Wolf Creek Review

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by AVForums Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Wolf Creek Review
    Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi) are a couple of British backpackers touring Australia together. Together with native friend Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips), they decide to take a scenic trip to Wolf Creek National Park, a nature spot located deep within the desolate outback. Unfortunately for them, Ben's battered second hand car breaks down leaving the trio stranded. Luckily help arrives in the shape of larger than life bushman Mick Taylor, who takes the three of them back to his camp with offers to repair their car. Unbeknown to the backpackers, Mick has his mind set on an altogether more sinister agenda and the three friends soon learn he's not the best company to be stranded in the backwoods with. Allegedly based on a true story, although more likely merely inspired by various true-crime backpacker disappearances (the Peter Falconio case being the most topical), Wolf Creek marks the directorial debut of Greg McLean, and it's certainly a film that will divide critical opinion straight down the middle. Is it a brave and uncompromising horror that eschews Hollywood fluff and fearlessly goes for the jugular, or is it a one-note exercise in brutality and exploitation for the sake of it? Ultimately the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There is certainly more to 'Wolf Creek' than a mere heads down glorification of human suffering than some critics have labelled it. As a counterpoint however, this film is most certainly not the saviour of horror as we know it. What we have here is a good solid genre movie that is as interesting for what it promises from McLean in the future as it is for the movie itself. The timing is pretty much perfect for Wolf Creek to emerge. For the last couple of years or so Hollywood has been falling over itself attempting to recreate and remake a whole host of horror films from the golden age of the genre. The seventies it seems, is big business at present. Whether it's remakes from the era made contemporary (Dawn of the Dead), remakes set in period (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), or unconnected remakes made to a seventies aesthetic (House of Wax), one thing remains constant. That the studios can't grasp it takes more than bell-bottoms and a couple of yokels to bring a seventies film back to life. What the best examples of the decade brought was a sense of chaos, of unflinching and uncompromising cruelty, of anger and desperation. Something that the latest hack directors from MTV and their troop of stylised moppets could never hope to achieve. It's clear that McLean has a keen and well orchestrated knowledge of the tradition and legacy of horror cinema. This however, is in many respects Wolf Creek's double-edged sword. This steadfast appreciation of the qualities of the genre means that, whilst technically the film stays mostly true to its exploitation roots, the end result is somewhat of a star-struck fan's notion of how to create a great horror film. Let us look at the positives first. On an aesthetic level this film is absolutely gorgeous. McLean comes from a background in painting, and he constructs his shots as an artist would frame his canvas, making wonderful use of the amazing natural scenery Australia has to offer. Whilst his first stab at direction may not be entirely successful on a technical level, McLean certainly knows how to crate and maintain a superior level of unease and tension through subtly of direction and well chosen use of the wonderfully ominous score. There is enough intelligence and artistic merit to dismiss any claims that this is just another mindless video nasty that uses violence to replace skill. Where Wolf Creek succeeds is that it captures a director raw and unrepentant, before mainstream filmmaking has the chance to blunt the sharp edges McLean displays here. This is horror at its most primeval, unflinching in its brutality and unfiltered by Hollywood morality. There are no heroes and no hope here. The protagonists are placed in an inescapable situation where they become mercilessly hunted down and tortured, all told in an unflinching (but never outlandishly gratuitous) and remorseless fashion. Don't expect to see cocky one-liners and gung-ho scenes of heroic fisticuffs on show, this is for the most part intense, realistic and unwavering. If all this sounds pointlessly brutal, it's worth considering how countless other prominent horror directors cut their teeth on material potentially more offensively controversial than this (Wes Craven's Last House on the Left being the most obvious example) before being watered down by the mainstream. This is a horror laid bare with its colours firmly nailed to the mast. Has the line between enjoyment and perverse entertainment been crossed? It depends on your tolerance to onscreen persecution. Is it offensive or hard to watch? Not for me, but maybe I'm just one sick desensitised puppy. McLean's film is helped enormously by an absolute powerhouse of a performance by John Jarratt as psychotic bushman Mick Taylor. Coming across as a homicidal take on the popular romantic notion of the Crocodile Dundee-style bushman, Mick is a classic horror creation, simultaneously symbolising the quintessential tourist-friendly take on antipodean life alongside its terrifying underbelly. Jarratt absolutely owns every scene he's in, veering from hilarious good natured bushman to merciless killer with consummate ease. It's no coincidence that the film finds another gear every time he is on the screen in an iconic performance. It is ironic that the characteristics that raise Wolf Creek head and shoulders above the steady stream of effluence emanating from the majority of modern horror are the same ones that actually knock it down a peg or two. Whilst the film is tremendously successful at what it does, it's only doing what was done some thirty-odd years back. It's treading in the same bathwater that Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper et al dipped into back when Lynyrd Synyrd topped the hit parade and polyester was king. Unfortunately, many of the movies finer points, of which there are many, get lost amid the endless and gratuitous riffing from films gone by. Prime source for inspiration is undoubtedly the American backwoods/hillbilly horror movie, most blatantly Hooper's seminal 1974 outing, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The result therefore is to strip Wolf Creek of some much needed personality. It becomes so indebted to its illustrious forbearers that it becomes less and less its own movie, and more a skilfully made homage. The similarities to TCM and films of the era are frequent. We have the strangers in an insular and isolated society, the creepy roadside garage/diner with the locals who you aren't sure are in on it or not, the crazed villain symbolic of a dying way of life, the collection of victim's cars and photos as trophies, the list goes on. The film even mimics TCM's apocalyptic not-of-this-earth subtext with its mysterious instances of watches stopping and day becoming night becoming day. Similarly, McLean's naivety as a director also serves to hinder the finished product. His decision to split the film into two distinct sections is commendable and helps highlight the conflicting images from night/day, civilisation/savagery, and friendship/violence in a highly effective way. The film doesn't set out to be a mere bloodbath, and the opening 45 minutes are set aside solely for character development. Whilst admirable in itself, the conceit is not a wholly successful one. When done correctly this style of plot development can be tremendously successful (Psycho springs to mind), however here the opening gambits feel somewhat laboured and unnatural. Aside from the basic premise of getting to Wolf Creek itself, the establishing of the characters is indistinct and vague, often relying on the inexperienced actors to engage in trivial wordplay which feels like no more than padding. Rather than make us identify and engage with the trio, making the later bloodshed all the more harrowing, if anything these missteps disengage us from the proceedings. Key scenes in the diner and around the campfire engage well with the notions of Ben being a somewhat emasculated leading man, however for every one of these there are numerous scenes where he comes across as irritating in the extreme, the kind of irksome 'crazzeeee' stereotype, all cheesy laughter and madcap humour. The hazy construction of the three backpackers make Mick Taylor come across as a breath of fresh air. Larger than life and full of humour you can't help but root just a little for old Mick when he gets stuck in later on in the film, even though the obvious intention is for us to side with his three captives. Perhaps a more experienced director could have addressed the obvious pacing issues the film has. Once it gains momentum there's no stopping it, but the flabby first half may have some less patient viewers reaching for the fast forward button. As a final bone of contention, the persistent use of old horror cliché does grow stale on occasion and impinges of the realism of the project. On one hand it makes a very respectable stab at uncompromising gritty realism, but on the other it undermines these aesthetics by throwing in a few too many chestnuts such as the frantic search for car keys, the inability to finish off the baddie, you know the drill by now. Despite its flaws this is without a doubt, essential viewing for the horror fan. Wolf Creek is far from the finished article, but its very ethos and construction single it out from the crowd of seventies wannabes. Here's a director who at the very least knows what it takes to create a great film, even if he can't quite achieve it on this outing. In this debut, McLean demonstrates great promise and an uncompromising vision of what makes a great horror film. All he needs to develop is a little more of his own stamp and identity as a director which will hopefully develop with time behind the camera. Here's hoping the mainstream doesn't get the opportunity to sanitise him before he gets the chance to make the major artistic statement in the genre that Wolf Creek indicates he is well capable of achieving.

    The Rundown

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