dir: Greg McLean
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When was the last decent Australian horror film released? When was there ever a decent Australian horror film?
Wolf Creek isn’t just the best Australian horror film, it’s one of the best horror films since the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It is Australia’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
It should have come out twenty years ago.
It is brutal, uncompromising, spare, straightforward, harrowing and played totally down the line. The bullshit about it being based on a true story is forgivable only in that the film, which bears no similarity to actual events, does not stint on the expectation of what it is going to deliver.
This is not a post modern horror flick which nods and winks at the audience with every cliché thing that it does. This doesn’t have glib one-liners or insulting deus ex machinas to embarrass the makers or us.
It is what it is. The spareness and the simplicity of the production only helps matters.
The ‘Based on a True Story’ bit should be ignored. The flick has nothing to do with the Falconio case. If anything, it is more similar to the Balanglo State Forest – Backpacker Murders. If this film can get away with pretending it’s based on true events, then any film ever made that has a murder in it can claim to be based on a true story because murders have occurred at some points in human history.
By that logic Battlefield: Earth is based on a true story because there have been wars on this planet at some stages of human history.
You see the problem with it, don’t you. That stuff can easily be ignored. The premise is basic enough, universal enough to strike the right and painful chord.
I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but I watched a lot of films this week. Only two of them really had any serious emotional – visceral impact on me. One was Howl’s Moving Castle, which I am going to review after this review is finished, and the other is Wolf Creek.
To be truthful, I’m not 100 per cent sure why this film was so horrifying. There’s something about the way it’s done, abandoning all hokiness and cheese, that makes it so horribly real.
There’s another aspect as well. At the last Grand Final (that would be for AFL football, for those of you not conversant with our Australian ways), I was at a friend’s place with other people eating of the barbecued beef and drinking copious amounts of the amber fluid (that would be beer for those of you not from our part of the Milky Way galaxy). A couple there were talking about a recent trip to the Northern Territory they’d just undertaken in their 4WD, being the despicable yuppies that they are.
They had a bunch of stories regarding moments during their travails when they thought someone was trying to get into their tent in the middle of the night, or following them on isolated dirt tracks hundreds of kilometres from the nearest redneck town. The stories invariably ended with “it was just a bunyip” or “it was just some Dutch tourists who wanted to ask us if we’d accepted Jesus as our personal lord and saviour and offer us petrol and water when we’d run out”.
That’s an essential element both of Australia’s self-image and of the idea of travelling around this wide, brown land: sure, you’re at a stranger’s mercy, but country people are decent folk and travellers help each other out when they’re in trouble.
Wolf Creek takes the idea and flips it on its head in an especially Australian way. Still, the premise is really no different from hundreds of other flicks where someone kills a bunch of people for no immediately apparent reason. It’s just done in a very pure way.
Three travellers, two British girls, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and an Aussie guy (Nathan Phillips), start travelling in an old Ford XD wagon from Broome in Western Australia, with the intention of driving across the Northern Territory and Queensland to get to a party in Cairns.
Along the way they decide to visit a meteorite impact crater at Wolf Creek. After visiting the crater, they have car trouble. A helpful local called Mick (John Jarratt) happens upon them and offers to help them out.
You can see where this is going, even if they can’t. The “kids” in these kinds of stories are generally annoying and ciphers to boot. I wouldn’t say that the three of them are developed completely into well-rounded characters, but we get to like them, a bit.
When you put them in danger later on, it makes it nastier. There’s a difference between watching someone kill, say, a cat onscreen, and watching them kill your cat.
Then again, maybe there isn’t. It’s a totally hideous idea and I regret ever having brought it up.
They do spend a lot of time on the set up. It’s filmed in a basic, quite often handheld manner, though they thankfully don’t go the Blair Witch Project route. But the footage often does recall home video style stuff, which is appropriate and is played up later on.
The director and everyone else collaborate to make the experience unsettling right from the start. There’s an ominous tone immediately before the opening credits, and it persists until the carnage starts.
It is not a gorefest, but it is still extremely vicious. Mick is a brutal opponent, resourceful and adaptable, and is not the kind of guy overwhelmed by demon voices or psychosis or anything that makes him any less than implacable. He is terrifying because he’s so realistic. He’s a guy that kills because he likes killing, and he’s very good at it. And his calmness and rationality hold him in good stead.
The commonplace, workaday manner in which he does what he does makes it all the more eerie and disturbing. The “head on a stick” sequence is the most vicious thing I’ve seen in a cinema in years. Not for what is shown, but for what it means. He is chilling, truly chilling, and I applaud someone like Jarratt, who for the last bunch of years has been on Better Homes and Gardens, for having the balls to play such a vile creation.
There’s a reason why Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still the benchmark when it comes to films of this type. I mean, just look at the goofy name. The whole production is bizarre, so many elements of the story are ridiculous and over the top, and the most iconic moments are generally so strange (like Leatherface’s chainsaw-wielding dance in the morning sun, one of the truly great moments in cinema) that the thousands of hacks who’ve since ripped the film off never bother replicating them, including in the recent remake.
What sets TCM apart is the eerie, weird tone it establishes early on and maintains for the film’s duration. It took one person’s terror (Sally’s) and amplified it to an extreme level, and took us along with it. Its quick and brutal kills, married to the subtext about the meat industry, equating the slaughtering of humans with the way animals are treated by modern society, made it all the more unsettling.
Wolf Creek isn’t TCM. But it takes the important elements, strips off the stylistic stuff that most modern directors and producers try to force in, and resists the impulse to show off (mostly). There are missteps, sure. There’s one brief reference to Mad Max which I think may be a little much for people to take. And there’s a shot of a thermos that looked great, and had a story purpose, but was really a showy moment that was at odds with the rest of the film’s realisation.
There are problems, there are always problems, but they’re problems that beset most films of this type. That doesn’t make them any more forgivable. I won’t spoil them but people should be aware that I’m not claiming that this is THE perfect horror film. It’s not, but it’s pretty horrific, it sets the right tone and maintains it until it amps it up, it terrified and unsettled me and it has a perfectly appropriate ending.
It shows that the old adage “less is more” is not just a cliché, it’s an applicable term to what makes some films work better than others. I’m trying to think of TCM clones which were as good as the original, and I can’t think of too many that really came close, including the other films that Tobe Hooper has made. Unlike this one.
Of course, saying this to horror fans is like daring them to disagree. I am fully aware that a lot of people are going to hear the hype, see the film and say, in that irritatingly contemporary and nonchalant way “whatever”. Or much worse. Many are going to blame me personally. Well, that’s not my problem. I’ve set out why I think it works, and I stick by all my misstatements.
Wolf Creek is horrifyingly good.
9 times when a sadistic killer is knocked out and you know he’s not dead, their potential victims should really be killing the fuckers instead of running away like chickens with their heads about to be cut off out of 10
“I was doing people a service really, by shooting them. There's kangaroos all over the place... like tourists.” Mick Taylor, Wolf Creek.