I’m given to believe by those who would know better than I that Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds was swoony. Tempting the dishy priest to break his vows is apparently something some folks find hot hot hot hot hot. But before all that, wedged nicely in between holy orders and being a Musketeer, Chamberlain was in The Last Wave, an Australian folk horror oddity from Peter Weir.
I’m also given to believe by those who would know better than I (having neither seen nor read The Thorn Birds) that Father Ralph was a greedy, grasping, overly ambitious, sexually obsessed, hypocritical piece of shit. So, y’know, a Catholic priest.
I like Weir. I’ve seen most of his movies. Of those I’m familiar with, this one is hands down the weirdest. Or maybe Weir-dest. Picnic At Hanging Rock is a close second, but this one is just stuh-range. It opens with some rural school kids out playing when they hear thunder, but see no clouds. This is followed by a freak rain storm accompanied by huge hailstones.
Next, Billy Corman, an Aboriginal man, runs through a sewer complex apparently fleeing someone or something. Soon he passes another man, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil), who says something about Billy having stolen something.
Billy ends up at a pub when Chris and some other men come in. Billy flees again and is pursued by the others. They catch up to him in a vacant lot, and a car can be seen in the nearby street. In the car is an older Aboriginal man, Charlie. As he stares out from the car, Billy grabs his chest and falls to the ground. The other men are rounded up and charged with murder.
Normally a tax attorney, David Burton (Chamberlain) is assigned to defend them through the Australian Legal Aid system and is immediately stonewalled by his defendants. It isn’t long though before David starts having nightmares that seem somehow prophetic. One involves Chris holding out a sacred stone to him with blood on one corner of it.
We find out later that David has had such dreams since childhood. At one point his stepfather even reveals that David had dreamed the exact circumstances of his mother’s death before it happened. Throughout all this, the freak storms continue, including a storm of black rain (the movie’s alternate title was Black Rain in fact).
Eventually Chris informs David that David himself may in fact be “Mukurul from across the sea,” a spiritual entity associated with the Dreamtime. He warns David to leave him and the other men alone or he will die because of what he sees in his nightmares. All of this brings David into conflict the Charlie, the shaman.
In the third act, Chris leads David to a subterranean complex that was once an ancient temple. David pieces together the pictographs on the walls and how his visions fit in with them. He then confronts Charlie and flees the complex only to exit onto a beachfront. The final shot is David looking up and either seeing or having a vision of a towering wave.
It’s at times a surreal film that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s a vision (visions that often border on hallucination). What I like most about The Last Wave is not only its Folk Horror nature, but also its cosmic horror implications. These aren’t overtly Lovecraftian, but they’re there, especially in the prophetic nightmares, the underground temple, and the mystical stones.
Along those lines, it’s also worth pointing out that David undergoes a kind of self-discovery similar to the one experienced by Robert Olmstead, the narrator of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The realization isn’t as transformative for David, but the horror is arguably just as strong.
Ultimately, the end of The Last Wave is undeniably bleak. Either David is on the shore witnessing what is about to be a massive destructive event, or it’s a vision, in which case, like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, he’s doomed to live the rest of his life under the influence of the nightmare those visions have revealed.
Streaming- Criterion Channel, HBO Max
Rent- Apple TV, Prime