Wolf Creek, the much praised Oz import horror flick, had some serious hype to live up to. I did not catch the movie when it was in theaters, but I heard nothing but raves for the picture. That said, I was always a little hesitant to pick it up. The flick is often compared to both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hostel. This is a blessing and a curse, as far as I'm concerned. I'm a huge fan of the former, but comparisons to the latter flick almost always put a damper on my desire to check out a film. Now that I've finally given in and watched the film, I feel that Wolf Creek, while it did not live up to the hype, is still an excellent horror flick.
The plot is not particularly original. At this point, any horror film plot that hinges on a car breakdown stranding our protagonists in a bad place cannot truly said to be original. In this case, our "bad place" is played by Wolf Creek Park, a particularly isolated chunk of rural Australia that is home to a 1) a large meteor crater and 2) a psycho that is equal parts Steve Irwin and Ed Gein. A group of twenty-somethings hit the park while on holiday. After some essentially useless characterization, they find their car has crapped out and, instead of immediately assuming that this is the start of a particularly brutal horror flick and running for the hills, they accept the aid of Mick, a friendly, scene-stealing outback dweller who brings to mind the works of A.B. Banjo Peterson or Paul Hogan, depending whether you like your Aussie stereotypes classic formula or Hollywood-ized. Fortunately for horror fans, Mick turns out to be one genuinely sick puppy and, instead of fixing up the stranded tourists' ride and sending them on their way, he proceeds to heap gory outrages upon them.
In many ways, the comparisons mentioned above do a disservice to the film. While the film lacks the surreal horror that makes TCM one of those classics you can visit again and again, the tension in WC is in some ways richer for breaking the slasher stereotype (created in large part by TCM) and focusing the on the genuine conflict between the victims and their attacker. (Well, two of them anyway – but more on that later.) And the Hostel comparison is superficial at best. Both films involve vacationing youths in the clutches of sick torturers, but the tension in Wolf Creek is a product of dramatic narrative devices rather than a result of a sort of endurance test in which the only question is how much gore will an audience sit through. Certainly there is gore in Wolf Creek, but it isn't the point of the film. Instead, the real draw is the cat and mouse game played-out between the killer and the victims.
I also think that writer/director Greg McLean is more visually talented and clever than either Hopper or Roth. Hopper nailed the perfect look for the first TCM; but that sun-drenched, faded masterpiece seems to have been his only significant aesthetic statement. McLean gives the viewer lush, lavish images. He uses the rural Australian landscape to wonderful effect, but is also adept at giving use the meticulous squalor that, ever since Se7en, is contemporary horror's visual shorthand for "the guy who lives here is crazy." Apparently becoming homicidal also triggers a hording impulse and diminishes the drive to keep your home tidy: "Maybe I should dust off my collection of headless mannequins. Naw. Think I'll just go find someone to kill instead." In the special features, McLean mentions that he was a painter before becoming a filmmaker. One look at one of his wonderful panoramic shots of the outback and you can see the painterly influence. Roth has a similar keen sense of textures and detail. Think about how powerfully dread-inspiring the empty torture chambers were in Hostel. One imagines Roth carefully placing each patch of dried blood to achieve maximum effect. But, Roth's skill is limited by his own shallow imagination. His visual borrowings are little more than in-jokes for other cinephiles. Roth's allusions to Pulp Fiction and Blood Sucking Freaks are Easter eggs for film fans, but they don't particularly build meaning into his works. McLean, on the other hand, borrows from famed cinematic representations of Australia – most notably Walkabout, Mad Max, and Crocodile Dundee - in an effort to make a statement about stereotypes and clichés. McLean's killer isn't a product of the outback or Aussie class conflict so much as he is a nightmare stitched together from patches of a celluloid dream of Australian masculinity. This isn't a somewhat sterile trivia game; it is constitutes the central the DNA of the film.
The film does suffer from two major flaws. First, the pacing is off. The film runs a full 40 minutes or so before we get to the point. We follow our three vacationers through generic looking parties and watch them goof-off as they drive through endless stretches of rural highway. If the characters were more engaging, this wouldn't be such a problem, but there's really very little to hold the viewer's attention for this long and tedious stretch. Instead we get understated, realistic performances that, instead of drawing you into the world of the characters, makes the viewer feel like they've come across somebody's home videos. The second major flaw comes in the film's use, or lack thereof, of the male victim. It is always nice to see women taking active roles as something other than helpless victims in horror flicks, but this film simply forgets that we were introduced to three victims. As soon as the scares start coming, we leave the boy behind, giving him a single, short scene (which reveals nothing of what's happened to him) until, after nearly a half hour of solid tension and action, we jump to The Forgotten Man and wrap his story up in 5 quick minutes. This oversight is even stranger given that much of the early characterization of Mick is developed by playing this rough, unbalanced outback type against the urbanized, "new" Australian man. We get set up for a conflict between two models of Australian masculinity only to see the whole theme dropped.
Of these two faults, only the first is a serious one. It's the sort of imbalance one might expect, and therefore forgive in a first feature. But this drag in the beginning almost had me reaching for the fast forward button. Wolf Creek is very good, and thought flawed, it marks the intro of a potentially great horror director. Like High Tension, another breakthrough flick which was flawed but introduced the horror world to a serious newcomer, the film is worth seeing both on its own merits and as the beginning, I hope, of an long career in fright flicks. Using my recently revamped Members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Rating System, I'm giving this movie a Ryan P. McCue in recognition of everything it gets right, and in anticipation of good things still to come.