Nathan Phillips as Ben Mitchell
Kestie Morassi as Kristy Earl
Cassandra Magrath as Liz Hunter
John Jarratt as Mick Taylor
Gordon Poole as Attendant
Guy Petersen as Swedish Backpacker #1
Jenny Starwall as Swedish Backpacker #2
Andy McPhee as Bazza
Aaron Sterns as Bazza’s Mate
A seriously terrifying thrill-fest with true scares, “Wolf Creek” defies its own horror genre by actually developing the characters. It’s a welcome addition to the normally formulaic world of horror.
Three friends take a vacation to visit the meteorite crater at Wolf Creek in the Australian outback, but when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they accept the help of an eccentric local (John Jarratt) and find themselves caught in a nightmare beyond anything they could imagine.
My biggest issue with this year’s horror films have been their misogynistic tone, where the women are there just to molest, terrorize and worse. It all harks back to the ’70s B-movies that influenced this new generation of directors, but it’s been taken to ridiculous extremes in unwatchable films like “High Tension” and “The Devil’s Rejects.”
While Greg McLean’s debut feature “Wolf Creek” might look like more of the same, it’s a beast of a different color for a number of reasons: Firstly, the rural Southern setting that’s become the norm for formulaic slasher films has been replaced by the Australian Outback. The story is also based on true events so shocking that the film was banned in one Australian region because a judge thought it might influence his jury. More importantly, McLean knows that horror doesn’t work unless you know what makes the characters tick, and more than anything else, that’s why “Wolf Creek” is such a radical departure.
It’s hard to discuss “Wolf Creek” without spoiling it, since it’s so much better going in knowing nothing. It’s not entirely original, and it may have a hard time avoiding comparisons to “The Blair Witch Project” due to the similar premise and its use of the handheld video cameras that have become an obligatory horror movie prop since that indie horror staple.
For the first half hour, you’re allowed to relax and get comfortable with the use of the scenery to create an innocuous travelogue that owes more to “Y Tu Mama Tambien” than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” McLean does a great job using equal parts natural silence and ambient scoring to set the mood of foreboding, so that when Ben, the sole Australian, and his two British friends Liz and Kirsty, are left stranded when their car breaks down, you can’t help but be on edge. The strange lights that appear in the distance from the darkness are an eerie precursor to the arrival of Mick Taylor, a local samaritan who offers to tow them back to his place to fix their car. Little can the trio know what’s to come, and it’s really why the movie is so terrifying. Like them, you don’t know where it’s going or what to expect, which makes the brutality of the third act that much more shocking and hard to watch.
The reason “Wolf Creek” works where other horror flicks fail is that it spends much of the first hour developing the trio of characters and their relationships. It makes you care about the character before putting them in peril, and it’s a credit to the three young actors that they act so natural with their interplay while on vacation. They’re never nearly as reprehensible as the usual “slasher fodder” because they seem more like real people rather than the typical archetypes one might expect.
Although the film eventually turns vicious, that’s where the fun really begins thanks to the wild performance by John Jarratt as the eccentric local who offers to help the trio. To most, he might seem like the Australian stereotype that’s become so prevalent thanks to the likes of Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin, only taken to the extreme. It’s obvious that Mick is not a fan of being compared to Crocodile Dundee, which is where we get just a glimpse of the real Mick, but Jarratt has created such a strange and memorable character that Mick Taylor should immediately be placed in the pantheon of classic horror characters with Leatherface and Freddy Krueger.
The epilogue, which brings the story back to the reality of the true crime story that was its source material, is a bit of a letdown, because after being pummeled with so much action and thrills, we’re expecting something more significant. Then again, the ending helps maintain what makes “Wolf Creek” so different from the typical horror clichés we’ve seen so many times before.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of subtler forms of suspense will appreciate the first half of McLean’s debut, while those who just like gruesome splatter flicks should enjoy the ending just as much. The real trick is how McLean merges the two types of horror into a cohesive story with real characters, and it’s what sets “Wolf Creek” apart from the pack.