Monday, June 14, 2010

Summer of Slash: Wolf Creek

Greg McLean's homage to Ozploitation films is one of the most effective slasher films I've ever seen. The 00's gave birth to the most disgusting and schlocky subgenre – the torture porn – and Wolf Creek unfairly got lumped in with the likes of Saw and Hostel. However, when one looks at McLean's film compared to those monstrosities it's easy to see why so many horror mavens prefer McLean's unflinching snapshot of horror in the outback to the snarky tone of most torture porn. Wolf Creek blindsided me with how effective it was, and in the way McLean doesn't look upon his characters as plot devices or mere "dead teenagers" who are paying for their "sins" of youthful exuberance (they aren't just props to be severed and humiliated for our entertainment); no, there's not a drop of Eli Roth-like cynicism found in Wolf Creek, just an unflinchingly horrifying realism and seriousness to the material and the fate of the characters.

The film is based on true events about a serial killer who stalks the outback. And there ya go. It's that simple. There are no contrivances in the film and no swerves at the end. It's simply a tale about three young people – to no fault of their own – in the wrong place at the wrong time as they experience a series of horrifying events placed against the ironically serene and beautiful Australian outback. And that's where McLean immediately gets points in my book for two things: one, he establishes these characters. For 40+ minutes we're essentially the fourth person in the threesome that includes Liz, Kiristi, and Ben as they embark on a road trip and stop off at Wolf Creek for some hiking (of course, things go wrong when they come back to find their car won't start). The other thing McLean scores points on is his reluctance to fall into the trap of overusing his handheld camera. In the beginning of the film I was dreading the camera work, but it made sense as it placed us within the circle of friends and gave the viewer a sense of intimacy with these characters. However, McLean wisely switches his aesthetic once the characters are in peril and wisely juxtaposes the expanse (and beauty) of the outback with the intense violence hounding the characters. I was thankful that McLean – who was obviously influenced by Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – didn't go for the claustrophobic, shaky-cam aesthetic, and that's one of the primary reasons I found Wolf Creek to actually be more effective than something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: it's unnerving the way everything is out in the open…there's nowhere to hide, and instead of forcing us to watch the action up close throughout the entirety of the film, McLean emits a sense of false hope as his characters are often surrounded by beautiful sunset backdrops and wide-open spaces. It's unique for a horror film of this ilk (the serial killer/torture porn film) to understand that shoving our faces in the ugliness is not the best way to be horrified by what we're seeing.

As the film wore on I kept thinking that the film was going to have some kind of ironic twist or sardonic touch by McLean; however, to my delight (as much as one can be "delighted" by a film like this) McLean refrains from these kind of artistic choices that plague the likes of the Saw films, or the snarky tone of Eli Roth, and instead simply focuses on the events in front of the camera with an unflinching, non-judgmental eye. It's quite powerful and effective. Wolf Creek is, dare I say, better than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I'll let that sink in so all of my horror readers can tell me how crazy and stupid I am. But I've always felt like Hooper's film is a bit overrated. There's no denying its power in certain scenes, but I felt like it was a 45 minute premise stretched out over 80 minutes. Wolf Creek, though, gives us character development and an unconventionally beautiful backdrop to juxtapose the horrifying actions that are taking place. In short: it actually looks good, whereas TCM just reminds you of its ugliness throughout.  It reminded me of the way Cormac McCarthy (I only invoke his name because I've been immersed in his work lately) also used the setting of wide-open expanses as the setting for his stories of bloody violence. Obviously McLean isn't doing anything on par with what McCarthy does, but for a horror film the lo-fi cinematography is quite a triumph.

I kept waiting and waiting for that winking-at-the-camera moment, but it never happened, and because of that McLean is telling his viewers that this isn't like those other horror films that use women being tortured and splattered with blood as away to titillate…he's daring us to watch the events unfold, with the film's open spaces, music, and minimalistic mise-en-scene it's almost as if he's telling us that this isn't a movie at all. McLean challenges his viewers to not just watch the horrifying events unfold (I've read reviews that liken it to being hit in the face with a shovel), but to consider why it is we watch horror films to begin with. There's nothing on display in Wolf Creek that would ever make me want to watch it again (another thing it shares in common with TCM) , but I can't deny its power, its effectiveness in making me feel terror and keeping me hoping that the characters would make it out alive. I wasn't exhilarated by the events of Wolf Creek (who the hell would be?) in the same way that some people are probably exhilarated by the gore of the Saw films or the cynicism of the Hostel films, and that's one of the reasons the film is so good at being an effective horror film. The violence isn't visceral; rather, it's just there, in all of its unmitigated horror. It's rare for a horror film to offer up the violence in such a detached, non-exhilarating way.

Sure it's not the type of horror film that transcends the genre and ushers in new or lukewarm fans of horror (it's far too unrelenting for that) as evidenced by the zero star review the film received from Roger Ebert. And that's completely understandable. I can see how those who are not horror fanatics view the film as nihilistic, pointless, and an absolute nightmare to sit through, but I think that's what McLean is going for, and he succeeds in doing without making the terror or violence pornographic, because there is nothing entertaining about the bloodshed in this film. So yes, the film is a chore to get through, and I don't know if I would ever sit through it again, but I can't deny the experience I had which made me think that McLean is someone to keep an eye on in the genre.

When held up to its contemporaries and the ugliness of the genre it unfairly is akin to, Wolf Creek feels like a masterpiece, and when thinking about the film in the context of exploitative horror, it's so well shot and directed and acted that it's easy to see – should you ever muster up the courage to sit through the film – why I consider it one of the great horror films (alongside The Descent) of the last decade. But be warned: the film is for die-hard horror fans only.


  1. Spot on review. I've actually managed to watch it three times now. It hasn't lost it's effect on me yet: unnerved, turned-off, but unable to look away. Better than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Hmmm... well, it's better acted and it looks much better, but it's hard to top that film over all, I think. I'll say this: Wolf Creek is Australia's Massacre; no doubt about it.

    Check out Greg McLean's Rogue from 2007, if you haven't done so. It's my personal favourite animals attack film ever.

  2. I wholeheartedly second Lee's endorsement of ROGUE which I think is even better than WOLF CREEK. You can see that McLean has improved as a director with his follow-up. The film is gorgeously shot and, in particular the first third of the film, really shows off the beauty of the Australian Outback. If he ever decides to give up narrative filmmaking he'd have a great career as a documentary filmmaker.

    I don't know if I'd rank WOLF CREEK as highly as TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE but you know what film it reminded me of with its unrelenting horror and effective simplicity? THE HITCHER.

  3. Very few torture/kidnapping films have made an impression on me such as Wolf Creek. Perhaps as you said, Kevin, it's so well-made that it is undeniably compelling. I understand Ebert's zero-star review, also. Great stuff, Kevin.

  4. Lee:

    Thanks for the comments. I don't know if I could watch it three times(!), but perhaps sometime down the road I'll watch it again with someone who hasn't seen it. I do indeed think it's better than TCM for the very reasons you state: it's better acted and it's better looking. Yes, TCM is a "classic" -- a sacred cow if you will -- but I don't think it holds up all that well. It's an interesting and visceral grindhouse experience, but I've always found it a tad boring as it simply employs the "dead teenager" template before it gets to the really crazy stuff with the Final Girl.

    I think Wolf Creek has better character development, and because McLean chooses to focus on just a group of three, we're able to see past them as mere props for killing.

    I certainly was more horrified by the killer in Wolf Creek, too, as I've always found Leatherface to be kind of a goofy villain (his family is far scarier).

    Thanks as always for stopping by and for leaving a comment.

    Oh, and you'll see a review of Rogue sometime this week.

  5. J.D.:

    I like your comparison to The Hitcher...a film that I kind of like for Hauer's insane performance. I don't think it's quite as good as what McLean is doing with his slasher. I did watch Rogue this morning and liked it for what it was. I don't really like the humans-trapped-in-water plot device, but it worked rather well in that movie, and McLean definitely showed his chops as director.

  6. Hans:

    I agree 100% with you. I loather the torture porn subgenre, which is why it took me so long to watch McLean's film. Every new scene I was expecting the film to devolve into the typical tripe that torture porn is, but I was pleasantly surprised that McLean never let his film become cynical. It made the terror and the horror quite palpable. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  7. Hay i watch this movie... Wolf Creek....... great movie..its horror and interesting...... thanks for the posting this.....

  8. I think my problem with Wolf Creek is in the one way that it really IS like too many other horror movies ... there's one too many moments where you want to scream at the characters, "WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT? DON'T DO THAT!" In other words, a couple opportunities to escape that seem to have been simply botched. It's been a couple years since I've seen it, so I don't know how valid that comment is, but it stuck with me so I assume it was a legitimate complaint. Otherwise, yeah -- bold, devastating stuff.

    I can't say that I like Rogue as much as the other commenters. It has a great set-up, but consistently fails to pay it off in interesting ways. I consider it a failed opportunity that in the most suspenseful scene -- it's the second-act centerpiece, you probably know which one I'm talking about -- not a single person actually succumbs to the horrifying potential of the scenario. Plus, big problem with the fact that the American city-dwelling travel writer ends up being the most competent among a group of Australians.

  9. Vancetastic:

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I think I disagree with you only in the sense that they are vacationing...they don't really know where they are, and it's the middle of the night in the Outback...perhaps not the easiest place to get your bearings...especially when I psycho killer is after you. Those moments are there, though, but I think that McLean and co. pull them off well, and take the trope and utilize is it in a way that almost feels classical in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween sense. Those two movies also used that trope, it only became maddening when the glut of slashers started coming out after the success of those films and Friday the 13th.

    All that to say: yes, it is annoying when you see it in movie, but I think they pull it off reasonably well here.

    I agree with you about parts of Rogue, though. Even though I had fun with it, it wasn't like it was the greatest horror movie. I'm just really impressed with McLean's abilities as a director. Oh, and yes, Michael Vartan really annoyed me in that movie.

  10. I've spent a lot of time enjoying your overviews of many Italian and slasher flicks. Reminds me of the books of Stephen R. Bissette. Having so much fun with them that I'm shelving my nightly movie time for more reading.

    That said... you seem to have an unwarranted grudge against Eli Roth that I just don't get.

    First of all, I DESPISE the term "torture-porn." It is an effortless and cliche mechanism by which those who don't accept the violence of the horror genre may easily dismiss any and all artistic merit of ANY film. It's a catch-all slur akin to "commie" during the red scare, or "PC" as used by the right to slander any left-leaning inclination. While I will agree that some slasher films (I'm looking at you Fulci) may be deserving of the label, many many many films to recently receive the scarlet TP are hardly guilty.

    I for one love the work of Eli Roth. Cabin Fever was a brilliant if not Lynchian debut, and both Hostel films feature rich cinematography, a snappy script, and light-handed commentary on the hidden bloodlust of the general public. At no time have I felt that these films, or Eli himself, were overshadowed by *as you put it* snark. Humor, yes. Criticism of standards, yes. Perhaps even attempts at overarching themes, okay. But snark? I mean, you use the term twice to describe his work.

    I understand that different folks have varying impressions no matter what the genre of the film in question. I just wanted to let you know that in the midst of my enjoyment of your writings, I was put off by the harsh criticism of a film maker I look up to and admire.