Raw, nasty and unnerving as hell, Wolf Creek faithfully and fearlessly assumes the grisly mantle of seminal genre classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, an austere descent into inexplicable, unbridled mayhem devoid of the shallow, suspense-sapping gimmickry (this means you, High Tension and Identity) of contemporary Hollywood horror. Proudly modeled after Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven’s groundbreaking ‘70s classics without partaking in the wink-wink, tongue-in-cheek citations that characterized Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Greg McLean’s debut is as tough and rotten as a week-old roadkill’s leathery carcass, a piece of menacing cinematic brutality that generates terror not simply via wanton bloodshed (though, to be sure, there’s no dearth of nastiness) but also through an ominous atmosphere of otherworldly dislocation. A “based on a true story” account of three young tourists driving across the Australian Outback who find themselves preyed upon by a merciless primal fiend, the film utilizes its arid Western Australian setting to craft a diametric conflict between the modern and the ancient, a clash in which those hailing from civilized society have little chance of survival when pitted against the awesome power of the primeval natural world.
Alternately soaked in sun-bleached shades and impenetrable blacks, Wolf Creek commences as the carefree travelogue of three twenty-somethings concerned only with youthful revelry, a happy-go-lucky state of mind that ill-prepares them for the overwhelming intensity of Oz’s empty, isolating countryside, a rugged no-man’s-land ostensibly untouched by biological or cultural evolution. McLean’s cinematography juxtaposes the expansive blue sky and endless hardscrabble soil with extreme close-ups of his increasingly harried protagonists, creating an unsettling visual dissonance that’s further complemented by his employment of lens flares and threateningly fuzzy lights. When Ben (Nathan Phillips), Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Liz (Cassandra Magrath) arrive for a hike at Wolf Creek Crater – an enormous spherical indentation caused by a meteor – it’s as if they’ve stepped off the edge of the Earth or, rather, journeyed back to some prehistoric past governed by a severe brand of Darwinian law. And thus as soon as the travelers’ watches and car engine cease functioning upon reaching the middle of the vast Australian nowhere, it’s as if an angry mother nature (or some alien entity) has chosen to reassert its dominion over humanity.
Mortal danger comes in the form of Mick (John Jarratt), a hillbilly hunter whose superficial kindness and altruism toward the stranded trio gives way to irrational, unspeakable cruelty shortly after the Sydney-born Ben – in an act of patronizing condescension toward his rural countryman – makes a Crocodile Dundee crack. Driven by an inexplicable bloodlust, Mick seems sculpted from the harsh Outback bedrock, a force of evil so divorced from enlightened ideals that he merely expresses puzzled incomprehension at the concept of “freedom” when Ben comments that Mick must enjoy the autonomy of his nomadic desert life. Exhibiting none of the serial killer clichés that have reduced the genre into a dilapidated funhouse of cartoonish boogeymen, Mick is a maniac of terribly real proportions, his sadistic deeds exuding a frighteningly believable viciousness. Determined to amplify suspense by eliciting sympathy for his characters, McLean opts for lackadaisical palling around over too-cute hipster banter while having them consistently respond to their situation with reasonable desperation rather than blind stupidity. One actually feels for these innocent victims, and as a result, when Mick begins turning the gruesome screws on his captives with techniques like a Vietnam-era method of preventing prisoner escapes, Wolf Creek reaches an apex of wince-inducing terror unparalleled in recent horror cinema.