Wolf Creek (Australia, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To like Wolf Creek, you have to be a horror fan - or a parent desperate to drive home the advice not to speak to strangers. I'm a little mystified by the strong negative reaction the film has received in some quarters. Based on the response of some critics (those who claimed to have been "sickened" and "repulsed"), I expected an exercise in pointless, gory excess. But what Wolf Creek offers is a competently made horror excursion with an unfortunate reliance upon clichés balanced off by some legitimate shocks.

To slam Wolf Creek as a "sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty" (as Roger Ebert did) is to misunderstand the genre. That description, loaded though it may be, could be used to describe more than 50% of the horror movies to have come along since Halloween re-invented the genre in the late 1970s. Compared to the infinitely more repugnant The Devil's Rejects, Wolf Creek is in the nursery. If the film evokes squeamishness, it has done its job. You're not supposed to sit through a film like this placidly munching popcorn. The reaction is intended to be visceral.

Now, let me step off my soap box and set up the film.

For those hoping to get to the dicing and slicing quickly, Wolf Creek will disappoint. It begins with a 40-minute introduction to the hapless soon-to-be-victims. They're a group of three post-college agers taking a road trip through the backlands of Australia. The two women - Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Ketie Morassi) - hail from the U.K. The bloke, Ben (Nathan Phillips), is from down under, but isn't a local to the barren lands through which they are traveling. At Wolf Creek, the site of a meteor crater, they park their car and go for a four-hour hike in the rain. When they get back, the car won't start. Luckily for them, along comes Mick Taylor (veteran character actor John Jarratt), a helpful kind of guy who offers to tow them back to his camp, where he can fix the problem. Since he seems more like Crocodile Dundee than Michael Myers, they agree. Oops.

While the film takes a while to crank into gear, the lengthy opening sequences establish the protagonists and their relationships. The writing and acting, while not memorable, is good enough to get the job done. We come to care about the characters. And director/writer Greg McLean has another objective in mind - the slow build-up of tension. We know something bad is going to happen; the longer it takes, the more primed we are for it. There's even a particularly effective red herring involving an ugly encounter at an out-of-the-way bar.

Wolf Creek offers a few legitimate shocks. To say more would be unfair, but for McLean to be able to surprise a veteran horror-goer, he must be doing something right. Also, the term "shock" must be differentiated from "twist." The unexpected developments within Wolf Creek are organic to the storyline. Unfortunately, McLean relies upon a few too many stock horror clichés, and this at times hurts the movie's credibility. No cars start on the first turn of the key in the ignition, characters repeatedly put themselves in harm's way, and (most unforgivably) no one finishes off the bad guy when he's down. The latter sin is more egregious than when Jamie Lee Curtis committed it in Halloween. That was more than 25 years ago when the genre was being born. These days, smart horror films don't have to rely on contrivances like that.

Ignore the film's "based on true events" claim. Yeah, there are some case histories out there that are reflected to one degree of another in Wolf Creek, but most of what's here is made up. It's a mystery to me why filmmakers are so keen to associate their product with real-life events. It doesn't make the story better and it opens the movie up to criticism when discrepancies are uncovered.

I wouldn't recommend this film to anyone who doesn't like violence and gore. But for those within the target group, it offers a compelling, intense, and refreshingly hard-core experience (unlike the many wishy-washy PG-13 movies masquerading as horror films these days). What more can a fan of the genre ask for?

Wolf Creek (Australia, 2005)

Director: Greg McLean
Cast: Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, John Jarratt
Screenplay: Greg McLean
Music: François Tétaz
U.S. Distributor: Dimension Films
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1