Wolf Creek (2005)

Wolf Creek first published by EyeforFilm

For his debut feature, Australian writer/director Greg McLean follows a tried-and-tested horror formula – young people out on a drive become stranded in the middle of nowhere – and then takes it way off the beaten track. While it is the unflinching viciousness of the shocks in the second half that gives Wolf Creek its most immediate and terrifying impact, it is the more subtle hints of irrationality that will come back to haunt you.

British backpackers Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) decide to join Sydney boy Ben (Nathan Phillips) on a road trip in a second-hand car through Australia’s loneliest by-ways and harshest hinterlands. Heading north from Broome on the west coast, they sing, flirt and banter, tell “bullshit” campfire stories about alien visitors and have an unpleasant altercation with some local jokers in a bar, before finally stopping at Wolf Creek, the isolated location of the second largest meteor crater in the world. After a long hike to its centre and a tentative first kiss between Liz and Ben, the three return in the dark to their car, only to find that their wristwatches have stopped and the engine is dead. With perfect timing, friendly Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) rolls up in his truck to save the day – except that the three young tourists are about to be led on a horrific journey into outback Australia’s wildest heart of darkness.

“Do you think it means anything?” asks Ben at the crater. “I mean, the watches, and the car not working?” By the end it is clear enough why the car has stopped, but it is that uncanny coincidence of the watches that remains unexplained, to niggle at our conscience long after the film is over and make us wonder if the narrative route has really been as straight as it first appears. It is almost as if a hardcore survival horror film had been infiltrated (and slyly undermined) by the quieter mysticism of Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) – which had after all featured a (much younger) Jarratt in its cast.

The text which opens Wolf Creek states authoritatively that “the following is based on actual events”, before proffering ominous statistics on the annual number of missing persons in Australia. Fly-on-the-wall camerawork (using high-definition digital video), casually naturalistic performances and several real cases recently covered by the local and international press, serve to reinforce this initial impression of authenticity, which is seriously, if not to say irreversibly, damaged by the odd supernatural flourish (those watches, an unheralded total eclipse), and by the conspicuous unavailability of any reliable witness to the film’s most significant events.

Like the vast and mysterious landscape that it portrays and mythologises, Wolf Creek is a story with a gaping, craterous hole at its core and trying to work out how to fill it is ultimately what makes the film well worth re-watching and far more insidiously clever than the sum of its visceral thrills. In this decidedly nasty bushman’s yarn there are just enough strategically placed loose ends to suggest that perhaps the whole thing is designed less to reveal the truth behind a disappearance than to conceal it with a cunningly plausible shaggy dog story – for what no one can see, no one can know, and the only thing more primal, savage and treacherous than the open wilderness is the heart of man.

With its starkly beautiful landscapes, its thorough deconstruction of the Crocodile Dundee stereotype, its knowingly subversive narrative twists that will wrong foot anyone who has read up on their final girl theory, and its use of the expression “head on a stick” in a way that no viewer is ever likely to forget, Wolf Creek is grimly funny, heart-stoppingly brutal and, once you have had time to catch your breath and take stock, head-scratchingly duplicitous.

The combination of lambs going to slaughter and a story-loving boy crying wolf make for Australia’s finest horror film in years.

© Anton Bitel