hate relationship, but there isn't really a clear-cut conflict between the two of them.  (It's worth noting here that IMDb claims that Eddie is an ex-con, so maybe Skinner's just trying to check up on him, but that does not come across in the movie.)

Eddie's story is the main focus and can really just be summarized as, "A bunch of weird shit happens."

One night, there's some kind of odd electrical event (an "incident," if you will) that wreaks havoc and creates a variety of strange side effects: their water wells dry up, a bunch of birds die and drop out of the sky, cars stop working and fizzle out, a strange crop circle shows up in a field nearby, etc.

Also, an elderly couple's house blows up.  But, you know how these things are.  Explosions happen all the time.  Can't bother to investigate each and every little one.

Eventually - as in 30 minutes later - Eddie makes his way over to Raven's Gate and checks out the exploded house.  And this scene is intriguing because it creates an odd and surreal shift in a movie that was already notably odd and surreal.  This is a scene that in any other movie would be the moment where a character falls asleep, and then later when the movie pulls a twist and reveals that the entire movie was just a dream, it would cut back.  "Oh, Steven Vidler was just sleeping at Bed, Bath, and Beyond the whole time.  I get it!"

Except that Eddie isn't sleeping.  He just suddenly and jarringly appears inside a nightmare house, and the movie pulls the rug out from under you.  The hallways are filled with smoke, the walls are dripping with water as if a dozen pipes burst in the ceiling, and there are occasional flashes of light.  Eddie wanders into a room and stumbles across the elderly couple - now fused together into a grotesque, Thing-like corpse.

Skinner follows Eddie inside the house, too, but then flees in terror when he sees the corpse.  Then, as he drives away at a reckless speed, his car is attacked by spectral nightmare beings, and he nearly crashes.

For the rest of the movie, Eddie and Skinner grow increasingly more paranoid and frantic.  Eddie and Richard's relationship becomes increasingly strained (due partly to the farm's recent water troubles and partly to Eddie's growing affair with Rachel).  Meanwhile, Skinner keeps trying to take out the barmaid that he's been crushing on, but she continues to reject him.

Both of them end in chaos.  Skinner kills the barmaid in a fit of rage, then dresses up her dead body in a fine gown and carries her to his cruiser.  He drives off into the night and ends up going to an opera, where he cries alone.  Bummer.  Eddie, in the meantime, gets it into his head that there is some kind of evil at Raven's Gate that needs to be destroyed.  So he gets a shotgun - in between fighting with his brother - and goes back to the house.  Richard shows up, they have another fight, and then Richard goes inside to investigate.  When he comes back out of the house, he is transformed somehow into a madman.  The final twenty minute segment is basically just a slasher movie, with Richard playing the part of the psychotic villain.

The sum of all of this is a very hectic and confusing tale in which there isn't a readily-understandable conflict or villain.

A movie like this lends itself to repeat viewings and fan theories.  It's the kind of movie that somebody creates almost as if to dare you to figure it out.  I can almost hear de Heer saying, "You think you understand subtlety?  Alright, figure this shit out."

So here's me taking a stab at it.  I'm probably wrong, but the beauty of a movie like this is that everybody can be equally wrong.

The Incident was a visitation by an alien species.  Instead of being a carbon-based life form, it's something less tangible; a sentient electrical cloud or whathaveyou.  The alien's interaction with our planet is enigmatic and has multiple unintended consequences; by coming into contact with human beings, it accidentally poisons their minds with hallucinations and extreme bouts of violent, paranoid rage.  It also has an unusual attraction to water that creates a displacement of moisture, thus dehydrating animals, crops, and wells alike.

The alien is suggested by the appearance of the crop circle and evidenced by at least one reference to "little green men."  Various visual motifs, including multiple over-head, top-down shots of the characters (suggesting a presence of something heavenly looking down at them) imply that there is a greater being or consciousness watching the characters.

It is also thematically appropriate and is paralleled by various characters who are fish out of water, unable to fully grasp social norms.  Consider that Eddie is (apparently) an ex-con who is trying to adjust to a small town that does not like him.  Despite his best efforts, he remains an outsider.  Consider that Eddie is unintentionally a hostile element to his brother's home; he is disrupting his brother's marriage in subtle ways before he outright sleeps with Rachel.  Consider that Skinner is kind of a weirdo who has a crush on a barmaid and is unable to foresee that she might not react well when he surprises her with tickets to the opera.  These are characters who live in their own universes, unaware of the consequences of bumbling into other people's affairs.

And so our never-seen alien friend has no idea that if it comes to Earth, it will create havoc.  Like European settlers infecting Native Americans with smallpox, it blindly creates problems everywhere it goes.  Madness spreads like a disease, and soon all of the principal cast are trying to murder each other.

Thinking of the movie in these terms, it suddenly changes from a confusing series of possibly unrelated events to an impressive, low-key horror tragedy.  And yet, I get the feeling that somebody can probably come up with an alternate theory that turns it into a wacky dark comedy, or brooding existentialist science-fiction.

Last Thoughts:  You can watch Incident at Raven's Gate online, and I'd recommend it.  Make sure to watch it when you've just had your coffee, though.  I can see this one putting you off if you aren't ready and able to focus.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth? (Added March 2017)

Between the relatively low number of IMDb ratings, the ambiguity, the production pedigrees, a recommendation bonus, and the ability to pull this one out of your back pocket when one-upping your friends and go, "Oh, yeah?  But have you seen this obscure Australian science-fiction thriller?", I think it's worth a fair amount.  I see fit to give out 65 hipster cred out of a possible 100.