Encounter at Raven’s Gate begins just the way science fiction movies are supposed to begin. In lonely Australian farm country, a burned circle is found in a hayfield. Some sheep die of dehydration, though water is nearby. Dead birds rain down from the night sky.
Cool. Obviously, something bizarre is about to be revealed. Don’t expect an explanation, however; the answer isn’t spelled out, although the movie suggests it may have something to do with visitors from outer space. No, this film is more interested in creating a mood, a sinister atmosphere.
The atmosphere swirls around a farmer (Ritchie Singer), his bored wife (Celine Griffin) and his ne’er-do-well younger brother, Eddie (Steven Vidler). Eddie has just been bounced out of jail and works at his brother’s place as part of his probation.
While the movie tantalizes with hints of the supernatural, it also unfolds some pretty odd doings among its supposedly normal characters. For instance, Eddie’s barmaid girlfriend is being romanced by a frustrated policeman, an increasingly demented opera lover who seems to have wandered out of Blue Velvet.
The other film that comes to mind while watching Raven’s Gate is The Last Wave, an Australian film of the 1970s that also traded in dark, biblical warnings. The difference is, Last Wave director Peter Weir was masterful in subtly building a sense of dread. Raven’s Gate director Rolf de Heer (who wrote the script with producer Marc Rosenberg) throws rounder punches.
But make no mistake, this movie has some spooky stuff. The camera has a disembodied, fluid presence, which gives even the simplest scene a disconcerting feeling. And now and then some character will simply lose it completely, as when a man turns to a corpse that he’s just placed in the passenger seat of his car and says, reaching for the seat belt, “Now, we’ve got to buckle up.” Creepy – and worth a look, for fans of the genre.
First published in The Herald, February 1, 1990
The film was originally released in Australia as Incident at Raven’s Gate. Rolf de Heer has of course gone on to an extensive career, including high points such as Bad Boy Bubby (you haven’t seen this? oh boy), The Tracker, and Ten Canoes. This one I’d like to see again – despite my measured reaction, it sounds like my kind of thing.