Director: Greg McLean

Some of the most popular and intense horror films of the last several years have come from outside of the United States. Movies such as Alexandre Aja's French slasher High Tension, Danny Boyle's British zombie movie 28 Days Later, the Ginger Snaps trilogy from Canada, and the work of Asian filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata, and Takashi Shimizu have all established that horror's strongest presence in this century perhaps lies beyond America's borders. With horror movies from the United Kingdom (e.g. 28 Days Later, Dog Soldiers, Shaun of the Dead) finding moderate success upon their importation to America, it was only a matter of time before horror movies from other English-speaking countries invaded the U.S. box offices. One such film was Wolf Creek, an import from Australia that combined two recent trends in American entries in the genre: movies culling inspiration from supposedly true stories, and movies such as The Devil's Rejects, which hearken back to the gritty and extreme horror films of a bygone era of filmmaking. But does Wolf Creek succeed in being scary, or is it an import that should have stayed home?

WOLF CREEK (2005)Our tale of terror begins in the small coastal town of Broome in western Australia, circa 1999. It is here that we are quickly introduced to a pair of British tourists, Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi), and their Aussie friend and tour guide Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips). The trio have set out on a road trip through the lonely and isolated outback to visit the enormous Wolf Creek meteorite crater. They arrive and ponder the origins of the crater, but upon returning to where they parked, they discover that both their watches and their car have mysteriously stopped working. The three stranded travelers are forced to call it a night and camp out in the car, but late that evening, they're stumbled upon by — of all things — a man driving a tow truck.

Introducing himself as Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), the trucker is charming in a Crocodile Dundee kind of way, but something about him is unsettling. But no matter, the travelers need their car fixed, and Mick offers to tow them back to his encampment so he can patch it up for them in the morning. After a ride that feels like it lasts for hours, they finally arrive at Mick's camp, an intimidating combination of an abandoned mine and a junkyard. Mick is ever the host as they settle in, offering food, water, and a place to stay for the night. After having a fun evening around the campfire, everyone decides to turn in for the night and get some shut-eye. But things take a turn for the worse the following morning, when the three tourists all discover that their road trip has led them into a world of cruelty and sadism, and that Mick is far from the helpful, amiable man they believed him to be.

The American marketing campaign for Wolf Creek is reminiscent of the one for Michael Bay's remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. It is purportedly based on true events, yet both are fictional stories that spin true crimes into their narrative. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses facts about Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein for its story, Wolf Creek draws inspiration from various Australian murder cases, primarily the brutal "backpacker murders" committed by Ivan Milat between 1989 and 1992, the "Snowtown murders" committed between 1992 and 1999, and the disappearance of British tourist Peter Falconio. Instead of following one particular incident, elements of them all are blended together to craft the story we are presented with. And what a story it is, too. Wolf Creek is relentlessly brutal, and sensitive viewers may just want to skip it. The movie utilizes an intensity that only makes the horrors depicted onscreen that much more terrifying, so even moments that may be tame seem as vicious as the worst.

I wouldn't go as far as to call the three protagonists memorable, but I didn't think they were awful. They have an enjoyable chemistry together, which the movie needed to make their friendship believable. Nathan Phillips is fun, but he disappears without a trace for nearly forty minutes in the third act. Until his reappearance for the final ten minutes, he's pretty much a non-factor for the entire thing. But when he's around, I thought he was very entertaining. I enjoyed Cassandra Magrath's charismatic, likeable performance, and if Wolf Creek had gone the traditional route and made her the Final Girl that finally ends the killer's wrath at the end of the movie, I think she would have been up to task. However, my favorite member of the ill-fated threesome was Kestie Morassi. I found her performance as a victim of both physical and psychological torture to be disturbingly believable, and she was so sympathetic that it made her final moments in the film even more heart-wrenching. But perhaps the hook of the whole movie is John Jarratt as our antagonist. When we meet him initially, he is very likeable and has a winning personality, but he transforms into a sleazy, disgusting rapist and torturer. Jarratt is convincing as both, and although I'm sure he's a nice guy in real life, I don't think I'd want to be stuck with him on a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere. Especially if he had a Bowie knife and a sniper rifle.

Where the movie truly succeeds is Greg McLean's direction and writing, and Will Gibson's astounding cinematography. The shots of the horizon and various wildlife are nothing short of gorgeous, and it creates a surreal balance between the beauty of Australian nature and the hellish events depicted. FIlmed on high-definition video, the movie has something of a gritty sheen that works to draw us in deeper to Mick's nasty, evil world. The script, meanwhile, seemingly revels in misanthropy and misogyny. Even before things start going crazy, we're introduced to the idea that maybe people in the outback don't care much for women. In particular is a scene early in the movie where a biker (played by Andy McPhee) uncouthly tries to convince Ben to pimp out his two female companions. We also learn that Mick has no qualms with using his female victims as sex slaves, as evidenced by a bit of dialogue detailing the fate of a decaying corpse in a dark corner of the shack in which he has trapped Kristy.

And I believe it should be noted that outside of a party that opens the movie and the previously mentioned scene with the biker gang, nothing much happens for the first 35 minutes or so. While some may complain that the movie takes forever to get going, that wait actually works in the movie's favor, because it gives us a chance to get to know our three protagonists. That, combined with the documentary-style feeling, makes Wolf Creek just as similar to The Blair Witch Project as it is to movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wrong Turn. The characters are not exactly three-dimensional, but after spending so much time with them, we feel like we know them and can sympathize with them, and it is that bond that makes their eventual fate all the more grueling to watch.

And then there's the character of Mick, who is an oddity. His role as something of a hunter could be seen as a nod to Richard Connell's classic short story The Most Dangerous Game. However, he is also strikingly similar to Rob Zombie's trio of killers from The Devil's Rejects. Mick is sadistic, brutal, and wholly unsympathetic, but he's such a captivating character that we can't help but like him a little. But unlike Zombie's characters, there is no catharsis for Mick. There is no grand sendoff set to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. Mick merely disappears into the sunset, as if he were but one of a million urban legends and campfire ghost stories lost to the sands of time. His murders serve no larger purpose, and there is no real goal. He merely kills as if he were exterminating vermin, as if he were removing an annoying gopher that's been digging up his garden. There's no attempt to psychoanalyze him or explain why he kills, either; we just have to accept that things are the way they are for no reason and roll with it.

All this is enhanced by McLean's masterful direction. Many times during the movie, we know something bad is going to happen, but we have no idea when or how vicious it will be. That's suspense, folks, and Wolf Creek has it in spades. Take, for example, a scene in which a good Samaritan sits a thermos on the roof of his car while he fetches a blanket for a character. We hear a faint, nearly inaudible bang in the distance, and seconds later, we discover a bullet hole in the side of the thermos. What happens after that will send you ducking for cover. McLean also utilizes the vast emptiness of the outback to enhance the movie's feeling of loneliness and isolation, and it is assisted by the tense, moody musical score composed by François Tétaz. The music hit all the right notes (no pun intended), and helped to make the movie even more frightening.

Respected film critic Roger Ebert noted in a rare zero-star review that Wolf Creek gleefully lept across some imaginary line in the sand that separates the decent from the indecent, the well-adjusted from the depraved. He wrote, "There is a role for violence in film, but what the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?" While his argument is certainly valid, and I agree that it is hard to justify cinematic violence when there's no real reason for it, I think Ebert should lighten up. Wolf Creek did serve a purpose in the long run, and that was to horrify its audience. That's what horror movies are supposed to do. To believe otherwise is to misunderstand how they work. The moviegoing public sometimes needs a film to show the evil that hides in the shadows of the human heart and soul, and Wolf Creek is a reminder that there really are sick people out there getting their jollies from torturing and killing innocent people. I don't know if I would go as far as to call the movie a social commentary in that sense, but it is most certainly a terrifying experience. And because it is both terrifying and excellently made, I'll give Wolf Creek a solid four stars. Check it out, if you have the stomach.

Final Rating: ****