Wolf Creek (Unrated) (HD DVD)
The Weinstein Company // Unrated // $29.95 // December 19, 2006
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 9, 2006
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After nearly a decade where "horror" was code for clean-scrubbed WB starlets and PG-13 jump scares, genre filmmakers have rolled the clock back to the '70s. One of the latest horror flicks to ride this wave of grindhouse-inspired sadism is Aussie import Wolf Creek, although for the first hour or so, it's not even glaringly obvious that this is a horror movie. There isn't any clunky foreshadowing or ominous stings in the score -- just an hour or so of two bonnie British backpackers, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), traveling around Australia with their new pal Ben (Snakes on a Plane's Nathan Phillips). After hiking around the desolate Wolf Creek in the middle of the vast, desolate Australian Outback, they return to find that Ben's car won't start.

There aren't all that many tow trucks puttering around the middle of nowhere, but they run into a bit of good luck. Mick (John Jarratt), a weathered, quirky, good-natured bloke in his forties or fifties, stumbles upon 'em, offering to tow their car back to his place and make the necessary repairs free of charge. The girls aren't all that eager to tag along, but with the only other option being spending the night at Wolf Creek and hoping someone else happens to show up, they relent. After all, the guy sounds like Crocodile Dundee; what's there to worry about? Well, if they'd have known they were in a movie with an "Unrated" label slapped on the front cover and blurbs like "Not since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre has terror felt so real" on the flipside of the case, they're obviously not going to drive away with free car repair and a smile.

I've heard Wolf Creek attacked repeatedly for the pace of its first hour, but I really didn't mind that slow burn. Strangely enough, I found its more sadistic final 45 minutes or so to be much more uneven. Greg McLean notes in the disc's making-of doc that he wanted to create a distinctively Australian horror icon, and in the extended final act of the movie, Wolf Creek becomes The Indestructible Madman Torture Extravaganza, purely about his Freddy Krueger-by-way-of-Crocodile Dundee killer. The slower first hour is meant to get to know the three leads, and I guess the goal is that when Ben disappears for almost the duration of the movie and when Kristy and Liz are reduced to Busty, Cute, Screaming, Tortured Girl and Not-So-Busty, Cute, Screaming, Tortured Girl, it can coast on that characterization and viewers will still have an emotional investment in what happens to these unlucky twentysomethings. It's just that since the characters become so one-note and nothing we learn about them early on matters anymore, the last act of the movie is kinda boring whenever Mick isn't on-screen butchering someone. There are some unflinchingly brutal moments -- Mick tormenting a bound, gagged Kristy in his lair, severed fingers, a 'head on a stick', and cold, calculated gunplay -- but with really only two victims in play and awful lot of time to kill, the pacing drags mid-sadism.

I'm a lifelong slasher fanatic, and I found a lot to like about Wolf Creek. It's just that I keep wanting to tack a "...but..." onto every sentence I write. Wolf Creek has a better cast and stronger characterization than most slashers, but that's pretty much all tossed out the window near the end, especially where Ben's concerned. John Jarratt has a deceptively disarming presence on-screen while still cleverly hinting at the madman bubbling under the surface, but he's so over the top that Mick isn't especially terrifying. McLean nicks too much from Freddy Krueger, creating a killer who's borderline-indestructible, unerringly manages to pop up right behind his victims no matter where they are or what they do, and is prone to lobbing out goofy one-liners. At least it's an energetic performance instead of just another laconic masked murderer. There were a couple of sequences so gruesome that even a jaded gorehound like myself still cringed, but it's one of the least graphic movies from this most recent wave of horror. It isn't an endless parade of stabbings and torture, and nearly all of what Kristy suffers through is implied rather than shown. Wolf Creek plays with a lot of the usual genre cliches -- the unconscious killer and the 'final girl', in particular -- but as much as it attempts to subvert the audience's expectations, there's still something routine about the way the movie unfolds. I don't have a "...but..." to follow how much I dug the atmospheric photography and the cacklingly macabre set design of Mick's torture chamber, though. Wolf Creek may have been shot on a shoestring, but it doesn't look like it.

Wolf Creek is better than average for a slasher flick, but as much as the movie tries to subvert a lot of the usual genre cliches, it still winds up feeling kind of run of the mill. It's the type of movie that I wouldn't have thought twice about if I didn't have to hammer out a review afterwards, but as flawed as it is, I still think enough works in Wolf Creek that it'd be a solid rental.

This HD DVD release of Wolf Creek is unrated, running a few minutes longer than the R-rated theatrical cut. Greg McLean points out a couple of the differences in the disc's audio commentary, including an additional bit of characterization early on and a sequence with Liz plummeting into a pit filled with the remains of Mick's previous victims.

Video: I've read several reports from other reviewers who've had a really tough time getting this initial wave of HD DVDs from The Weinstein Company to load properly, one of 'em noting a two minute wait for the first logo to pop up on-screen. I was kind of surprised when Wolf Creek played without a hitch my first time through, but when I came back to review the extras, it was damn near as unforgivingly brutal a struggle as anything in the movie. It took ten or fifteen minutes of thumb-twiddling, disc swapping, powering down, and button mashing for Wolf Creek to work a second time on my Toshiba HD-A1, and I came really close to giving up entirely. I'm not sure if later model HD DVD players or the Xbox 360 add-on would suffer from the same problem, but early adopters may want to keep this in mind before forking over their credit cards.

That's really the only gripe I have with this HD DVD, which is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is among just a handful of titles to have been encoded using MPEG-4. Most movies that are shot on HD video are filtered and processed to look as much like film as possible, but Wolf Creek doesn't shake off its video origins. The serrated camerawork further adds to its gritty, verite sense of style, and the low-level video noise that buzzes around the long stretches set at night is a perfect fit for a movie taking its inspiration from grainy 42nd St. grindhouse cinema.

The photography favors extreme, dazzlingly detailed close-ups that reveal every pore, blemish, and stray hair, but director Greg McLean also takes advantage of the movie's desolate setting with expansive wide shots of the barren Australian Outback. These panoramic shots don't offer quite the same detail and clarity as the best HD DVDs I've seen, but they're beautifully photographed and add a strong sense of atmosphere. Wolf Creek's palette is fairly warm early on but transitions to bleak, desaturated hues as the savagery gets underway. There's a nice bit in the disc's making-of documentary on how the movie's colors were tweaked in post-production, and it looks so natural that I wouldn't have guessed that sort of manipulation was going on. As you'd hope to see from a horror flick set mostly at night, black levels remain robust throughout. A couple of brief, heavily aliased shots near the tail end of the movie were clearly shot on standard def DV, but I doubt they looked any better theatrically. The lower-budget, stylized photography may keep it from being a home theater showcase title, but Wolf Creek looks great on HD DVD and is a strong first outing for The Weinstein Company.

Audio: Wolf Creek's minimalist sound design doesn't make for the strongest demo material either, but the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio generally sounds alright. I struggled a bit with the heavy Australian accents at first but didn't have any trouble making out what was being said after a few minutes in, and the dialogue doesn't get buried under the effective, sparingly instrumented score. The music and sound effects deliberately don't draw attention to themselves, but they sound sharp for the most part, with care especially taken during the moments in Mick's ramshackle lair to establish an unsettling atmosphere. The mix isn't littered with smooth pans from channel to channel or waves of devastating bass, but Wolf Creek really isn't that kind of movie. Not overwhelmingly impressive but certainly a solid effort.

The disc also includes a French dub as well as subtitles in English and Spanish.

Supplements: None of the disc's extras are in high-definition, but everything from the domestic DVD release has made its way here, along with one interview that had been left off The Weinstein Company's earlier DVD.

First up is a fun, chatty audio commentary with writer/director Greg McLean, producer Matt Hearn, and stars Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi. In between the girls' fits of laughter, McLean comments on how he and his crew worked around the meager budget, the tight shooting schedule, and the first rain this remote desert had seen in ten years. McLean and company comment on some of the criticism about the movie, explaining why Mick's head wasn't crushed into a soupy red paste an hour in and poking fun at Liz stopping to look for clues instead of running for her life. If you're hoping for intensely technical notes or...y'know, thematic insight, this might not be the track for you, but I enjoyed it anyway. As much as McLean points out the endless amount of extra footage and deleted scenes that were snipped out of the final cut, only a 38 second bit labeled "G'Day" (pretty much an old woman in a convenience store belting out a "G'day!") is included.

A couple of the best notes from the commentary are also covered in the disc's sprawling 50 minute making-of doc, but those two or three comments are all the overlap there is between them. The documentary combines the two most common approaches to these making-of pieces -- talking head interviews and a fly-on-the-wall production diary -- along with outtakes, wardrobe tests, and footage showing how polished the finished product is compared to the raw photography. "The Making of Wolf Creek" covers pretty much everything, including overly ambitious earlier treatments, the casting, the decision to shoot on HD, the effects work, and nearly every angle of post-production. It's very comprehensive and includes much more footage from the shoot than usual, and its sense of humor makes it all the more worth a look.

Ian Jane's DVD review mentioned that the Weinsteins' DVD left off a 20 minute interview with John Jarratt from the PAL releases. The HD DVD corrects that mistake at least in part, serving up a seven and a half minute excerpt from that conversation. In this short but solid chat, Jarratt comments on tackling a character so different than anything he'd played in his decades in front of the camera and how he came up with just the right disturbing laugh.

A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. It's worth noting that The Weinstein Company is using fully animated menus for their releases, something I haven't seen much of on HD DVD. As is the case with Warner's titles, a menu bar spanning the bottom of the screen will appear mid-movie with the press of a button.

Conclusion: As much press as Wolf Creek has gotten for being one of the most disturbing movies of the past decade, I thought it was a well-made but ultimately routine slasher. It toys a bit with many of the usual genre cliches but generally winds up in the same place as a hundred other twentysomethings-on-a-vacation-gone-bad horror flicks. Wolf Creek is better acted than most and has a couple of really effective gruesome sequences, and I liked the movie enough to recommend it to other slasher fanatics even if it didn't fully live up to my expectations. Because it's somewhat run-of-the-mill and forgettable, Wolf Creek falls somewhere between a Rent It and a Recommended, but I'll lean positive, although HD-A1 owners might want to opt for a rental or wait for a future pressing to resolve these loading problems.

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