Director: Greg McLean
By Roderick Heath
Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek was greeted by a success-starved Australian film industry with ravenous cheer. After good reviews and box office, it was sold onto the Weinsteins. Opinion amidst U.S. critics was much less favorable—Roger Ebert regarded it as a virtual atrocity—but undeniably it hit its target audience square in the middle. With its superficial realism, it almost succeeds in executing the fan-dance required for a modern horror film—exciting its audience’s visceral responses whilst slowing thought processes to comatose levels.
I’m a horror film fan, and I’m also not a fan, that is, the majority who count themselves as such, who devour them by the dozen on DVD, and for whom the grisliness is itself a virtue wouldn’t recognise me as one. It’s possible that it’s never a good season to be a horror fan. Good horror films float on a sea of dross so vast as to boggle the mind, and the genre has always been the bane of mainstream critics, the villain of censorship boards, and the terror of the protective mother. It’s also the most cheerfully radical of genres. It survives like a xenomorphic monster by filling in the gaps of crudity, unpredictability, the forbidden zones left by other films. It is the one form where we are not coddled—at least, not overtly. Goodies can die; monsters may not be killed, or if they are, they can come back in the sequel. The forces of darkness, once evoked, cannot necessarily by driven back into the box.
To watch a horror film is to court what is most repulsive to us. Of course, that’s not all there is to the genre, but it does explain why horror films can be so appalling by every traditional measure and yet still register, even be counted as great films. Equally, a horror film can be made with polish, class, and cash, and come out weak, unimaginative, and tasteless by comparison with its true poverty-row arbiters. As a genre it has suffered most from the modern pattern of annexation by the dumb action film. Yet there will always be the little film made by the guys with the digital video that stands a chance of being a hit.
Wolf Creek is, however, a very bad film. It’s inspired by (“ripped off” might be another phrase) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). It is technically polished, exceptionally so for a low-budget Aussie film. The three young leads—Kestie Morassi and the charming Cassandra Magrath as English backpackers and Nathan Phillips as Ben, their witless but hunky Sydneysider guide—are scarcely delineated except that Liz and Ben kiss, Kristy describes Liz as “fantastic”, and that they’re all headed for deep doo-doo. But then the innocents in horror films are meant to be blank slates so that audiences can slip guiltlessly into the role of masked, motiveless villain.
The trio is headed for Cairns from Broome, Western Australia, where they’ve been partying hearty. On the road in the outback, they detour to see the monumental Wolf Creek Crater, the impact zone of a meteorite. Later, they stop into a pub, where the usual selection of clichéd yokels leer at the girls. In a supposedly spooky echo of a story about UFOs told by Ben, the threesome find their watches have stopped and their car refuses to start. They remain stuck in the middle of nowhere until a truck pulls up, driven by Mick (John Jarratt), an inversion of Mick Dundee from Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee, who presents an avuncular, helpful ocker persona, telling them he’ll fix their car for free and towing them to his remote mining encampment. After telling them of his experiences as a professional hunter working on cattle stations, Mick eyes Ben evilly when he makes a clumsy joke, but everyone settles down peaceably for the night. Come morning, Liz awakens, finding herself tied hand and foot and gagged in a tool shed.
The fun and games commence as Liz escapes, finds Kristy being tortured by Mick in a shed, and with some quick thinking, distracts Mick long enough to get hold of his gun and shoot him in the neck. This lays him flat, and our heroines start doing everything wrong in the style of trash movie exposition: they fail to kill Mick; they steal his truck but contrive to almost drive it over a cliff; they split up; Liz wastes time looking through the belongings of previous victims. When she finally gets around to stealing a car, Mick’s already in the back seat. He stabs her, cuts her fingers off, then severs her vertebra, reducing her to a paralysed “head on a stick.” Kristy makes it to the highway, but when an old guy tries to pick her up, Mick’s long-distance shooting skills takes him out. Then he chases Liz on the highway until he runs her off the road and shoots her in the head. Ben, who’s been nailed to the wall of a mine tunnel, manages to pull himself off the spikes and stumble out into the desert, where he is rescued by a pair of German tourists in a Kombi van and taken back to civilisation. A title card coda tell us he was briefly suspected of the killings, cleared, and the true circumstances remain unknown.
So, why have we just sat through this film? The film claims to be based on true events, but as usual, the connection with reality is tenuous. The inspirations for the film are the Ivan Milat backpacker killings that occurred on the East coast in the mid 1990s, and more recently, the assault on Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio on an outback route by Bradley John Murdoch. So many of the positive reviews cheer the film for being “genuinely terrifying.” I was never terrified, not even mildly perturbed; in fact, once I realised the director had no interest in whether or not the characters lived, died, got revenge, or got killed trying, I became impatient and then bored. There have been more gruesome films, but few so with such a perfunctorily cruel demeanour. The accent of recent horror films, including Hostel, Hard Candy, the Saw films (also composed by Aussie film makers, with Hollywood money), is on suffering and torture. Why? Well, it’s the last playground of the transgressive film maker. The horror genre is one where rules can be chucked out, but too often, this a pass for directors with no actual ideas, who can’t think of an ending, who can’t build tension without gore or illogical pizzazz, who substitute absurdity for real wit, and who plan for umpteen sequels rather than dramatic strength.
Indeed, in genre film-making, we are in a real dark age. In assessing the recent action films, horror films, and sci-fi films I’ve watched, most have been so mechanical, so lacking in human content as to suggest they were spat out by computers. So many are set up with no intention of giving you people to care about or stories to follow. Wolf Creek lacks precision, dark wit, or thematic purpose. Bear witness of the reduction of the genre–from the tragic ambition of Frankenstein, the disorienting perversity of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, and the hard subversion of George Romero and Tobe Hooper, to lamp-on-your-face campfire stories. Woooo! Once there were some kids in a car and a killer killed all of them! Wooooooo! The dark oppositions that fire the narratives of, say, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are not consciously extended by Wolf Creek, which magpies the structure of those films without nearing their impact. Mick is evoked as a malevolent force of nature rather than a twisted progeny of a culture.
A happy ending to a modern horror film is the exception, not the rule, quite often with the most facile of effects and motivations—it helps keep the franchises alive. There is a deeper chord to this trend, however. Morality is no longer a motivator in a horror film, that is, traditional dimensions of right and wrong, good and evil, reality and unreality. John Jarrat’s Mick is monstrous and not especially convincingly so—Jarrat’s performance is so eye-rollingly broad he invokes Robert Newton’s Long John Silver—and monsters are easy to create. Those few heroes who inhabit the modern genre, such as Wesley Snipes’ Blade or the heroes of Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing, follow the patterns of superhero flicks in their featurelessness and indestructibility. In a review of Sleepwalkers (1992) in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopaedia of the Horror Film, we find a telling comment: “It is hard to take seriously that any creatures could live forever if to destroy them takes not the spiritual and moral strength of a Dr Van Helsing, but merely the panicky reactions of a popcorn girl and a horde of housecats.” Beyond the specifics of the comment, the whole failure of most modern horror films is laid bare. Spiritual and moral strength? What the hell are those? Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing was turned into the shallowest, most plastic of knights. In the cruel swamp of Wolf Creek, Liz is the closest to approach heroism, and she meets the nastiest of ends. Her sacrifice means nothing. Kristy is caught quickly and Ben escapes only because Mick doesn’t expect him to ever leave the mine and doesn’t check on him. Thus, the film’s theoretically thrilling final third throws tension out of the window by playing cynical games.
Wolf Creek, then, is not so far from from de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in the impulses it invites in its audience . The “innocent” are ritually abused to pay for their innocence. Or are they innocent? Are they not the sort of drug-pumped, rich ratbags who comprise most of the audience, globe-trotting tourists who make poverty their spectacle? In the modern torture film, the decadent westerner is being treated to the excesses of Abu Ghraib that they have sanctioned simply by living according to the decadence of their societies. This subtextual relevance doesn’t, however, actually make a film good. On the contrary, it might make them worse because it propagates the kind of careless attitude to life and death it pretends to warn about. They punish their viewers as much as they do their characters.
Another feature of Wolf Creek is its unredeemable misogyny. This might be taken as a tough-minded attempt to trash gal-power clichés of so many improbable butt-kicking girls in tight pants taking on massive enemies. Yet even Halloween was more sophisticated. Certainly Halloween‘s slutty cast was butchered and its virginal, geeky heroine was the one left to fight the evil, but there is in that a defence of the intelligent as more equipped to fight and survive than the cluelessly sensual. In Wolf Creek, Mick starts with the thesis that girls are “weak as piss,” something which is only temporarily contradicted by Liz, who gets herself killed with stupidity.
So, what good horror films have been made in the last few years? Frankly, it’s a short list. I’d count Tim Burton’s gleeful Sleepy Hollow; John Fawcett’s witty Ginger Snaps, Neil Marshall’s derivative but muscular Dog Soldiers, all of which, tellingly, break away from the structure of the slasher film as invented by Hitchcock and Bava and long since driven into the ground. The horror film is having a boom as its box office relevance has returned, and yet there has been a lack of creativity and originality in the new films. We are in a mean age, looking for mean thrills. After watching Wolf Creek I went to bed and started watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead again. Now that’s a horror film. l