by Andrew Dowd
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Most scary movies are like jack-in-the-boxes: they’re little more than a series of startling moments, the cinematic equivalent of someone jumping out of the darkness and yelling “Boo!” Their one and only purpose is to provide those in the audience with a night’s worth of cheap, safe thrills, which they can absorb then quickly forget once they’ve left the theater. Think Friday the 13th or Scream or virtually every horror movie released this year.
But there’s another kind of scary, one that many aspire to but few actually pull off. These films aren’t so easily forgotten. They seep into our minds and get under our skin, touching some sort of collective raw nerve. “Horror” doesn’t even really do them justice: they are like nightmares on celluloid, exploiting our darkest fears and pushing the outer limits of what we might reasonably consider entertainment.
Without a doubt, Wolf Creek, an acclaimed indie shocker from Australia, belongs in this second category. Loosely based on an actual incident that occurred several years ago, the story concerns a group of teens whose idyllic road trip comes to a screeching halt when they get stranded in the secluded wilderness of the Outback. Predictably, things go from bad to worse, and the film plunges its characters into a ruthlessly violent hell-on-earth. Even the most jaded of genre enthusiasts may have trouble stomaching the sheer brutality of the events that ultimately occur. Yet to dismiss this strikingly effective thriller as mere exploitative garbage is to completely ignore how masterfully it is constructed, in terms of both aesthetics and storytelling. It is a stunning debut for writer-director Greg McLean, an instant classic as strangely gorgeous as it is terrifying.
Since its domestic release this past summer, Wolf Creek has been garnering comparisons to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and not without good reason: it’s the first film in years to even come close to matching the raw, white-knuckle intensity of that seminal masterpiece. There’s definitely a similarity in subject matter, too, as both movies are ultimately about severe culture clash, and the violent collision of modern, urban values with those of a more primordial, rural civilization. Wolf Creek simply substitutes the isolation of the deep American South for that of the Australian Outback; the portents of impending danger (hostile locals, barren landscapes) are essentially the same.
The film never slides into blatant mimicry, though; it’s too distinctive to be confused with lousy Chainsaw Massacre knock-offs like High Tension or House of 1000 Corpses. What’s innovative about McLean’s approach to familiar material is his commitment to fleshing out his central characters. We get to know these young, carefree travelers—Aussie Ben (Nathan Phillips) and his British companions, Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Liz (Cassandra Magrath)—in the film’s slow but purposeful first hour, in which the nuances of their personalities are developed. They are a far cry from the sex-and-drug-starved teens common to the genre, and the romance that casually blossoms between Ben and Liz is unforced and genuinely sweet. To our surprise, we actually like these wayward tourists, and that adds considerable impact to what happens to them later. What’s more, the growing connection that the audience makes to these characters is intrinsically tied to the mounting suspense of Wolf Creek’s excellent first half.
As he keeps the focus squarely on the relationship between the three travelers, McLean subtly tightens the screws, employing low-key musical cues to hint at an impending threat. Most impressive, though, is his use of location as a reflection of this growing tension. His camera captures the sheer beauty of the sun-drenched Outback, but also its bleak desolation. As the three travel further south, oblivious to their fate, they are consumed by this vast and unsympathetic environment, which grows more foreboding by each passing minute. By the time oversaturated day bleeds into pitch-black night, the sense of dread is downright palpable.
Wolf Creek builds and builds, slowly and methodically, and it’s easy to imagine some viewers growing impatient with McLean’s anticipatory storytelling. But there is an eventual payoff to all this set-up, and even those who have grown accustomed to cinematic bloodshed may be shocked by it. Make no mistake, the third act of the movie is as cruel, relentless, and utterly barbaric as anything one is likely to see this year or next. The violence inflicted upon these innocents is gruesome and extreme, but it pales in comparison to the intense psychological torture they endure. In this way, the film is reminiscent of both the infamous dinner table scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the bone-chilling sadism of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but without the obnoxious post-modernism. The less said about these nightmarish final scenes the better, though it is worth noting that McLean’s sly subversion of audience expectations is matched by the invaluable presence of veteran character-actor John Jarratt. His performance is a marvel of quirky, cold-blooded menace that seems destined to make him a star of the genre.
The horror films of late could definitely use a distinctive personality like Jarratt to shoot some dread into their tired premises. Between all the soulless remakes, pointless sequels, and over-hyped indie thrillers, you have to look hard to find anything even remotely unsettling at the multiplex these days. However, several of this fall’s genre offerings buck the trend, delivering genuine thrills with a modicum of intelligence and sophistication. Three… Extremes was a twisted but artistically complex anthology, and the haunting Pulse balanced familiar J Horror scares with rich thematic content.
But Wolf Creek is the crème da la crème, a profoundly disturbing vision of human evil. You have to admire the efficiency in which McLean sets up his audience for the kill: he works overtime to make you care for the main characters, only to offer them up like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. You leave the film feeling assaulted and emotionally drained, yet also curiously, perversely satisfied. Wolf Creek is the no-contest best horror movie of 2005, and a reminder of how powerfully affective exploitation cinema really can be.
Andrew Dowd is a writer and critic living in Chicago.
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