In case WOLF CREAK did not completely demolish Australia’s tourism appeal, Greg McLean takes audiences on another terrifying tour of the land down under. This time, the menace is not an evil Crocodile Dundee but a literal killer croc that gives JAWS a swim for its money. The Salt Water Crocodile may not strike the same chord of primordial dread as the Great White Shark, but writer-director-producer McLean’s expert craftsmanship yields an effective thrill ride. Hardcore horror hounds who embraced McLean’s debut film may be disappointed by the relative restraint, but his old-fashioned monster movie should appeal to viewers who found the grimly gruesome WOLF CREEK more revolting than terrifying. In other words, if you want to enjoy being scared – rather than passing an endurance test – then this rampaging reptile is for you.
Although the obvious intention is to make a JAWS-type film with a crocodile instead of a shark, the set up actually more resembles HATCHET, with a group of tourists on a boat ride that runs aground, leaving them stranded with little hope of rescue. In this case, the boat goes off the designated tour while investigating a distress flare and winds up encroaching on the territory of a very aggressive crocodile, which wrecks the boat and begins picking off the intruders one by one. The tourists take shelter on a small island in the middle of a the river, but safety is only temporary, thanks to a rising tide.
With a debut film that resembles an Aussie-fied version of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and a follow-up modeled on JAWS (1975), McLean clearly knows his ’70s horror. His sophomore outing even seems to fall into a tradition that was fairly prevalent during that decade: that of filmmakers who earned cult renown for early, independent horror films, the success of which led to slightly more lavish follow-ups that revisited some of the same themes on a larger scale and with improved production values. Think of David Cronenberg going from THEY CAME FROM WITHIN to RABID, Wes Craven going from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to THE HILLS HAVE EYES, or Tobe Hooper going from CHAINSAW MASSACRE to EATEN ALIVE (which – coincidentally – also featured a killer croc).1
Typically, these latter efforts were slicker but lacking the grim intensity of their predecessors, as if the glossier production values mitigated the horror (perhaps there was some pressure, with more money involved, to appeal to a wider audience). ROGUE follows in this tradition, leaving behind the jittery camera work and grainy photography of WOLF CREEK in favor of a stately display of lavish location lensing (including breath-taking helicopter shots) that suggests OUT OF AFRICA in the Australian Outback.
Complimenting the new look is a more conventional approach to screenplay structure, in which the Everyman Hero (Michael Vartan as a travel writer who prefers comfy hotels to the great outdoors – rises to the occasion and conquers his fear of Mother Nature while confronting his nemesis. McLean is writing a story that is supposed to satisfy on a dramatic level, not just catch the audience off-guard with unexpected “Gotcha!” moments of shock. In short, he is playing fair, which means that, unlike WOLF CREEK, ROGUE seldom strays outside the comfort zone of what is acceptably scary (although he does toy with his WOLF CREEK reputation in order to keep the audience on edge, hinting that he might break the rules at any minute – as when, for example, he has his beleaguered tourists contemplate using an adorable pet dog as bait to distract the crocodile).
As a consequence of this approach, ROGUE never quite reaches that fever pitch that WOLF CREEK achieved so perfectly when it instantly shifted from enjoyable road trip movie to white knuckle horror hysteria as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. ROGUE’s shocks and suspense hit you hard, but they seldom hit below the belt. The fear level is roughly equivalent to walking a tightrope – you can’t help feeling the rush of vertigo as you stumble and fall, but you know there’s a safety net below. In ROGUE this takes the form of characters who seem to be mortally wounded but revive for the traditional happy ending. Fortunately, the cast of characters is appealing enough to make this gift appealing to the audience.
Adopting the traditional “10 Little Indians” approach, the script teases audience expectations regarding who will survive (one character, tagged early on as a jerk who deserves to be croc bait, unexpectedly emerges as the resourceful heroic one in time of crisis – although we won’t say whether that is enough to save him), and McLean milks the rising tide and growing desperation to create some memorable set pieces, such as an attempt to string a line from the island to the mainland, so that the stranded tourists can try to climb across to safety. (Early footage of a real croc jumping out of the water to grab a piece of meat dangling in the air creates nail-biting anticipation here, which McLean is clever to subvert with an attack from an unexpected direction).
McLean does not ratchet up the dramatic tension as well as he does the suspense. For example, the death of the first victim, which takes place off-screen, is stunning in its simplicity: now you see him, now you don’t; however, the impact of the shock on the survivors, especially the victim’s spouse is muted – as if giving way to grief would weight the suspense down with too much emotional baggage. Consequently, the portrait of a small group disintegrating under pressure is no match for similar work by Neill Marshall in THE DESCENT. Nevertheless, McLean delivers a fully satisfying pay-off, in which Vartan’s travel writer – maimed, exhausted, frightened -encounters the rapacious descendant of the dinosaurs in its lair and faces off against it, armed with nothing more than a stick, forced to take on the role of St. George confronting the dragon.
ROGUE’s portrayal of a citydweller confronting a crocodile in the Australian outback does not reverberate as strongly on a mythic level as JAWS. Although Steven Spielberg’s 1975 films is, frankly, overrated, its failings (poor pacing, the unbelievable survival of the Hooper character) are almost beside the point; the film delivers an archetypal tale of a man conquering his fear of the ocean by slaying a sea monster. ROGUE, with a primordial predator defending its isolated territory from human intruders, offers a vague parallel with CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, a mere suggestion that the crocodile would not be a problem if humans simply kept their distance; also, an aboriginal painting on a cliff wall lends the croc totemic status, but ultimately the beast is more a dangerous animal than a mythical monster.
The crocodile’s predations are handled discretely (a la JAWS), revealing the beast only in glimpses until later in the film. Instead, the reptile’s presence is suggested through a nifty one-note music cue, a sustained low drone on the cello that suggests a growl welling from deep within the monster’s lungs.
The special effects (mostly computer-generated imagery, augmented by some full-scale and miniatures mock-ups) tend to be more convincing than those in PRIMEVAL (2007), although that may largely be due to the relative restraint of the action, which is scaled down to believable levels (unlike that film’s Gustav, this rogue croc never runs like a gazelle, nor does he perform any Olympic quality aerial maneuvers while leaping from the water). In general, the creature’s skin texture and movements are well-rendered, even though the CGI origins are still apparent to sharp-eyed viewers. A more extenisve use of scale models (full-sized or miniature) might have increased the effectiveness.
ROGUE may not be a masterpiece, nor does it set records for gut-level intensity, but McLean proves he can broaden his appeal beyond cult horror enthusiasts and gore hounds, delivering an enjoyable horror fright fest that is cathartic rather than traumatizing. It is altogether unfortunate that his film lost the race to beat PRIMEVAL into U.S. theatres; that rival killer croc’s quick box office death demoted ROGUE to virtual direct-to-video status (outside of a handful of play-dates, presumably to satisfying contractual obligations, ROGUE bypassed theatres in this country).
The injustice is that ROGUE is by far the better film; McLean sticks to a simple man-versus-nature theme and delivered the gory goods, unburdened by pretentious political posturing that marred the rival production. In the small sub-genre of aggressive alligator movies, 1980’s ALLIGATOR remains the best, thanks to its deft tongue-in-cheek humor and well-drawn characters, but ROGUE easily rips its way ahead of the rest of the pack. With only two films under his belt, McLean has shown enough skill to put him well above most of his “Splat Pack” contemporaries, most of whose reputations rest on launching a single franchise (e.g., SAW, HOSTEL). McLean has the talent to make us want to see whatever he does next, and if he is smart enough to avoid WOLF CREEK 2 or SON OF ROGUE, so much the better.
In a wide angle matte painting of the small island on which the tourists are stuck, in the upper left-hand corner of the frame, one can the Wolf Creek meteor crater, suggesting that WOLF CREEK and ROGUE take place in the same universe. One hopes that, if the antagonists of the two films ever met, the croc would be the winner.
In a tongue-in-cheek touch that may be a touch too cute, the closing credits scroll while the soundtrack plays Jack Lawrence and Frank Churchill’s “Never Smile at a Crocodile” (previously heard in Disney’s 1953 animated film PETER PAN).
ROGUE arrives on DVD in an unrated director’s cut, courtesy of the Dimension Extreme home video label. The label and the “unrated” designation are misleading. The film is not an extreme gore-fest, and the director’s cut consists mostly of restored character scenes, not footage trimmed to avoid an NC-17.
The DVD offers a widescreen transfer that looks wonderful on a 16×9 television, capturing the beauty of the location photography. The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 with an optional audio commentary by McLean. The film is divided into 18 chapter stops, and there are subtitles in Spanish and English for the hearing impaired.
Bonus features include:
- The Making of Rogue – a documentary by McLean.
- Welcome to the Territory – a gallery of three mini documentaries.
- The Real Rogue– a look at the real-life models for the film’s killer croc.
- Theatrical Trailer
Although the designation “A Documentary by Greg McLean” might suggest that “The Making of Rogue” would be nothing more than a promotional puff piece, the film functions more like a behind-the-scenes how-to guide for aspiring filmmakers, offering insights to the film’s genesis and production, courtesy of extensive on-camera interviews with the cast and crew, including stars Radha Mitchell and Michael Vartan, and the cinematographer, composer, and effects technicians. Among many other details, McLean discusses the inspiration for the film, citing not only JAWS but a real-life case of a rogue crocodile that defended its territory by attacking any small boats that wandered into the area.
The three Mini-Documentaries expand upon specific topics discussed more briefly in full-length piece:
- “The Effects” examines the combination of CGI and live-action props and miniatures that were used to create the killer crocodile.
- “The Music” depicts composer Francois Tetas’s efforts to create a theme for the croc without sounding too much like John William’s famous motif for the Great White in JAWS.
- “Northern Territory” takes a look at the wonderful locations in the nothern section of Australia where the early sequences of ROGUE were filmed – much of it never before seen on camera.
There is some overlap with footage from “The Making of Rogue,” but these short pieces provide much more detail that will be of interest to anyone fascinated with the nuts-and-bolts of the film-making process.
“The Real Rogue” turns out to be a slight disappointment. Despite references in “The Making of Rogue” to a real-life inspiration for the script, this short featurette consists not of specifics but of a general look at actual crocodile behavior and how the digital animators referenced it as a model for the movie’s monster.
After these detailed documentaries, it might seem as if there would be little left for McLean to offer in his audio commentary, but he offers a steady stream of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and information. He does touch on topics covered in the other bonus features, but he usually makes his comments scene-specific. In particular, he points out shots from the second half of the film, which were shot in Southern Australia and then digitally altered to make them match the Northern Territory locations where most of the first half of the film was shot.
McLean also identifies a few restored scenes and jokes about playing off audience expectations: “I’m pretty sure most people watching it felt, ‘Well, if this guy’s sick enough to make WOLF CREEK, then he’s sick enough to use the dog as bait in his film, so it’s kind of good to have that threat hanging over their heads, I think.”
As a film, ROGUE deserved a theatrical release in the U.S. in spite of PRIMEVAL’s poor box office. On DVD, much of the horror remains intact, even if the epic quality of the Northern Territory locations is somewhat diminished on smaller screens. Plus, the DVD bonus features will appeal to more than hardcore fans; even casual cineastes will find the behind-the-scenes stories fascinating.
ROGUE(2006; USA DVD release: 2008). Written, produced, and directed by Greg McLean. Cast: Radha Mitchell, Michael Vartan, Sam Worhington, Caroline Brazier, Stephen Curry, Celia Ireland, John Jarratt, Heather Mitchell, Geoff Morrell, Damien Rchardson, Robert Taylor, Mia Wasikowska, Barry Otto.
- One might also cite John Carpenter going from HALLOWEEN to THE FOG and Brian DePalma going from CARRIE to THE FURY, but the comparison is not exact, because both Carpenter and DePalma had a small body of work under their belt before their breakout movies. Another approximate comparison is George Romero, who went from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to THE CRAZIES; however, he took a few detours in between.