With strong advance word from mainstream critics (including a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival) as well as the usual genre sources, Australia’s “Wolf Creek” is undoubtedly one of the most eagerly anticipated and hyped horror events of the year. Thankfully, this is one of the rare occasions when a film manages to live up to its billing, as “Wolf Creek” is every bit the genuine article, being unbearably tense, vicious and cruel with a sense of chilling, wild insanity that marks it as the closest anyone has come to emulating the feel of the classic “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
Writer-director Greg McLean draws on a number of local real life incidents for the plot of “Wolf Creek”, including the bloody crimes of serial killer Ivan Milat, who preyed on backpackers, and the mysterious disappearance of British traveller Peter Falconio in the wastelands of the Australian outback. Instead of following the facts of one particular case, McLean pulls together elements of several, following the events which befall two young English backpacking girls and their Australian friend after their car breaks down while visiting a meteor crater at the titular location. Stranded hundreds of miles from nowhere, the trio are relieved when they are rescued by the eccentric Mick (John Jaratt, “Dark Age”), who offers to fix their car at his nearby campsite. Needless to say, things go rapidly downhill, as the initially amiable mechanic and part time vermin killer shows his darker side, pitching the travellers into a nightmare of madness and pain.
In a way, it is the sheer, horrible simplicity of “Wolf Creek” which gives it the power to terrify. The story is pure, uncluttered, and horribly believable, gripping the viewer and never allowing for one second any doubt that the horrors we are witnessing could indeed happen to anyone. Although the film does eventually stray into the lunatic fringe, unlike the vast majority of genre films, its horrors do not befall its characters as a result of ridiculously bad judgement, or wandering off alone to investigate strange noises, but rather in spite of their best efforts to simply survive. There are a number of narrative twists as the plot develops, several of which are unsettling and unexpected, though none of which feel forced or out of place.
McLean adds complexity to the characters by dropping in personal details and allowing relationships to grow in a manner which, if not exactly subtle, pays off perfectly as the film progresses. Through this, McLean manages to make the audience not only sympathise with the characters, but to actually feel their terror, blind panic and agonised despair. He exploits this last element mercilessly during the latter stages, notching up the tension with an almost sadistic glee and torturing the viewer along with the on screen victims. Though the film does start somewhat slowly, building the atmosphere and gradually allowing the feeling of menace to slide under the skin, McLean soon picks up the pace, and once the horror begins, events proceed with a relentlessness that is positively brutal.
Visually, “Wolf Creek” is quite stunning, as McLean goes for a bleached out, sun baked look and a sense of isolation which fits the mood. As have many Australian directors in the past, McLean makes full use of the cinematic potential of the outback, including plenty of wildlife footage, as well as some beautiful shots of sunrise, and an excellent use of light and shadow. All these elements lend the film an almost documentary type feel at times, which only serves to further the realistic nature of its horrors.
“Wolf Creek” is an intense, decidedly visceral experience, and sensitive viewers should be warned that it contains a fair amount of wince-inducing torture and hateful violence, especially towards the female characters. Even before the blood starts to flow, McLean introduces the viewer to the perceived misogynism of outback males, playing on this to discomforting effect and to draw a line between the urban and rural characters in a fashion similar to the classic “The Hills Have Eyes”. McLean flinches away from none of the gory details, and the sheer, primal evil of Jarratt’s homicidal handyman makes him a singularly horrifying creation whose casual sadism makes him one of the most fear-inducing figures of recent years.
The overall result is a classic of modern horror, a film which strips away the layers of empty commercialism which have afflicted the bulk of Hollywood genre output, dispensing with the music video stylings and cheap scares that have been slowly smothering the possibility of true cinematic terror. What’s left is a harrowing experience which attacks the viewer every bit as much as its doomed characters with a single minded aggression that is simply impossible to ignore.
Greg McLean (director) / Greg McLean (screenplay)
CAST: John Jarratt …. Mick Taylor
Cassandra Magrath …. Liz Hunter
Andy McPhee …. Bazza
Kestie Morassi …. Kristy Earl
Nathan Phillips …. Ben Mitchell