The Australian outback is a great place to set a horror film. It's remote, isolated, and there's nobody for thousands of miles. Horror films usually work well in settings like that. If you scream, not a soul in the world is going to hear you. So, it was only a matter of time before somebody took the initiative and made a horror film in the outback. (Granted, there are probably more obscure ones that I'm not aware of.) Wolf Creek was one of the movies featured on Bravo's 30 Even Scarier Movie Moments, a follow up to their awesome 101 Scariest Movie Moments. From what clips they showed and the plot summary they gave for it, the film seemed promising: another story about a group of people who get stuck in the middle of nowhere and fall victim to a psychopath. Although it'd been done before, this scenario can still be great if done well. However, to me, Wolf Creek falls a bit short of this goal.
I finally saw it in the fall of 2009. It was one of many horror films I saw for the first time that year. As I said, this familiar plot can still make for a good film if done well. I'll admit it: the first time I watched this movie, I was extremely, unequivocally, undeniably... bored. Yeah, this movie did not impress me the first time. Less than halfway into it, I just wanted to turn it off. It was just so slow that it really made me tired. But, my philosophy is to always watch a film at least twice before making my final decision and, with few exceptions, I always try to do so. So, I watched Wolf Creek again and I enjoyed it a little more. This time, I was more in the mood for a film like it. To me, this is the kind of movie I would want to watch either on a warm day or on a hot night because it puts me in the mood of being out in the hot Australian outback. I watched it a third time to do this review and while my opinion of it has got up a bit from that first disastrous viewing, I still don't think it's the new horror classic that many, including Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, purport it to be.
As I said, Wolf Creek's plot has been done in many other films, most notably in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. The only fundamental difference is the relocation of the setting to Australia. Three twenty-something year old people, two girls and a guy, take a drive to Wolf Creek National Park deep in the outback, which is home to an enormous meteorite crater. All goes well until their car won't start. Just when it seems like they'll have to spend the night in the middle of nowhere, a bushman by the name of Mick finds them and offers to tow them to his camp where he can fix the car. They accept the generous offer but the trip turns horrific Mick is revealed to be a sadistic psychopath who's kidnapped, tortured, and killed God knows how many people over the years... and they're his latest victims.
Let me just say first off that the photography and setting of the film is great. Director Greg McLean really knows how to photograph the outback to make it look beautiful but also isolated and forbidding. If it weren't for it being a horror movie, this film could serve as a good tour of Australia documentary. The mountains, the landscape, the meteorite crater in Wolf Creek, etc. It's fantastic. Besides that, I really like the look of the film as well. It does have a bit of that music video look to films nowadays that I'm getting tired of but it keeps that muted for the most part to look like an actual film. Like I said, this is a movie I'd want to watch on a summer day, at sunset, or on a hot night because it fits with the mood of the film. (Even though it apparently gets cold at night in Australia.)
One thing I do admire about McLean's direction is that he didn't fall victim to certain horror movie cliches or if it looks like he did, he found a way around them (for the most part). The car that won't start is one and while the characters' car, sure enough, doesn't start when they decide to leave Wolf Creek, it's later revealed that Mick, the killer, had been following them when Liz looks at some of the footage Ben shot on his camera and saw Mick's car in the background at a bar they'd stopped at earlier. He could have possibly messed with the engine or leaked out some of the gas while they were in the bar. It doesn't rely on that cliche of the car just not starting for no real reason. Another one is the cellphone not working. None of them bring cellphones with them. While that doesn't seem like a smart idea, this movie does take place in 1999, before cellphones were as commonplace as they are now. They obviously just didn't have any or couldn't afford them. And besides, even if they did have cellphones, I doubt you'd get a signal that deep in the outback so it wouldn't have made any difference.
Francois Tetaz's subtle, understated music score suits the film really well, I feel. Some movies work really with quiet or offbeat music scores (Stanley Kubrick's films are a good example) and the various sounds to this score do fit. Sometimes the music is frightening, sometimes it's tragic, and sometimes it's full of wonder. Granted, it may not be the most memorable score but sometimes that's not the point. Also, I thought the use of the song Eagle Rock during the opening credits was a nice way to characterize the feeling of being on a road trip with friends.
Now that I've said what I like, I have to mention the things about this movie that keep me from liking it as much as my peers seem to. The biggest problem for me is the three friends on a road trip: Ben, Liz, and Kristy. I say "friends" but it seems like the girls just met Ben and are having them escort them through the outback. When they're talking on the beach, it feels like they haven't met him. How did they contact him? Why would these British tourists go bombing around the Australian wilderness with a complete stranger? But that's the least of the characterization problems in this film. We know basically nothing about these guys. It's twenty minutes in when we find the guy's name is Ben, (I honestly can't remember when we find out Kristy's name), and thirty-three minutes in before we find out the girl who sort of has a crush on him is named Liz. (I have to watch the movie with subtitles on because of the Australian accents and the guy doing the captioning had to call the character Male, Female #1 and 2 for the first half hour.) That's not good, guys. They're also given some minor backstory (very minor) but it never turns out to be important. Ben apparently has an ex-girlfriend back in Sidney, which may affect his getting together with Liz. That never goes anywhere, neither does their romance. It's forgotten almost as suddenly as it comes up. We find out nothing about the girls other than they're from England. That's it. None of the actors are particularly bad but their characters are just blank slates that I honestly don't care about.
As John Jarratt's character of the sadistic Mick, a lot of people seem to think he plays one of the best horror villains of the 2000's. I disagree. He's good, there's no doubt about that. He initially comes across as a friendly, laid back guy who's glad to help and it's quite shocking when his true self is revealed. I do like the scene at his camp when they're sitting around the fire and Mick's telling them a bit about his past. Ben apparently unintentionally insults Mick by comparing him to Crocodile Dundee and just by the way Mick stares at him for so long and responds to him, you know there's something not quite right about this guy. So, Jarratt is a good actor. But, I never found him particularly scary. All he does is joke and yell most of the time and while it's entertaining, I didn't find it frightening. Another reason I didn't find him scary could be because I've so many of these types of movies that it doesn't come across as particularly shocking. When you see the remains of his past victims and stuff he's taken from them, it is disturbing but I've seen that in so many movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that it doesn't really get to me anymore. Also, we never really see him torture them. There is stuff like him sexually assaulting Kristy while she's tied up or the horrific Head on a Stick scene (that does make m cringe) but other than that, we don't see what he does to his victims. I guess leaving it unknown would make it scarier and while I usually agree with that, it didn't do it for me in this case As much as I hate torture films like Hostel, it would have been more shocking and make Mick more terrifying to see him do some stuff like that.
One thing I must comment on is something that annoys me to no end. Just before the Head on a Stick scene, Mick suddenly appears in the backseat of a car Liz was about to use to get away. The last time we saw him, he was investigating a car that Liz and Kristy crashed to make him think they were dead. And that was pretty far from the camp too. How did he get all the way back, sneak into that garage and into the car without her seeing him? Why didn't he just kill her before she got in the car? Okay, being the sadistic bastard he is, maybe he snuck in the car just to torment her some more. Still, it always annoys me in films that are going for realism when the villain suddenly does the typical slasher movie cliche of appearing out of nowhere. It tends to undermine the entire purpose of the film for me.
Lastly, this kind of falls under what I was talking about not seeing Mick torture people enough, I feel that the makeup effects, while well done, are so few and far between that I wonder why they even bothered using them. I feel like I'm contradicting what I said earlier but not seeing any torture would also have been effective. They showed a little but not enough to freak me out and they didn't leave enough to the imagination as well. I guess what I'm trying to say is they should have done one or the other, instead of trying to meet it halfway. And yet, I always say that the stuff in Hostel is not entertaining in any way. I guess it just didn't meet my expectations for what it was touted as being and that was brutal. I didn't think it was that brutal. I've seem much more sadistic films.
I didn't put Wolf Creek as an installment of Movies That Suck because it is a film I can watch every once in a while and get something out of. I'm sorry if I sounded like I contradicted myself back there. What it all more than likely comes down to is the fact that I've seen so many horror movies that I'm jaded and as a result, this just feels like a middle of the road movie that isn't as groundbreaking as many think it is. If you like it, power to you but to me, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were the first ones to tell this story and they did it best. This just isn't anything special.