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October 01, 2005
- Wolf Creek
'Wolf Creek' – Horror, cert 18, 99 mins. Dir: Greg McLean. Starring: Nathan Phillips (Ben), Kestie Morassi (Kristy), Cassandra Magrath (Liz)
Leatherface meets Crocodile Dundee in backpacker hell...
'Wolf Creek', the superlative Australian answer to the American road-horror subgenre recently made popular by films such as 'Wrong Turn', 'Roadkill' and 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre', is one of the most striking, memorable, and just plain cinematic films of recent years.
Director Greg McLean's second feature is profoundly aware of its heritage, to which it gives wry reference in utilising the awe-inspiring cinematography which characterised classic road movies such as 'Easy Rider', filled with flaring lens solarization and with richly pigmented blue skies and brown earth, and given a modern touch by the use of high-definition digital video. Nevertheless, it provides a series of original touches, not least its setting in the increasingly-unforgiving Australian outback, which gives it an impact resonating long after the final credits roll.
The film follows three young backpackers, Ben (Nathan Phillips), Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Liz (Cassandra Magrath) as they embark upon a search for the elusive 'Wolf Creek', site of a vast meteorite crater, which goes horribly wrong. Living the ultimate student fantasy, the three likeable protagonists pile into a beaten-up car, their backpacks and guitar by their side. The first hour is devoted to a realistically-executed examination of the youths and of a fourth character, the landscape, the beauty of which dominates the film. After their car breaks down, outbacker Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) offers assistance; however, it soon becomes clear that the motivation of this 'Crocodile Dundee type' is not altruism but a sadistic bloodlust which catalyses the final third of the film.
It is during the increasingly harrowing sequences of violence, as Taylor uses a calculated series of techniques inherited from his experiences in Vietnam and as an animal exterminator to torture his victims, that the assiduous process of identification with the three main characters pays off. Far from the disposable teens of much American 'slasher' cinema, the deaths of whom are predictable, gory, and voyeuristically exciting, 'Wolf Creek''s trio of protagonists earns our empathy as we root for their survival. This identification is compounded by one important strategy: the film's notable absence of dramatic irony. Whilst for cine-literate audiences, the viewing experience of films such as 'Wrong Turn' is often tarnished by the oft-fulfilled expectation of a series of cliched events and of characters who we know to be marked for gruesome death before they do, 'Wolf Creek' limits our knowledge to that of the characters, an extremely effective technique which vastly increases the shock factor. Most audience members, admittedly, will from a trailer or synopsis have at least a basic idea of what to expect when Taylor arrives on the scene. Nevertheless, the revelation of his sadism is a shock to viewer as well as victim; our knowledge limited to that of the three youths, the removal of the 'he's behind you' weariness of much horror cinema allows for a much edgier experience, maintaining high tension until the final credits.
In the multifariousness of his characterisation and in his utilisation of a 'cinema verite' style, McLean brings an interesting new twist to the predominantly American genre of the road-horror, also evidencing influence from realist European directors such as Lars von Trier. An element of Hitchcockian horror is included, too, in a careful articulation of extreme violence with a relatively minimal amount of visible gore. As in 'Psycho''s infamous shower scene, much of the violence inflicted upon the youths by Taylor occurs offscreen; the awareness of exactly what is happening, however, causes viewers to involuntarily create brutal imagery for themselves. The unease generated by these imaginings is much more profound and persisting than the shots of adrenaline pumped into viewers of much 'slasher' cinema, which fades as the theatre empties. This very unease, carefully crafted by McLean's direction and by Frank Tetaz' increasingly ominous score, is the key element of 'Wolf Creek''s success as a psychological road-horror. For perhaps the first time since 'The Blair Witch Project', we can be truly taken in by this film's claims to a real-life basis; and, even more importantly, we can imagine ourselves in the position of these characters, much more resourceful and believable than the good-looking corpses who populate much American horror. The direct appeal to the viewer in the film's tagline, 'How can you be found when no one knows you're missing?', does not lose its effect; even after the credits roll, the complete encapsulation of viewers by this short masterpiece causes a persistent discomfiture which will cause many to consider the nightmarish potentiality of the ultimate adolescent dream.