Studio: Weinstein Company
Director: Greg McLean
Writer: Greg McLean
Producer: Greg McLean, David Lightfoot
Stars: John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips
A road trip through the Australian Outback takes a tragic turn when three friends find themselves stranded at Wolf Creek Crater.
Following its theatrical release in 2005, “Wolf Creek” became a moderately divisive talking point amongst those who saw it. Several mainstream media outlets derided the movie as masquerading a misogynist agenda and extolling no nobler a goal than purposelessly depicting female brutalization. Admirers of “Wolf Creek” understandably honed in on John Jarratt’s performance and praised the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” slasher style of the film’s grim violence.
What both of these perspectives overlook is writer/director Greg McLean’s broader accomplishment in creating an atmosphere of consistent tension through a minimalistic approach. Those turned off by where the story goes may retroactively dismiss the first half hour as dull, slow, and valueless, while fans caught up in the climax might underplay the frame of mind McLean assembles for his audience during the buildup. Yet it is this strength in quietly capturing the unseen threat of lingering fear that lifts “Wolf Creek” solidly above its peers.
There is some small pity to be put upon newcomers to “Wolf Creek” who go into the film knowing how the plot turns and what it becomes by the end. Unfortunately for them, a healthy part of how the movie works its magic is in the uncertainty initially surrounding the three leads.
Ben, Kristy, and Liz are on an Australian Outback road trip. Any time fun-loving twentysomethings appear in this fashion inside a horror film, of course they are immediately on a clock ticking down to an inevitable vehicular breakdown.
“Wolf Creek” uses clichéd story devices like this, but not as a crutch. There is a difference between what happens here and a lesser screenplay leaning on a tripping heroine or stalled car to shorten the distance between killer and victim. “Wolf Creek” is upfront about its intent in using familiar tropes to the point where their appearances are smart necessities instead of generic tricks masking a lack of creativity.
The first scene of the movie is Ben purchasing a clunker of a car for just $1500. Ben knows he has a beater on his hands, so he takes it to a mechanic for an all-points inspection. It may be clear to the audience that the station wagon is guaranteed trouble, but there is misdirection in its obviousness that later works to stoke the fire of paranoia over which terror will trap the trio first.
Ben and his gal pals make a pit stop at a local yokel gas station where the toothless hillbillies covered in a month’s worth of man sweat lick their lips while making rude suggestions in the ladies’ direction. Ben mouths a slight retaliation, a standoff ensues, and now the redneck bumpkins move to the top of the suspect list for what will spoil the friends’ holiday.
Next stop is Wolf Creek Crater. Before arriving, Ben tells a story about UFOs that seems like an empty time killer until their later hike ends with everyone’s watch strangely stopped. The car’s engine won’t turn over either. Now it seems like the crashed meteorite location will play a key role in this newly introduced threat with a perhaps otherworldly origin.
Almost unnoticed, what McLean has sneakily done is established a potential for danger from all angles. The mind is not setting on a knife-wielding maniac, but rather spinning with the possibilities of how “Wolf Creek” is going to capitalize on an expertly-woven atmosphere thick with dread.
Will Gibson’s cinematography earns a great deal of mileage from spectacular Australian scenery. The setting alone adds freshness to the seemingly familiar scenarios laid on the table. More impressive is the moderation shown in how horror creeps into the frame through overcast skies, animal skulls, and a well-suited musical score. “Wolf Creek” is not being in your face about screaming horror, yet all of its peripheral details work in unison to drape a particular pall across the production.
“Wolf Creek” is so successful at injecting unease directly into the bloodstream that a climax accused of being visceral torture for shock’s sake is highly terrifying despite the “it’s been done before” scene arrangement. Critics can harp on the film for misperceived misogyny, but none of the violence is glorified to inflate entertainment value. The horror of “Wolf Creek” is hauntingly sad and deliberately depressing. And while that feeling becomes an understandable turnoff for some, it can be counted as a quality when it enables terror to crawl beneath the skin with frighteningly infectious ease.
NOTE: For those looking for the “true story” behind “Wolf Creek,” know that there isn’t one to be found. “Wolf Creek” was loosely inspired by “true events,” but the movie is purely a work of fiction. Wolfe Creek Crater, with an ‘e,’ is a real place however, and popular speculation is that McLean based his story mostly on the “Backpacker Murders” perpetrated by serial killer Ivan Milat. The sign for the abandoned industrial site where John Jarratt’s Mick operates in the film reads “Navithalim Mining Co.” Although an extra ‘h’ is added, Navithalim spells Ivan Milat when reversed.
Review Score: 80