Wolf Creek Review
Warning: This review contains moderate spoilers which hint at how the movie turns out.
From Viz comic's "rate your life expectancy" questionnaire:
How frequently do you go backpacking in Australia? (a) Never (b) Occasionally (c) Often
Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are a couple of English girls spending their gap year down under. They've been lounging around on the beach in Adelaide and they've hooked up with handsome but shy Aussie boy Ben (Nathan Phillips) who has a bit of a thing for Liz. Now it's time to move on. Before they go, Ben offers to show them the meteor crater at Wolf Creek. Thousands of years old, it's one of the most spectacular sights in the world. On the way there, Mick tells the girls around a camp fire that there's been a lot of UFO activity reported in the area. There have also been a lot of unexplained disappearances.
The first hour of Wolf Creek is presented in the naturalistic, not-quite-documentary style of Open Water. Ordinary people doing ordinary things with just a hint of menace growing in the background. This approach is significantly better done here than it was in the shark film, where the characters were unappealing and their problems uninteresting. Ben, Liz and Kristy are likeable, believable kids. There's no sense of obligatory character build-up. Hanging out with them is entertaining just for itself and this pays dividends. When they're suddenly ripped out of their safe bubble and placed in terrible jeopardy, the tension hits like a gut punch.
For at least its first two thirds, Wolf Creek is quite a piece of work, potentially the horror film of the year I was thinking. Gifted first time director Greg McLean had me in a vice. That is, he had me in a vice right up until the scene where one of his heroines has the drop on the killer chasing her. He's proved himself to be a lethal threat, he's unconscious and at her mercy and she has a gun. She can easily kill him or incapacitate him. If she doesn't have the stomach for that, she can at least take his weapon. But no, she leaves him there with the gun beside him and heads off unarmed into the wilderness. Just the sort of thing a dumb, screaming bimbo in a Friday The 13th movie would do. And then of course he pops up looking for blood as soon as she thinks she's safe, just like Jason would do. By reverting to cliché and turning his intelligent characters into screaming idiots, McLean unmasks his film as nothing more than a cynical slasher flick, the lastest in the trend of modern horror films trying to imitate the gory exploitation classics of the 1970s.
I can't say I've been impressed by any of them. Not the glossier Hollywood ones like the Texas Chainsaw remake, House Of Wax and Wrong Turn and not the nastier, independent efforts like Switchblade Romance and now Wolf Creek. There's some element missing from all these movies that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes had in spades - some spark of life, some reason for being. I think it may be as simple as this: it isn't the 1970s. Butchering folk in nasty ways just for the sake of it is no longer shocking. Have the filmmakers not kept up with popular cinema over the last thirty years? Action hero Steven Seagal has done worse things to people onscreen than most slasher movie psychopaths. There's no point to making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre today other than to make money from horror fans and that redundancy comes across in Wolf Creek just like the ground-breaking nature of what Tobe Hooper was doing still comes across to this day in Chainsaw. That was fresh and vital film-making. This is an exercise in reproduction.
The unrelenting sadism of the last half hour of this movie is not shocking. It's merely unpleasant. There's no feeling of horror, no nasty thrill, just the glum question, "Why am I paying to watch these nice people have horrible things done to them?" Ironically, Wolf Creek might have been a lot more effective if it hadn't been so gruesome and nihilistic. It's less effective a scare machine than the resolutely mainstream, PG-13 rated Red Eye.
Greg McLean is a filmmaker to watch. He does some very impressive work here before his script goes pear-shaped. Hopefully next time out he'll try something more ambitious than following in Tobe Hooper's faded, thirty-year-old footprints.