Loosely based on true events, Writer/Director Greg McLean's feature-film debut is an unrelenting look at what happens to three adventure-seeking teens when they traipse across the Australian Outback to check out a huge crater in Wolf Creek National Park. By flaunting the fact that Wolf Creek is "based on true events," McLean immediately attempts to ratchet up the tension and emotional impact of his film by letting his audience know that "real people experienced the horror you're about to see." A fine idea, to be sure, and one that's been used countless times in the history of horror cinema. The only real problem here, however, is that the only thing we're sure is real about Wolf Creek is the very germ of the story.
The other problem is that, despite proclaiming that his film has some basis in truth, McLean's three main characters really just aren't that interesting. Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath), Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips), and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi) seem so cookie-cutter from the start of the film that it's hard to feel any real emotional connection to them. We've seen these characters before in other (and often better) horror films. They're dumb enough to fall into the stupefying predicament they find themselves in halfway through Wolf Creek, but immediately resourceful enough to give the bastard a run for his money. Making matters worse are their untimely pop-culture references. You'd think that if these characters had seen that many movies, they'd probably have seen their situation coming a mile away.
McLean, nevertheless, deserves credit for crafting a stylish and grisly independent film that shows off his knack for gorgeous shots and brutal violence. Reminiscent of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (although nowhere near as good), Wolf Creek attempts to juxtapose the serene beauty of vast open space with the anxiety and horror of dirty, cramped dens of hell. Every attractive, spacious shot of a sunset over the Australian Outback makes Mick Taylor's (John Jarratt) camp seem all the more claustrophobic. Now if only McLean had been able to craft a bit more story to go along with his knack for cinematography and penchant for gory violence, his film would have been much better off.
With only so much story to go around, and a script that certainly could have used a good polish, Wolf Creek meanders around for the first hour or so, lulling its audience nearly to sleep. It takes McLean way too long to get the action going, as we watch Liz, Ben, and Kristy go through the motions of getting their trip together, hitting the road, and getting to know each other a little better. Not to mention an unnecessary romantic subplot between Liz and Ben, which not only provides no resonance for its characters, but ends up going absolutely nowhere.
Where Wolf Creek shines, however, is in its absolute relentlessness in achieving what it sets out to do. It may not actually fully achieve its goal, but the film makes some interesting choices that I didn't expect. When McLean finally decides to amp up the action, and we get down to the real meat of the story, John Jarratt takes center stage and creates a character that is going to be remembered in the horror genre for quite some time. Jarratt's Mick Taylor is such a despicable, grimy human being that watching him slice off a few fingers is nothing compared to his creation of a "head on a stick." It's a tough scene to watch, and one that will certainly make the gorehounds happy, but it does a lot for creating the only truly memorable character in the film.
Wolf Creek treads on some familiar territory – and Greg McLean probably leans a bit too heavily on his influences – but it's worth watching for nothing more than the fact that it relentlessly pursues its subjects. Just when you think the horror is over, there's the creepy Aussie to put you through the paces again. The film fits fairly well into the exploitation genre and provides some truly tense moments, punctuated by a terrifically frightening performance by John Jarratt that is reminiscent of Rutger Hauer's work in The Hitcher. If you enjoyed Haute Tension, chances are there are things you'll find to like about Wolf Creek (that is, if you can get through the first hour or so without nodding off). The film's certainly not the second coming of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, like McLean might have you believe, but Wolf Creek is effective enough at times to warrant at least a rental when it makes its way to your local video store.