With a tinge of disappointment, Judge Dennis Prince must proclaim this a sheep in wolf's clothing.
"Now, this little procedure is called 'making a head on a stick.'"
If ever you wondered just how much unflinching horror you could possibly withstand, how much aberrant assault you could bear to watch, you'll need to test your endurance elsewhere. While Wolf Creek has been concurrently celebrated and castigated as an exercise in grueling horror, I was left wanting more. And has it come to this: have we seen the bar raised so high (and social morals dropped so low) that random human carnage and the sadism that inflicts it on screen might be considered "ho-hum" by the final frame? Could be. Certainly, this new Wolf Creek—Unrated Version DVD from Dimension Films is no Sunday picnic, but can it live up to the ever-heightened expectations of gorehounds these days, they who are looking for that ultimate charnel-house experience that would cause even them—they who feel they've seen it all—to be repelled by the depravity they see flickering before their eyes? Let's find out.
Facts of the Case
Aussie boy Ben (Nathan Phillips) and his Brit gal-pals, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), have spent the evening partying with their twenty-something crowd of rowdies. The next day they drag themselves into wakefulness and embark on a camping expedition to the remote region of Wolf Creek Crater in the Australian bush country. Their trek is uneventful, with the exception of a near run-in with local ruffians. Upon arriving at the crater, the three trudge off for a three-hour tour of the natural wonder, alone in the desolate outback. Following an introspective stay near the crater's edge, complete with a spontaneous romantic interlude between Ben and Liz, the three make their way back to their car, only to find it will not start. As they huddle up for an unplanned overnight stay, a pickup truck drives up in the night. Affable Mick Taylor (John Jarratt, Picnic at Hanging Rock) offers to help the travelers get on their way, but when he lacks an engine coil to repair their vehicle, he offers them a tow back to his homestead. Grateful yet somewhat reluctant, the three go with him into the Australian darkness, smiling Mick leading them to his remote encampment. Once they arrive at his sprawling work yard, Mick toils over the uncooperative car's engine as the three campers drift off to sleep. And then…the screaming starts.
Wolf Creek makes use of the patented admonitions of "don't go into the woods," "don't stray off the beaten path," and "don't take candy from strangers." As far as the horror genre goes, ignoring these basic tenets is the catalyst for a string of horrifying events, not to mention a litany of audience appeals and assails. They go hand in hand; without onscreen characters making their orchestrated missteps, certainly there'd be no horror. Well, Wolf Creek doesn't disappoint in this regard, as it's immediately clear that Ben, Liz, and Kristy have no business attempting such an isolated excursion considering their lack of awareness in regard to outdoor survival, car mechanics, or the usefulness of a cell phone (didn't anyone think to bring a cell phone?). Like so many twenty-somethings who appear in these grindhouse horror shows, the young adults' insistence on their own invincibility is what ultimately leads to their untimely demise. And considering that youths have been portrayed this way since the early days of screen horror (remember all those kooky teenagers in the B movies of the 1950s?), not much has changed more than a half-century later.
Here, the youths tend to be more likable than most. Unlike the obnoxious snots who arguably deserve dispatch in recent outings like the Scream series, the Final Destination terror-travelogue, or, most recently, 2004's House of Wax remake, the young people in Wolf Creek are tolerable, generally minding their own business without the insufferable posturing and preening of their aforementioned pompous peers. This doesn't excuse their ill-preparedness for the situation that eventually confronts them, but at least here we aren't almost immediately compelled to reach into the screen and start the well-deserved bloodshed ourselves. The three actors, reasonably accomplished in their native Australia, prove they have the talent to deliver convincing performances. Their character arcs are slight, mind you, so don't expect anything remarkable beyond what such a horror vehicle would allow, but thankfully they're more accomplished that the lion's share of actors of their sort who have appeared in other low-budget outings. As their characters go, they are a bit stupid and two-dimensional, no doubt about it, but without that, there'd be now show, now would there? This is what leads them squarely into the clutches of Mick Taylor (whose name sounds more like a British record producer than an unbounded psychotic). Played with flawless deceit and depravity by veteran Jarratt, Taylor is the helpful stranger that each of us fears most. Despite his gregarious grin and smiling eyes, there's something just a bit off-kilter about this bloke, and by the time you realize he could mean you harm, it's too late.
After the mild raves that greeted its premiere during the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Wolf Creek was almost immediately scorned by critics and armchair aficionados for being too uneven in its approach. Many complained that the film took far too long to set up the situation, delaying the cringe-worthy carnage that ultimately would ensue. Of course, the same critics would then attack the onscreen violence as too graphic and too intense to be considered entertainment. This is the sort of statement that draws gore-mongers like flies to a rotting carcass. In their never-ending quest to have their adrenals continually tweaked, connoisseurs of carnage seek out new terror thrills like beach boys who endlessly scout for the perfect wave. Filmmakers have been quick to respond to the renewed popularity of "splatter" films, egging effects wizards to show us new and startling images of human maiming and dismemberment. Unfortunately, in this respect Wolf Creek doesn't deliver on the hype that some have built up around it. The reviewer that would deem this picture "sickening" or "excruciating" simply hasn't seen much gore. Unquestionably, the characters here are taunted, terrified, and tortured in ways that can rightfully be considered unnerving, but this isn't the sort of circus geek show that would have experienced thrill-seekers retching and recoiling. The horror is good, but it's not stellar, and filmmakers are still using dark surroundings to partially obscure the painful proceedings. (The exception to this rule appears to be Rob Zombie, who acts like a carny barker and shows his patrons what they claim they want to see.)
So you may wonder if Wolf Creek is worth your time. Yes, it is, but only if you go in with proper expectations. While the front half of the film is consumed with the character development and situation setup (and it's a bit heavy-handed in this respect), it's not as bad as some have claimed. The actors have the skill to keep us interested and aren't the sort of cardboard creeps who throw the trite "who the hell cares if we live or die" tantrums. For these reasons, the first act, though a bit overlong, is not as sleep inducing as others have asserted. The second act is short and deliberate, effectively introducing the threat and putting us immediately off balance as to what might happen next. The third act shows no compunction in stalking through its task of depicting a new screen sadist, never bothering to provide motive to the messy madness. Those who are a bit new to the genre will likely shudder to Wolf Creek. To the veterans of viciousness among us, this is just another horror tale to behold, better than most but not eye-poppingly atrocious—not in this reviewer's experience, anyway. The plot has some holes and some undeveloped potential (look for the vicious pit bulls caged opposite one of our hapless victims—a real shock opportunity overlooked).
As far as the production itself goes, writer-producer-director (and first-timer) Greg McLean is to be applauded for the overall result. This low-budget affair (made for just over $1 million) in no way betrays its meager resources. Shot in high-definition video, then blown up to 35mm format, the picture looks stunning. In a new age of cost-effective filming that can be convincingly polished up by the Photoshop wranglers, Wolf Creek does not bear any resemblance to a potentially inferior mini-DV effort. Credit McLean for his obvious skill with in-frame composition and applaud director of photography Will Gibson for capturing some incredibly sweeping vistas juxtaposed with grimy scenes of gruesomeness. Truthfully, it all looks great and transfers to the DVD format excellently. The transfer on this disc is precise, with no distracting compression artifacts, and brimming with incredible sharpness and well-rendered colors. Black levels are velvety smooth throughout the presentation. As for audio, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is likewise impressive, providing clarity of dialogue across a wide soundstage and plenty of well-placed ambient effects (although we Yanks might experience a bit of trouble deciphering some of the Australian dialect).
Extras on this special-edition disc likely begin with the unrated cut, although, not having seen the film theatrically, I can't indicate how much was added to this cut. From previous observations made on the film's gore, I don't see anything that I would consider worthy of editing to have secured an MPAA rating. The disc offers an alternate filmmakers' commentary track that reunites director McLean with executive producer Matt Hearn and actors Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi. McLean and Hearn provide a steady flow of technical and some anecdotal details, while Magrath and Morassi chime in occasionally, seeming more inclined to titter like schoolgirls throughout the discussion. A decent 50-minute documentary, "The Making of Wolf Creek," offers more insight and behind-the-scenes looks at the making of this low-budget picture. McLean is as candid in the interview segments here as he was in the commentary, providing unabashed comments about the ups and downs of making a motion picture for a pittance of what established filmmakers are afforded. There's one deleted scene (short and pointless, really) and the film's original theatrical trailer. All in all, it makes for a well-rounded offering.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the disappointment over the lack of truly shocking gore, there's not much to rebut here. Again, technically, McLean and his crew have achieved quite a feat with their limited budget and abbreviated five-week shooting schedule. While I can't assert that Wolf Creek is a new horror classic, I can say I'm looking forward to see what McLean will bring forward next. He has shown he has the chops and the chutzpah to be considered a viable creative force in the realm of genre filmmaking.
It's difficult to chastise Wolf Creek for not being horrifying enough, since that uncomfortably indicates that I was able to witness the painful proceedings in an unaffected manner in my screening room. And while each of us gore-junkies will need to determine if we've become dangerously desensitized to this sort of film fare, so too do filmmakers and distributors need to take care when they hype their pictures as being some sort of breakthrough in grueling terror. Wolf Creek is a worthwhile picture for genre aficionados if, for nothing else, to watch the coming of a new creative force and, potentially, the coming of a new film baddie.
Those who cried that this film is too violent to stomach are hereby reprimanded for crying wolf prematurely. The cast and crew of Wolf Creek are found not guilty.
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