Friday, January 19, 2007

Movies: God willin' and the creek don't rise.

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 clich├ęs. 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.


Anonymous said...

4 AM posting time? I'm guessing this time is PST not EST ?

Regardless, and since this is horror, I'm guessing you're going to get a review of the new 'hitcher' movie coming out this week ? Been seeing ads for it the past month and a half, it seems. Only just realized it 'opens' today. Strange, but whatever.

I'll always have a warm place in my heart for the Rutger Hauer version, but the hitcher type movies are becoming like zombie movies.. Over played, I think. Granted, make it suspenseful or horror. This one looks like "SAW" on wheels.

Another good suspenseful one was Kurt Russell's 90's flick Breakdown, though like others, that plot may be overdone as well.

CRwM said...

I enjoyed the original Hitcher.

Random side note, it is one of my father's favorite horror films. I think that and Jaws were the only two horror films in his VHS tape collection.

I was excited to hear they were making a re-make, but I'm a bit bummed by the trailer I saw. It looked a bit like some Michael Bay-style "to the X-treme!" make-over.

I never saw breakdown.

spacejack said...

Breakdown is quite good. An unpretentious thriller that does it right. Definitely worth watching.

I liked Wolf Creek. Though flawed, of all the recent horror films I've seen I think I'd give it the nod for being the best.

Its biggest flaw, I thought, was how the girls failed to take advantage when they had the upper hand. It's a short scene, but it was so jarringly stupid it took me right out of it for a while. The entire movie up to that point was a perfect slow build to a peak of tension and horror... and then this B-movie plot device pops up.

The thing I disagree with you on is the long intro. I thought it was fantastic. For me there is something twistedly magical about seeing characters develop with a looming sense of horror or doom. I found it to be naturalistic and believable, with amazing cinematography. Of all the movies I've seen in the past couple of years, horror or otherwise, I think I enjoyed watching the filmmaking in this the best.

With High Tension, I found the intro to be the best part of the film. The mayhem starts off fast and furious, but the movie really gets dragged down by too many dumb moments, which are all conveniently explained away by the twist ending. I felt cheated by the film.

The Descent also has a long intro, and again I found that to be the best part of the film. The monsters were okay, but not really a good enough payoff for the suspense that had been built up. I did not however feel very cheated by the twist ending, probably because I didn't really understand what happened.

Hostel on the other hand had a good intro (maybe not entirely sympathetic characters, but pretty well done and consistent) - and it had a terrifying payoff. It also loses it however with the eyeball scene and one or two others which push it toward being a farce.

Also of minor note, Silent Hill is interesting if only for its visuals and atmosphere. Its ending is as gory as it is stupid. And it's a pretty stupid ending.

Heather Santrous said...

Always interesting what other people thought of the films I have reviewed as well. Like Spacejack, I love the long intro. I didn't find it to slow and liked the characters. What I loved about the movie really more than anything was that it switched gears so completely. One moment they are going to sleep the next they are all tied up and things really pick up from there.

I did think the one woman was rather stupid in not finding anything to defend herself with while sneaking around all kinds of junk piles but then again, if we are all smart enough to think in a pressure situation there would be a lot more people on this earth. Sure it seems stupid to us what some people do and what the writers do to move the plot in movies but can you honestly say you would think of these things if you were in their shoes? I would like to think I would but I honestly can't say for sure.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacejack:

There was only one part of the movie where I thought the lead girl was being a doofus: when she inexplicably goes down in Mick's well/mass grave – which brings up the question of just where Mick gets his water from. Otherwise, I felt the filmmaker had to cheat to keep Mick a threat. She shoots him in the neck and then whacks him in the spine with a rifle butt – that would seriously fuck up a cat. Add to this Mick's ability to figure out which of his several stashed vehicles he should hide in and I was more annoyed at the filmmaker's bending backwards to help Mick out than I was at the girls.

Despite our disagreements on little details, I do agree with you on your overall assessment of the flick. It isn't perfect, but it is among the best of the new horror crop.

Screamin' Heather:

The abrupt transition is great. I wouldn't have thought such a sudden change would work dramatically, but it does. I guess I just don't think we get that much genuine development for the amount of time we spend. I would have rather had half the intro and a more complex story of the young man's escape from Mick. But that's just me.

It is funny that you mention the question of whether or not horror victim characters act realistically given the pressures their under. Shortly after watching this movie, I was taking out the trash from my apartment. The apartment has a front door and a large metal anti-theft gate. I left both open as I took the trash out and, on coming back into the apartment, I though, "Leaving the doors wide open while I conveniently turn my back – if this was a horror flick, I'd be that sucker victim that everybody thought was too dumb to live." Of course, it wasn't a horror flick, so I'm alive and well. But it speaks to your point, we're smarter than the average horror flick victim because we know the context and rules of the genre. We've got the advantage of knowing they're in a horror film, whereas the characters in Wolf Creek thought they were in a indie-road film/romantic comedy.

spacejack said...

Ah yes, I forgot about the scene where the girl goes to investigate Mick's dungeon, which was about as unbelievable as her "tapping" him with the gun and searching for his keys without making sure he wouldn't get up. Somehow I managed to explain away his being in the car by knowing what key would work on his keychain. But it was a stretch. I must admit to not even thinking about the water situation.

I guess it's scenes like those where I feel like the writer needed to give 110% - that he needs to keep proving that he's smarter than those of us watching his film - if he wants me to give him a 10/10 and recommend without reservation. And because the buildup was so good, what might be minor stumbles in a lesser film seem like big fall-down moments in this. I am also a picky picky bastard.

I forgot to mention earlier that I also felt the removal of the male character from the bulk of the film was unfortunate, but being based on a true story, I guess the filmmakers didn't want to fictionalize the experience of the one survivor too much (who apparently saw nothing of what happened to the others, and was actually a suspect during the investigation.)