Incident at Raven’s Gate

Review by © Jane Freebury

Published in Australian Society magazine, May 1989

Incident at Raven’s Gate, a new science fiction thriller by Marc Rosenberg and Rolf de Heer, was about to enter the market by the side door as a video. Until recently, that is, when a short limited theatrical release was negotiated. It will now be released more or less simultaneously on both the big and small (video) screens—but it deserves better than this. It’s a strenuously good sci-fi movie, far more satisfying than Barry Peak’s As Time Goes By, a rather loosely worked piece straggling around the robust central performance of Max Gillies, and it should have been given a proper theatrical release —with a respectable pause between going into the cinema and going on to video.

It’s been a time for strange moves. Nadine Garner won her Best Actress award from the Australian Film Institute six months ago, but Mullaway, the film she won it for, is only now being released. At the time of writing it was only planned for screening in Melbourne. Last year Mullaway also won the special AFI Members’ Prize, which had previously gone to The Year My Voice Broke.

When the very rococo Boulevard of Broken Dreams went quickly under—unfortunately taking John Waters’ award-winning role with it—we didn’t mourn its loss; but Mullaway deserves far better than a two-note fanfare and a sideshow screening (apologies to the Melbourne exhibitor).
What is going on? It’s not as though the industry is so sanguine it can afford to be blase about getting the odd prize here and there.

Then there’s Scott Murray’s outstanding Devil in the Flesh. Completed in 1985, highly praised at Cannes the following year, Murray’s film somehow lost its way between France and home. It was finally released only recently in an Australian cinema. Devil in the Flesh, with its measured elegance and sensitive attention to the details which communicate so much, is far away from the fast-cutting and self-conscious modishness of many current films, and is entirely a treat to watch.

Marc Rosenberg and Rolf de Heer didn’t need to wait three years for a theatrical release, but it did take them seven years to make Incident at Raven’s Gate. It couldn’t have taken too long to shoot—it can boast a modest budget—but apparently, like numerous sci-fi concepts, it had been around the traps for quite a number of years before it finally managed to bring itself into being. Other ideas may have been too expensive to film.

In an earlier life it was known at The Bronte Invaders, a title that doesn’t work for the film nearly as well as Incident at Raven’s Gate. The new title conveys just the right sense of an isolated case rather than the wider conspiracy, the sense of incidental jottings from a policeman’s notebook, their wider significance unrealised, perhaps deliberately concealed.
In the 1950s, the new science fiction genre was popular along with anti-communism. Today the agents of fear and paranoia probably seem to be within society rather than without.

Incident at Raven’s Gate is something unspeakable that happens to an elderly couple at their small homestead in South Australia. Eddie (played by Steven Vidler) has only just arrived in the area and seems to be the first to become aware of it, or the first to be able to act or do anything about it. He is on parole and staying with his brother Richard (Ritchie Singer) and his wife Rachel (Celine Griffin), but runs into trouble after he beds the local barmaid and refuses to join the local football team. While working in his brother’s wheatfields he sees the signs of an alien presence—the scorched circle of earth, huge numbers of dead birds, the incandescence of the early night sky.

The world seems to be going crazy. Electrical equipment and engines unaccountably stop and start and water tanks dry up. The local policeman can’t take no for an answer and kills the barmaid, and the pet dog goes rabid and has to be put down. Richard hides his knowledge of Eddie’s affair with Rachel but the brothers seem to be cracking under the strain of it…or something else entirely?
The wide open emptiness of the farmlands is the perfect metonym for the eerie isolation that appears to have descended on the people around Raven’s Gate.

The interventions of astrophysicist Hemmings ensure that news of Raven’s Gate is stifled so that into the future Rachel and Eddie will only doubt their own memories. We did ‘our best’, says the perfidious doctor as big trucks roll away from the reconstructed homestead in a chilling coda. This is superior sci-fi.