Every fan of slasher horror movies is familiar with the sensation of waiting – praying, even – for the violence to start. There is usually a long, slow build-up to this moment: perhaps half an hour of screen time during which we watch a group of skimpily dressed, fairly vapid young things go about their noisy party frolics.
The most ingenious device in Greg McLean's impressive Wolf Creek takes us – in a nightmarish blink of the eye – from the end of this introductory frolic to the beginning of the gory stuff. Three twentysomethings, Liz (Cassandra Magrath), Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Ben (Nathan Phillips), snooze off after a night of drinking with their outback helper, Mick (John Jarratt). When Liz wakes up, she has been separated from the others, bound and gagged, and is entirely at the mercy of the horrendous Mick.
All slasher movies are about sadism on at least three levels: the sadism (often involving elaborate sexual perversity) of the central killer or killers; the sadism of the filmmaker who relishes putting us through the worst nightmares we can imagine as the plot unfolds; and the sadism of the audience itself, in some sense "egging on" this spectacle to greater heights.
It may seem a strange thing to say, but Wolf Creek (very loosely based on true events) is a triumph of sadistic cinema. This, alone, makes it unique in the annals of recent Australian film. It returns us, unapologetically, to a brief, unsung era in Australian cinema that contained such films as Mad Max (1979) and Long Weekend (1979) – genre films that unselfconsciously probed the sore points of Australia's thin veneer of "civilisation".
Australian film culture has often been squeamish about making films in the genre/exploitation category – and sometimes quite embarrassed when a film such as Mad Max "breaks out", reaping unexpected international rewards.
Consequently, there is already evident anxiety in the local film community about where and how to "place" Wolf Creek, which has already secured substantial success abroad. Rather than pegging it at the level of fine, critically underrated American horror-thrillers like Jeepers Creepers (2001) or Wrong Turn (2003), there has been an attempt to "talk up" the film, bestowing upon it a dramatic profundity and gravity it simply does not possess.
Wolf Creek is not a film in the tradition of Walkabout (1971) or The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978). But this is not to say that it is meaningless – only that it does not wear liberal platitudes about "Australian identity" on its sleeve (anti Crocodile Dundee jokes notwithstanding), as so many of our films do.
Alongside John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005), McLean's movie marks an intriguing moment when ideas and imagery stirred by racially-conscious films like The Tracker (2002) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) have been reabsorbed into the white "settler" imagination. Now it is the rebel cowboys or the psycho killers who are rendered as ghostly spirits, haunting the land.
Shot with a low budget and on high-definition video, Wolf Creek is ingeniously constructed for maximum visceral effect. The film makes tremendous use of semi-legible flickers of action within prevailing darkness, shock edits and an atmospheric soundtrack of treated ambient noises. The sudden appearance or disappearance of characters keeps us permanently guessing and on-edge. McLean draws the best from his crew and cast alike.
Wolf Creek inherits the unavoidable structural problems of the slasher narrative. That long build-up before the action starts can too easily fall into sheer banality – and here, it is hard to really care whether these characters on their road journey can sort out their ho-hum love lives. Similarly, McLean feels the need to distract us with an elaborate red herring (involving intimations of extraterrestrial activity) that finally contributes nothing to the piece beyond a delaying tactic.
Ultimately, sadistic slasher movies are judged by aficionados on the basis of their most extreme moments. And Wolf Creek does not fail to deliver on extreme moments, such as the sight of the crucified Ben struggling to tear his arms from the long nails that hold them. Wolf Creek is not a conventionally "deep and meaningful" film, but it is scenes like this, handled with gruesome artistry, that announce the arrival of a talented director in Greg McLean.
© Adrian Martin November 2005