Australian writer and director Greg McLean must have a very double edged relationship with the Australian tourist board by now. On the face of it, his debut horror film "Wolf Creek" was a particularly unpleasant foray into the then emerging torture porn sub-genre, which presented a pretty bleak picture of the typical macho Aussie male, while tempting prospective tourists with the idea that they should fear for their very lives (and their limbs) if they ever found themselves camped anywhere near the remote Australian outback. On the other hand, McLean is adept at selling a very vivid and mysterious image of his country, one that is clearly very appealing to foreign audiences -- the desolate, cratered landscape of the outback was presented, with a suggestively mystical spin, in stunning images that could have come from any expensive tourist commercial; the place is as eerily beautiful as it is ominous, the two extremes seemingly inextricably bound together.
Now with his second film, McLean pulls exactly the same trick, this time for the even-more ancient and untouched majesty of the Northern Territory, which he makes the site of this giant-monster-croc-on-the-rampage follow-up, "Rogue". The film seems to have crept out onto DVD and Blu-Ray much like its deadly subject: making barely a ripple on the surface of fan consciousness. A strange state of affairs after the huge noise made by "Wolf Creek". Maybe an animal rampage movie seems like rather unpromising, even inane material in the wake of the punishing horrors of his debut, but actually McLean once again infuses the picture, at least in its first half build-up, with the same sense of submerged menace, hinting vaguely at unknown forces leading its unwitting protagonists to their inevitable doom: radios short out and cell phones inexplicably fail after a party of unsuspecting tourists find themselves at the mercy of a giant salt water crocodile with a very large appetite when taking a pleasure cruise up a tidal river leads them to illegally venture into sacred indigenous land while investigating a distress flair. McLean relies on a great many clichés of the genre but so exquisitely filmed, ably written and finely acted is the resulting film that you quickly forgive him, and settle back for what is quite simply a good old-fashioned fun joyride, with some clever, sparingly used special effects and some intelligently crafted atmosphere that helps make the jolts and scares all the more effective when they come. This film actually deserves to have been a mainstream hit; it's a great deal better than many much higher profile Hollywood animals-on-the-rampage flicks that have turned up periodically over the years.
Staple number one in the handbook of the cinematic shorthand of this genre is the fish-out-of-water protagonist; the foreigner who doesn't fit in or understand his/her surroundings, but soon has to learn to adapt as he (or she) is plunged into mortal danger. Likeable Michael Vartan fits the bill here (better known as handsome sidekick to Jennifer Garner in "Alias"). He plays American travel journalist Pete McKell, who's on assignment for a Chicago newspaper in the Northern Territory, but steps of the Greyhound into fifty degrees of sweltering heat still wearing his expensive Armani suit after his luggage is mislaid en route. McLean has no worries about resorting to predictable Aussie stereotypes in getting this show on the road and straight away McKell is confronted with your traditional run-down tin shack general store in a dirt-stop town, a requisite glassy-eyed aboriginal sitting baking in the sun outside, while in the murky interior, a sad-looking dingo on a rope stares up from below the counter and the sweating store manager is far too over-friendly for comfort, gleefully mixing a dead fly into McKell's coffee as soon as his back is turned! Pinned to the back wall are lots of horribly authentic looking newspaper clippings and photos depicting crocodile attacks, including one which shows the chewed-up body of a child being cut from the belly of a croc.
McKell passes the time with a trip upriver in a small cruise boat with a party of other tourists. The familiar niggles and mild personality clashes one can sometimes experience alongside strangers in a confined space soon manifest themselves, while McKell is obviously taken with the cruise's gutsy tour guide, Kate Ryan (Radha Mitchell). McLean adds a spot of male rivalry when Kate's boorish boyfriend and his pal turn up and harass the party in a speedboat, and by the time the group spy a distress flair in the sky a few miles further upriver, the director has already layered in obvious subliminal warnings to the audience of danger ahead, cutting to wildlife images of spiders trapping flies and locusts perched on oddly shaped branches in the water. The real star of the film is revealed in all its glory once the group make their way further along the river, encountering stupendous scenery that looks like some lost prehistoric world from a H.G. Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle story. The turning point comes when, after discovering the capsized boat that presumably launched the flair, they're rammed by a massive seven-foot long croc that beaches their damaged boat on a small mud bank island which is soon to be submerged by the rising waters of the tidal river if they don't find a way off. Their troubles escalate when the croc resurfaces to snatch one of their party from the bank right in front of their eyes, and the panicking tourists realise that the animal is staking them out, readying to pick them all off one by one.
The second act lays on the gut wrenching suspense in spades as the group first come together but then begin gradually to fall apart, their plans to escape becoming increasingly desperate. Selfishness, stupidity, bravery and courage all emerge as the disparate party (who are all furnished with lightly embellished back story and many distinguishable characteristics) battle to save themselves. The crocodile, which looks huge but which is apparently no bigger than many real-life specimens, is a clever mixture of CGI and model croc that always looks impressive, but, still, McLean wisely takes a tip from Spielberg in "Jaws" by only giving us very brief glimpses of the creature for most of the film. Only in the more action-packed final act does the director allow himself to tilt the film into more fantastical territory when Vartan's character traces the creature (with the help of Kate's Lassie-like collie companion) back to its underground cave lair where it stores its victims bodies for later feasting -- some of them while still alive. We then get a show stopping face-off with plentiful monstrous dinosaur-like croc action in abundance, and in full view.
Released in the UK on Icon Home Entertainment, "Rogue" looks brilliant on DVD and doubtless even better on Blu-Ray. This edition carries over all of the extras from the previous U.S. release, headed by a relaxed audio commentary by writer-director Greg McLean plus a forty-five minute 'making of' documentary. There are also a series of shorter featurettes looking at the stunt work, the music score and also a look at a 'real life' rogue. The whole package is definitely well worth a look, and this underrated film should be destined for cult status.