We’re informed at the beginning of Greg Mclean’s grisly horror movie–a sort of Down Under version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which like Tobe Hooper’s movies claims to be based loosely on an actual event–that thousands of people have gone missing in Australia over the years, and many have never been found. By the time “Wolf Creek” is over, you may feel that though only 95 minutes have passed, the three unlucky travelers who are Mclean’s subjects haven’t disappeared from view quickly soon enough.
There’s not much plot here. Three chums–Aussie surf bum Ben (Nathan Philips) and two English visitors, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), enjoy a drunken night out on the beach and then pack up a ramshackle old station wagon for a trip into the outback. After the obligatory stop at an isolated truck stop where they’re treated contemptuously by some thuggish locals, they go off to Wolf Creek National Park, where they leave their car behind to trek to a huge meteor crater and back. There are some inklings of incipient romance between Ben and Liz, but before anything can blossom along those lines, they return to the wagon, only to find that its battery is dead. (For some reason all their watches have also stopped, a circumstance that’s never explained.) As they huddle helplessly in the car for the night, a solitary truck happens along, and gregarious driver Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) offers to tow them back to his camp and fix the problem–gratis. Without any other option, they agree, and though they have some misgivings at the length of the trip, all seems well as they reach the combination mine and junkyard where Mick lives in splendid isolation and gab over a campfire. Unfortunately, the trio soon find themselves the hapless captives of a sadistic madman, who tortures them mercilessly with an obvious intent to snuff them when his bloodlust is satiated. The remainder of the picture is basically a red-drenched cat-and-mouse affair in which one of the mice occasionally gets a break, but not for long.
“Wolf Creek” is like your father’s horror movie: it eschews the tongue-in-cheek, self-referential attitude popularized by Wes Craven in the “Scream” franchise and aims, quite successfully, to be the sort of humorless gorefest that prevailed before that. And you have to admit that simply as an exercise in technique, it’s very efficiently done. It has the appropriately gloomy, gritty look the genre demands, the victims suffer extravagantly and run–always scared, stumbling and panting–convincingly, and the perpetrator is portrayed as clearly relishing his avocation without being turned into a wise-cracking boogeyman. But while the movie is certainly unsettling, and even repulsive in parts, it’s not actually frightening; graphic depictions of mindless cruelty are more revolting than scary. Nor does all the suffering of the captives evoke real feelings of compassion, because the characters haven’t been drawn beyond the flimsiest sketches, and Phillips, Magrath and Morassi don’t invest them with much personality. Jarratt, on the other hand, has personality to burn, but not of the sort that’s likely to elicit any sympathy.
Had “Wolf Creek” appeared thirty years ago, it would have been ground-breaking and terrifying. But in the present climate, it’s more throwback than envelope-pusher–rather like “The Devil’s Rejects” was earlier this year. Fans of the genre will this an edgily explicit example of it. Others will probably be turned off by its nastiness and grim single-mindedness. Go to it if you must, but prepare to be disgusted, unless previous immersion in sanguinary movies and violent video games has left you impervious to nausea.
And who thought this was a Christmas movie?