Playing out like an Australian outback version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, Greg McClean’s gritty and unrelenting “Wolf Creek” is a cut above your average horror flick thanks to a surprisingly well put together sense of realism, pacing and editing. Taking its time with its characters and setup, the film follows the smart rule of letting us get to know the victims first and establishing the atmosphere. Then once the halfway point is reached, it dives right into the terror and doesn’t let up.
Yet despite more careful thought and polish being put into it than most movies in this genre, the film is still essentially a video nasty which relies on all the old cliches and a taste for bloodletting rather than scares. I prefer scares and atmosphere far more than gore and brutality for its own sake – “Wolf Creek” falls into the latter but stands above likes of similar efforts such “The Devil’s Rejects”, a film so poorly made I walked out of the cinema halfway through, and the atmospheric “High Tension” which worked quite well until one of the stupidest twists in recent cinematic memory ruined much of its good will.
A lot of the like or hate for “Wolf Creek” will depend on the characters, more specifically the three leads played as two British backpackers and their Aussie male friend along for the ride. The opening 45 minutes which sets up their travels follows all the genre’s trademark predictable story beats. Having traveled the outback myself for several months about ten years ago, the film does a good job at realistically portraying these three characters for who they are and their very natural reactions to the starkly beautiful wasteland that is north-west Australia. Still, none of the trio stand out or are particularly interesting characters so you don’t really care for them one way or another when the shit hits the fan.
As night descents, things take an interesting turn. Despite a juvenile red herring subplot involving talk of aliens, this middle bit of the film is one of the best thanks to John Jarratt. The former TV presenter plays out a very stereotypical outback Aussie farmer, one so cliche its a little ridiculous but our trio at least acknowledge it adjust their behaviour around that. In a long scene around a campfire, McLean allows us to get to know Mick and see a man who seemingly comes off as a reasonable guy out to make a living. Its a great scene which plays also to a savvy audience with its moments where we catch a glimpse of the monster simmering underneath waiting to get out.
Then comes the second half which is a somewhat self-indulgent torture movie. In a smart move, the film swaps between character perspectives which stops a ‘hero/heroinne’ emerging from the trio and thus makes your attempts at guessing “who, if any, will survive” impossible until its all over. Yet that doesn’t stop an all too drawn out misogynistic torture scene involving one strung up girl being taunted, threatened, hurt, etc. while another ends up watching. Is it upsetting? Well the brutality is sure, but as the film has descended into pure horror movie by this point the realism aspect starts to fade which lessens the impact. By the time a “Duel”-esque car chase scene takes place, it has become almost laughable.
At the end of the day its the little things about this bleak picture that stick with you. The eventual ending is solid, the campfire scene works, the first particularly gruesome death is chilling, and for such a low budget film its certainly well shot, well made and for once features solid performances which rarely happens in horror films these days. There’s been some talk about the film’s ‘Based on True Events’ claim in relation to the Ivan Milat backpacker murders, but the link is so tenuous its like saying “Friday the 13th” was inspired by Ted Bundy – there’s no way this can be mistaken for true events. Its a simple little, albeit very familiar, story told with more panache than usual. Fans of the genre will find it an enjoyable excursion into the dark depths of horror.