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Wolf Creek Greg McLean 2005

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Okay, I’m pulling one of the worst critic tricks in the book here: I’m reviewing the new Aussie survival slasher Wolf Creek, like, 6 months after I actually saw it. As my mind has a tendency toward revisionism, I’m near-ashamed (and near-delighted) to say that I may make a few minor factual errors here regarding specifics. For example: the tapdance routine, which I remember as featuring a stellar assortment of Bob Mackie creations, may actually have been costumed by Halston. And I’m a bit fuzzy on the per-inning details of the rousing final-act softball game between the nasty camp Ravenclaw and the well-intentioned (but completely uncoordinated!) heroes. But aside from this sort of minor error, I can assure you that my overall perception of the film remains intact.

That is, as intact as complete discomfort can be.

Wolf Creek is one of the few films of recent date that lives up to its hype. Though we are constantly thrown worthless pussy movies that a few morons with websites (hey…) laud as “as intense as Texas Chain Saw!!!!” or “the return to balls-to-the-wall hardcore horror, YEEEAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!”, we all know full well that most of them fail to deliver on any level other than as cannon fodder for bitchy critics like myself. But although it stumbles a bit in the third act with some ill-advised humor, Wolf Creek is on the whole a delightfully disturbing endeavor. The story of a trio of wide-eyed, idealistic youths whose trip cross-country becomes a nightmare when they encounter a helpful local, Creek avoids the trappings of most of its brethren by making the characters likeable and the situation realistic – all the better to shake us up when things start to slide into total hellish.

We begin somewhere in Australia. Where, I can’t exactly remember – but it’s somewhere with a beach and lots of hot people that like to party (given my own experiences in Australia for Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras a few years ago, this could basically be anywhere). Ben (the criminally delicious Nathan Phillips), Liz (Cassandra Magrath, sort of a Kiera Knightley Down Under type) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are celebrating their last night before they embark on a trip that will take them off the beaten path and into the desolate wilds of the outback. Their excitement is the pure adrenaline rush that only youth can offer – they’re off to holiday and on to bigger and better things. Already it seems that Ben and Liz may have more than a passing interest in one another, which Liz is quick to encourage. They seem like good kids, full of hope and expectation.

The trio start off on their journey, one of the first stops of which is an enormous crater in the middle of Wolf Creek National Park (which appears to be in the middle of nowhere) that was made by a meteor many moons ago. The group parks the car and hikes up into the crater, where they sit and take in the vast, silent natural beauty of the enormous crater. It’s really quite stunning – such beauty and such quiet are rare finds in a horror film (unless it’s another Aussie horror film, like the excellent Long Weekend), and McLean is able to set a mood that gives due appreciation to this awe-inspiring landmark. The kids are delayed a bit (I think it rains?) and eventually make their way back up out of the crater and down to their car.

Which won’t start.

So here they are, trapped in the middle of absolute nowhere, with a cold, dark night rapidly approaching. Tempers flare a bit, but they’re a fairly even-keeled bunch, and are eager to find their way back to civilization and put this behind them. Luckily, a truck pulls up, driven by a friendly rancher, Mick (John Jarratt), who offers to tow them to his ranch, where he’ll be able to fix their car and get them back on their way. The travelers are hesitant, as they’d prefer to be taken back towards the nearest town, but he’s simply not going that way, so they agree and head on out. Once at the farm, Mick gives them food and water and a fire and they have a lively chat about rural life versus city life.

And that’s when things get ugly.

The three fall quickly asleep, due to the chemicals that Mick has put in their water. When they wake, they are separated, confined, and certainly not on holiday anymore. We wake up with Liz, who finds her way out of the shack that she’s trapped in and follows Kristy’s screams to the barn where Mick has her tied up and is taunting her with all sorts of implements. There is evidence that Mick has done this kind of thing before, which doesn’t make things better – essentially, these kids are FUCKED. Ben is unconscious and bound with razorwire somewhere – he may even be dead. So at this point, Liz is the only one who can do anything.

The brilliance of Wolf Creek is that it stays with its protagonists for as long as it can (once it changes course it loses its edge, but that’s later), only revealing information to the audience as the characters themselves discover it. The scenes where Liz processes where she is, what’s going on, and what she can do to save her friends and get out are nail-biting perfection, thanks to Magrath’s spot-on performance (I’ll get it out of the way and say that she’s my favorite right off the bat) and some well-executed suspense scenes. The thing here is, it’s really impossible to tell what might happen to any of these characters. They’re all pretty decent and none screams “Final Girl” or “Hero”, and this refusal to telegraph the ending is what really gives Wolf Creek its edge. I was shocked at several points – without giving anything away, I’ll just say that I was not expecting one of the deaths, and downright distraught over it. The interplay of suspense and surprise is really the some of the strongest I’ve seen all year – and were the entire movie so tautly rendered, it would be the best horror flick in years.

Unfortunately, things don’t go quite that way. In what I would consider a bad move, first-timer Greg McLean gives into the temptation to make the killer funny and therefore endearing to the audience – his wisecracking “coolness” is miscalculated, and no matter how accurate this kind of behavior might very well be in this kind of man, within the context of this film it’s just unsavory. The minute you begin to patronize and belittle your victims by encouraging the audience to laugh at them, you’ve lost your thread – which unfortunately happens in an excruciating sequence on the open highway near the end of the film. Had McLean not began to favor Mick over his rightfully hysterical victim, this would be a masterpiece of meanness. But once the ever-present specter of fratboy kill-rooting makes itself present, the tension is lost and the horror less real.

Luckily, McLean is able to rally with an ending that’s both vague and fascinating, and puts the perfect punctuation on a story that is all about desperate questioning – how on earth can this sort of thing happen? Are there really monsters like that out there? Given all the attention directed at the fact that this movie was based on real events (some of which came to trial in the past year, holding back the release), the answer is unfortunately “yes”. It’s interesting that Steven Spielberg’s Munich – another film about indefensible cruelty – is being released on the same day, and even more interesting that Wolf Creek, despite being a tiny genre picture from Down Under, is for my money a stronger and more concise statement than Spielberg’s bombastic rambling. While Wolf Creek screams, “Why?”, Munich merely shrugs and says “Because.” Might be a slight distinction, but I’d much rather keep asking the question than settle for such an unsatisfactory answer.

In all, Wolf Creek is a thrilling, deeply disturbing, and well-crafted survival pic that benefits from strong lead performances and some admirably thick tension (there’s also the much-discussed “head on a stick” scene, which is horrifying – while it’s not nearly as gory as it sounds, it’s quite nasty). Far better than most of the American garbage that hit screens this year (and without a drop of the pretension that sank the promising High Tension), it’s definitely one worth seeking out. I’m excited to see what McLean and his cast are up to next.

Rating (out of 5):