If you are an avid movie-watcher, and I'm willing to wager that many of you are, the chances are also good that you would be likely to concede that 2005 was a pitifully lackluster year for film studio fare. Even those optimists who soiled their nappies in anticipation that the razzle-dazzle of King Kong (me) or perhaps the first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia (6th grade English teachers everywhere) would end the year on a spectacular high note, should have been reminded that one was a remake and the other an adaptation of a previous work - the very two things which studios suffering from imagination deprivation have sunk their fangs into, sucked the life out of, and then beaten audiences to death with throughout the year. So on that note, take a brief moment and turn your hopeful gaze away from the Kong camp in New Zealand and pay attention to nearby Australia, because a little horror film titled Wolf Creek - not a remake, not an adaptation, but easily one of the best films of 2005, has come home.
Based on some actual brutal murders (though how loosely I'm not sure) that made headlines in Australia, Wolf Creek's story centers on two British female tourists, Liz and Kristy, and their Australian friend Ben, as they make their way by car through the vast Australian outback toward an immense crater located in an area known as Wolf Creek. After an ominous and unsettling encounter with a group of burly browbeaters at a gas station, the threesome arrive at Wolf Creek, take in the awe-inspiring view, and then hike down into the heart of the crater.
As daylight dwindles, Ben, Liz and Kristy return to the car only to discover that the car won't start. In addition, all three are startled to find that their watches have also mysteriously stopped, prompting Ben to relate legends about UFOs and strange occurrences in the area. Ben is told to shut up, and then notices a cluster of lights in the distance, rapidly approaching. To their relief it turns out to be only a truck driven by a friendly, if somewhat eccentric outbacker named Mick Taylor.
Unlike their wristwatches, the diagnosis on the car ends up being more serious than just a battery problem, so Mick kindly offers to give them a tow back to his place where he has the parts to repair the car, assuring the threesome that he can get them back on the road and on their way by sunup. Despite some fleeting reservations, Kristy, Liz and Ben accept Mick's friendly offer, as the chance of anyone else coming along to help anytime soon is indeed a rather dim one. As Mick tows them through the darkness and deep into the outback, Kristy voices some concern - however, the three young travelers could never have fathomed the blood-drenched horrors that soon await them, or the unflinching level of vicious, depraved violence that will be inflicted by the hands of an absolutely sadistic killer.
Despite a setup that, based on the synopsis, might seem somewhat pedestrian, first time director (and screenwriter) Greg McLean has done a really stupendous job of taking some familiar, if not slightly shopworn ideas, and has infused them with enough originality and inventiveness that Wolf Creek never feels like just another retread down a dark, but frustratingly familiar, path. The basic story is also a simple one, twenty somethings in peril and the serial killers who love them - however the film really does shine as a singular effort in a long, long line of serial killer films.
One of the strongest aspects of Wolf Creek is the pervasive sense of dread that it evokes. The film's setup is an extremely effective slow build in which feelings of foreboding and unease are intensified by the knowledge and anticipation that danger is imminent. It could be likened to a shark attack. You're in the ocean; a shark fin cuts through the dark water towards you and then submerges, disappearing. Completely helpless, the unbearable tension, knowing the beast could bite at any moment, is perhaps as excruciating as the bite itself. Wolf Creek is like this and the film makes for an incredibly tense viewing experience.
Certainly part of this is due to the film's preface which lets it be known that Wolf Creek is based on actual events. However, more than this it is the visual approach to the film which permeates the first half of Wolf Creek with an ominous sense of apprehension. Common things which might seem benign or even beautiful are filmed in such a way (sometimes verging on abstraction) that they are brimming with a sense of mystery, and, an even stronger feeling that all is not right. A setting sun, endless stretches of empty road, a magnificent crater, the moon... when the familiar becomes peculiar it can also become unsettling, and in Wolf Creek it does just that.
A strong sense of dread also exists in the film because of the characters. Many movies of this ilk are populated with people that are nothing more than walking targets with good cheekbones and bad dialogue. Yes, usually these characters are also annoying, so when the "fleshing out" of these "individuals" with a hatchet, chainsaw, tennis racket (insert your weapon of choice) actually begins, so does the fun, and more often than not, the audience is cheering on the killer.
Wolf Creek is not this kind of "horror" film. The characters have been written and are portrayed in a very realistic manner; they could be a neighbor, a co-worker, or a best friend. While it is initially easy to distance yourself from the characters, as the film progresses you will find yourself growing to like them, empathizing with them, and in some cases, even identifying with them. This makes the tension that much greater, and the horrors that follow all the more terrifying.
While the first half of the film is dread-filled, the second half of Wolf Creek cranks everything up, becoming an unrelentingly hellish descent into cinematic savagery. Though at times gruesome, the film is not a splatterfest. Yet, you can be certain, the violence is extremely effective and unpleasant and will have some audience members squirming in their seat. Even more likely to induce wriggling is the continual buildup of tension as the protagonists struggle to survive and the killer hunts its prey. Again, director Greg McLean does a remarkable job of keeping us on the edge and whitening our knuckles throughout the second half of the film. At the screening I attended there were maybe 10 people in a small screening room, however, the tension in the room was virtually palpable.
Apart from being a downright evil son of a bitch, Mick Taylor, the killer of course, in a certain sense is almost like a mythical character. I know very little about Australia (duh, live in the U.S. so what do I care about the rest of the world), but I got the sense that the character (an outbacker from a similar mold as Mick Dundee) Mick Taylor is the last of a dying breed - an almost larger than life personality, with a distinct way of surviving that has (or is) becoming obsolete, and as such, is being pushed into extinction.
While gathered around his campfire with the three travelers, Mick talks about the past when he was employed as a hunter whose job it was to "thin out the herd" in areas overrun with animals. Shortly thereafter he remarks that there are too many tourists (which are what Liz and Kristy are) and then makes a disparaging comment about people from the city (specifically Sydney, which is where Ben is from). While this could be construed as being a motivation as to why Mick is killing people, more to the point, it seemed an intriguing layer, or interesting facet to his character that the film hints at. This idea that Mick represents a type of rugged individual that is vanishing from the population, and thus, has become a myth, is perhaps exemplified in the final shot of the film - an image which I won't spoil here.
Across the board the performances are great. However, I would be remiss if I didn't single out John Jarratt's performance as Mick Taylor. It is a really frightening portrayal - it's gritty, believable, it's not romanticized, and Jarratt brilliantly walks a fine line, without ever slipping into being overly cartoonish. Simply a great performance that is just as memorable as the evil character he so skillfully portrays.
The only problems I had with the film were minor, and common to this type of movie. Most memorably, there are a few isolated occasions when you can't help but question some of the decisions characters are making. It is difficult to say with certainty what you would or would not do in extreme situations, yet the film puts you in the protagonists shoes, and on these aforementioned occasions I was almost reduced to yelling at the screen.
The DVD from the Weinstein Company presents the film in a gorgeous widescreen anamorphic transfer, with commentary, deleted scene, trailers, and a very comprehensive making-of featurette. It's a very nice overall package for a truly worthy film.
Although I had not heard much about the film prior to seeing it, Wolf Creek supposedly had a substantial amount of buzz surrounding it. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the film was - though it is also harrowing, to be sure. With a lot of buzz and hyperbolizing (guilty as charged) there is always the chance that you're expectations won't be met and that the film may leave you underwhelmed. So if you must, turn your attention back to the advertising onslaught of one of those Hollywood behemoths, because a little low-budget horror movie has come to DVD, hacking through all the uninspired film studio rejectamenta with a big, bloody hunting knife, and knocking unsuspecting U.S. audiences on to their collective asses (in a good way, of course).