There have been plenty of horror films released within the past year that traffic in creative bloodletting (Saw II, The Devil's Rejects, Undead), but very few of them attempt to foster an atmosphere of genuine terror. That's not the case with Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, a brutal and often downright nasty bit of snuff cinema from Australia that is guaranteed to divide audiences. Some will hate it for its grim sadism, while others may complain that it's not gory enough (at least, that was the major objection voiced by the audience I saw the film with). Meanwhile, the people who do appreciate the movie (you can't really use the word "enjoy" when talking about a film like this) will find themselves on the defensive, explaining how they can recommend something that's so cruel, it's almost painful to watch. As a member of the latter camp, I can only say that the film's brutality is central to its success. Wolf Creek is a sustained plunge into abject horror that isn't meant to be laughed at or shaken off easily. By not pulling his punches, McLean forces the individual viewer to decide for him or herself how far is too far.
One of the reasons for Wolf Creek's effectiveness is that the film takes its time building up to the bloodshed. The first 45 minutes are given over to a lyrical road trip, with the three central characters, a pair of English backpackers named Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Ben (Nathan Phillips), the Aussie slacker they've befriended, piling into a car and setting out to see a famous meteor crater at Wolf Creek National Park. This section of the movie is filled with so many beautiful shots of the Australian outback-and so little dialogue-you'd almost think Terrence Malick was behind the camera. After spending a pleasant day hanging out on the rim of the crater, they climb back into the car only to discover that it won't start. Just as they've resigned themselves to camping out under the stars, a friendly (and vaguely creepy) local named Mick (John Jarrett) happens to drive by and offers to tow the car to his place where he can take a closer look at it. As soon as they arrive at his remote home, the three weary travelers tuck in for the night...and awaken in a real-life nightmare.
Once Wolf Creek takes a turn for the horrific, it never lets up. The rest of the movie plays out almost in real time as Liz, Kristy and Ben try to escape their maniacal captor before he finishes them off. But this isn't an over-the-top gore-fest like Saw II; right from the first torture sequence, in which Mick cruelly taunts one of the girls as he cuts her with his knife, McLean depicts the violence in a disturbingly realistic fashion. He's clearly a disciple of the Tobe Hooper school of horror and the film strives for the same grimy intensity of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (The film also borrows Chainsaw's "based-on-a-true-story" gambit; McLean's script is a fictionalized version of a real series of murders that occurred in Australia over a decade ago.) Mick himself has a lot in common with Leatherface-they're both single-minded sadists who are brutally efficient when it comes to killing people. As for his unfortunate victims, they're not exactly complex characters, but they're also thankfully not the typical dumb teens who find themselves on the wrong end of the knife because of their own stupidity. All of their actions are relatively believable considering the circumstances they find themselves in. That's what makes the film's bleak ending that much more of a downer; sometimes you can't escape your fate, no matter how resourceful you think you are.