Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2005

A ferocious 'Wolf' in a tired genre's clothing

Wolf Creek
Dimension Films
Director: Greg McLean
Screenplay: Greg McLean
Starring: Cassandra Magrath, Nathan Phillips, Kestie Morassi and John Jarratt
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Opened Dec. 25, 2005
(out of four)

It's a curious thing. Looked at from a distance, Wolf Creek seems to be just like every other slasher flick of the last 30 years, a retread of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and/or Halloween. It contains almost all of the same elements of so many of the bad horror movies we've become accustomed to -- the good-looking twentysomethings who go on a carefree road trip out in the middle of nowhere, the car that breaks down, the sadistic killer, the torture, the copious bloodletting.

Such uncanny similarity makes it seem like this is just another derivative knock-off, but somehow it's just...well, better. Despite all the worn-out cliches the film employs, it's just a better product than the countless other recent movies that have followed the same formula.

Much, if not all, of the credit has to go to writer/director Greg McLean. His writing is crisp, and he has created characters that actually seem like they might be real people, rather than hollow archetypes inhabiting the movie for the sole purpose of being killed in bloody detail. Not only that, but the dialogue McLean has supplied for them is infinitely better than what we usually get from this genre. The characters seem to really be talking to each other, talking the way real people talk. It's no surprise, then, that we care much more when Terrible Things start to happen to them. Sure, we don't care as much as we did in, say, The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby or Poltergeist, but considering what we're used to, it's a vast improvement.

McLean's direction is equally as skilled, and he puts it to great use as he sets up the plot slowly and methodically rather than going for a Jump Moment every five minutes or rushing too hastily into the inevitable bloodshed. Instead, he makes us wait, and takes full advantage of it, as he creates a thick, disturbing atmosphere that grows more foreboding by the minute, even while nothing is really happening. You can practically see the dread looming in the background. The film's plot structure is familiar, but perfect, as it takes the same approach that Hitchcock mastered and which has been followed for years by smart filmmakers -- i.e. Ridley Scott in Alien, Steven Spielberg in Jaws, Roman Polanski in Rosemary's Baby -- which is to bring the action along slowly, letting us get to know the characters, absorb the atmosphere and let extraordinary tension set in before anything scary actually happens.

It's disappointing, especially in retrospect, how many filmmakers don't seem to understand this concept, but instead go for cheap thrills and scares early and often, letting the blood spill and the damsels shriek for two straight hours in what invariably turns into self-parody. Well, Wolf Creek doesn't do that -- McLean gets it right.

As I said, the plot is nothing special. Supposedly based on true events that took place in Australia, the film follows two young British women -- Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) -- on vacation in Australia as they take a road trip with a local Aussie, Ben (Nathan Phillips) to the "infamous" Wolf Creek Crater.

They go, they hike, they explore...there's a budding relationship between Ben and Liz that never fully develops but is nonetheless nevertheless totally plausible. Anyway, it's the typical stuff. When they get back to the car, it will no longer start. They wait for a while before a seemingly nice gentleman, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), offers to tow them to his place and fix it up so they can get back on their way.

Now, it's obvious to anyone who has ever seen a horror movie that Mick, no matter how kindly he appears and no matter how irresistible his adorable Australian charm, is not going to turn out to be such a nice mate after all.

Again, the film avoids a misstep by letting us get to know Mick for a solid half-hour (in what amounts to a few hours for the characters) before the terror begins. Jarratt has a juicy role and gets many of the film's best lines, and he gives an indelible performance as the rugged, wise-cracking Crocodile Dundee-cum-serial killer.

For all the savvy Jarratt brings to his role, McLean finally steps wrong once we finally get into Mick's little killing spree. The terror starts out on the right note -- after we see the three road-trippers and their new friend enjoying a nice mail around a campfire, the next shot, after a fade-out, is of Liz waking up and realizing she's locked in chains in an abandoned shed in the middle of Mick's junkyard. Things get worse when she hears her friend's horrified screams from afar.

But once we actually see the what Mick is doing, and the pleasure he takes in doing it...well, it doesn't really seem to have a point. It's like McLean knew his antagonist had to be really bad, but didn't know how to make him be bad. So Mick's acts just seem ham-fisted. It is at this point that the film becomes a victim of its own genre, and where a little originality could have gone a long way.

But nevertheless, there are a few excellent scenes near the end of the film that make up for the relative blandness of the torture sequences. In the end, the strengths outweigh the major weakness. It's a little hard to explain why the film works as well as it does, considering how tired so many of the plot and character devices are. Enjoying the movie may seem like just rationalizing for what seems to be Just Another Horror Flick. But no -- the talent and skill are there, right there on the screen. Wolf Creek is not perfect, but it is not another hack job. For once, we have a horror movie that is actually interesting.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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