Wolf Creek (2005) – Horror Film Review
This is the Australian film that generated a bit of a buzz when the Weinstein Brothers bought the distribution rights at Sundance Film Festival. Thanks to the Weinstein’s previous track record for picking up independent films and turning them into sleeper hits), audiences and critics were expecting a low-budget horror gem; what arrived is much closer to a diamond in the rough — much better than the standard American slasher junk, but still seriously flawed enough to make it no candidate for classic status.
WOLF CREEK seems designed to convince us that traveling the Australian outback is every bit as dangerous as exploring the plains of Texas — essentially, it’s a remake of the original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, right down to the title card claiming the script is based on a true story. The film follows a trio (two girls and a guy) taking a long ride to Sydney. In the middle of nowhere, they stop at Wolf Creek, site of a ancient meteor strike, but their used car won’t start. A friendly gent (who initially resembles Crocodile Dundee on steroids) shows up and offers help, but you just know things are going to turn out bad. And they do. Really, really bad.
Although it never matches the unrelenting intensity of its model, writer-producer-director Greg McLean’s film is in some ways better than CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The long first act that establishes the character’s and situations is actually very entertaining — long before the horror strikes, you’re totally involved with the film, which seeks to establish a genuine audience identification with its protagonists before putting them in harm’s way. (Essentially, this is the “Lamb to the Slaughter” approach to filmmaking.)
The result is that the movie is not a pleasant thrill ride, nor a goofy gorefest. Having established a convincing sense of versimilitude, with its hand-held camera work and grainy images, the movie is intentionally unpleasant and harrowing once the horror kicks in. The overall effect is grim and gruesome, albeit not especially graphic by modern horror standards.
The film has a bit more than unendurable agony going for it. The story plays an interesting narrative trick, splitting the protagonists up after they’ve been captured and showing us what happens to them in more or less sequential order, instead of intercutting between them. (One might call this the “Three Little Pigs Approach”.)
The difference, of course, is that the Grimm fairy tale had a point: you don’t identify with the first two pigs who get killed; you identify with the third one, who survives because he is smarter. In effect, the two victims are just dramatic devices that serve to illustrate the moral of the story, which is frightening (to children at least) but not trauamtic, because it provides a soothing sort of catharsis when the third little pig survives.
Well, you ain’t gonna get that here. Dramatic resolutions and catharsis are for wimps — they are just too comforting for this kind of film, which exists purely to put the viewer through the ringer for an hour and a half and then send you back into the real world, presumably shell-shocked. One might forgive this if McLean had pulled off his gambit with total effectiveness; unfortunately, the movie simply winds down to an anti-climactic finish that feels so bogus one expects some kind of surprise twist revelation stating that it was all a dream, before showing the survivor back in the killer’s clutches again.
That said, the film is far more effective than the other CHAINSAW clone to see U.S. release in 2005, HOUSE OF WAX — an opinion confirmed by listening in to audience conversations after a screening of WOLF CREEK at ScreamFestLA, two months before its December 25 debut in American theatres. (One assumes that putting the film out on Christmas Day was the Weinstein’s idea of a sick joke).
In the end, WOLF CREEK is not quite the horrific masterpiece its advance buzz would have led you to believe. For all its efforts at avoiding the usual slasher movie nonsense, it does fall back on some familiar, lame plot devices: the characters neglect to finish off the psycho killer when they briefly get the upper hand midway through; later, the killer pops up in the back seat of a car as if he’s been lying in wait — even though there’s no way he could have predicted his victim would chose that particular car. This is not enough to undercut the frequent effectiveness of McLean’s film, but in spite of the Weinstein Company outlay for the U.S. distribution rights (reportedly $3-million), this is little more than an above-average cult film, beloved by the sort of audience that chamioned THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and/or HIGH TENSION.
Audience reaction at ScreamFest provided perhaps more insight than necessary into what the audience for this kind of film is looking for. There was quite an enthusiastic discussion about how effective was the scene wherein one unfortunate character loses a few fingers to the sweeping blade of a knife, before having the spinal cord severed (a technique the film dubbs “head on a stick” because it paralyzes the victim). “They had a really good sound effect for that,” one appreciative viewer mumbled.
Which raises an interesting point: 2005 seemed to be the year of the Severed Finger when it came to finding a new method of grossing out hardcore horror fans. Besides WOLF CREEK, one digit was snipped in WAX MASK, and three were chopped and ground in a blender in “Cut,” the second episode of THREE EXTREMES.
WOLF CREEK (2005). Written & directed by Greg McLean. Cast: John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kirsty Early, Nathan Phillips