Wolf Creek

Dec 28, 2005 at 12:00 am

Why do people go to scary movies? Theoretically, it’s because we’re looking for catharsis. By putting us in the shoes of a potential victim and allowing us to thwart death, these films reaffirm the strength of our humanity — or so behaviorists would have us believe.

Horror films with a more nihilistic bent like Rosemary’s Baby, Seven or anything by David Cronenberg dig deep into the human condition to examine the darker implications of our nature. But without subtext, horror flicks risk crossing the line into sadism and moral bankruptcy, asking us to identify with the villain’s brutality, or present a bleak worldview without metaphor or meaning. Wolf Creek falls into this category.

Hoping to ape the success of low-budget scare-fests such as Open Water and The Blair Witch Project, writer-director Greg McLean claims his film is “based on actual fact.” Using the real-life disappearances of young Aussies in the Outback as his inspiration, he delivers a well-made but viciously nasty thriller that cynically exploits real-life events. The film’s claim to authenticity is specious at best. Had McLean truly confronted the tragic plight of these missing kids, his carnage would pack an emotional wallop. Instead, Wolf Creek is sensationalistic and ugly, a horror franchise that tries to cash in on somebody else’s dead children.

Liz and Kristy (Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi), a pair of sexy young Brits, hook up with Ben (Nathan Phillips) on a cross-country drive. Flirting, joking and drinking their way across the dusty Outback, they stop at Wolf Creek National Park to see an enormous meteor crater. When their car mysteriously dies, an amiable yokel named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) comes to their rescue, towing them to his camp for an overnight repair. When the trio awakens, however, they find themselves in a world of stomach-churning violence.

For nearly half its running time, Wolf Creek plays like a low-key road movie, focusing on the disarming charm of its attractive leads. Not much happens, but the relaxed pace and alien landscape slowly builds a palpable sense of dread, long before anything actually happens. Once Jarratt’s superficial kindness gives way to unspeakable brutality, however, the film turns into Crocodile Dundee meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The second half becomes an exercise in gut-wrenching intensity. McLean presents a tight-knuckled game of cat and mouse as Jarratt repeatedly hunts down his victims. What’s most impressive is how realistic the action is, expertly pulling us into the harrowing violence and filling us with despair as hope is repeatedly snatched away.

But there’s a sadistic tendency to McLean’s direction, and his script relies far too much on clichés: Victims are able turn the tables on their attacker but fail to finish him off; the killer is able to predict exactly where his quarry will flee. For all the talent and savvy this young filmmaker has, he ends up undermining his own film with mean-spirited plot twists and dubious taste.

McLean captures the unforgiving heat and dust of his sun-drenched backdrop, and the unrelenting desolation makes the situation all the more bleak. The movie will undoubtedly result in making backpacking tourists think twice about exploring the Outback.

Magrath stands out as the clearheaded and resourceful heroine. Jarratt, a former host of the Better Homes and Gardens TV show, is truly disturbing as the film’s evil Samaritan. He flips the image of the laconic Australian on its head and creates an astonishingly scary monster.

As a film debut, McLean proves masterful at providing white-knuckled tension. But by trumpeting his “based on a true story” device and fudging his ending with a capricious and unsatisfying climax, he shamefully exploits real tragedy to create cruel fiction.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].