Up the Creek
by Jeannette Catsoulis
Dir. Greg McLean, Australia, Dimension Films
Scrambling inelegantly for the moral high ground, a number of fainthearted critics are using the recent horror doubleheader of Wolf Creek and Hostel to persuade their readers they still have souls, if not stomachs. Moira Macdonald, in a sanctimonious piece in the Seattle Times, tells us she walked out of Wolf Creek “sickened” by the cinematic exploitation of “someone’s real death.” (If it makes you feel better, Moira, the film is actually an amalgam of several real-life incidents, laced with a liberal dose of fiction.) What’s sickening about Macdonald’s walkout, however, is her belief that it proves she hasn’t become “hardened” by the punishing task of watching movies for a living—unlike, presumably, those of us who stuck it out to the end.
But she’s not alone. Sam Adams of the Philadelphia City Paper labels Wolf Creek “a snuff film masquerading as entertainment” (I trust he has a reliable frame of reference), while Sean Axmaker of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls it “a grueling exercise in unrelenting brutality.” Even Roger Ebert—who’s been around the chopping block a few times—feels compelled to highlight his review with a definition of misogyny (thanks, Roger!) before exhorting us to use the film as a kind of friendship litmus test. “If anyone you know says this is the one [movie] they want to see, my advice is: Don't know that person no more.” This late-onset concern for the fair sex—if not for proper grammar—might be more credible if Ebert’s 1974 review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hadn’t been quite so enthusiastic about that film’s “effective montage of quick cuts of the last girl's screaming face and popping eyeballs.”
So I’m not buying any of these mealy-mouthed protestations; I have yet to read a criticism of Wolf Creek that would not accurately describe 80 percent of horror movies. Therefore, I have to ask: Why are so many critics feigning ignorance of the core objectives of an entire genre? Have we become so embarrassed by our dark side—the side that relishes carnage and flayed flesh for its own cathartic sake—that we’re unable to enjoy, however guiltily, an exceptionally well-made movie like Wolf Creek? So many critics, in fact, are justifying their dislike of the film by comparing it unfavorably to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre you would think the pleasure of horror required redemption by the inclusion of subtext or insightful social criticism. These attributes may make a movie more fun—for the few who actually notice—but is the crucifixion of a female character somehow less sickening when viewed as a critique of women’s sacrificial role in society? The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson certainly thinks so; in his elitist view, gore is much more acceptable when sprayed in the service of “deranged social metaphors.” Oh, please.
While no one would deny that genre giants like Tobe Hooper and George Romero have always had more on their minds than flat-out grisliness, the vast majority of horror fans are enraptured less by subtle Vietnam references than by the imaginative deployment of power tools, creepy locations, and realistic prosthetics. No one reads Penthouse for the articles, and no one other than Michael Atkinson goes to Wolf Creek hoping for a sociopolitical analysis of Outback cultural isolation. The irony here, of course, is that the film’s unpretentiousness is one of its primary strengths: From start to finish, Wolf Creek never claims to be anything more than a tight, terrifying trip to a location so ghastly you’ll never think of Oz in quite the same way again.
In a year filled with some of the worst horror fare, including the Amityville remake and the Christian propaganda-soaked The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Wolf Creek has breezed through our multiplexes like a breath of fetid air. First-time director Greg McLean turns the Australian landscape into hell itself as three friends—British tourists Liz and Kristy (Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi), and their Aussie pal, Ben (Nathan Phillips)—embark on a sightseeing trip to the meteor crater known as Wolf Creek. Having informed us upfront that 30,000 people are reported missing each year in Australia, several thousand of whom are never seen again, McLean sustains the foreboding with calculated pacing (not a second feels unnecessary) and a genuinely spooky palette of shroud-like greys and murky mauves. By the time the kids’ car breaks down—at night, in the middle of nowhere—McLean has already established a natural world as sinister and mysterious as an alien planet, trapping his characters in a limbo of blistering earth and metallic skies.
With its minimalist esthetic and real-life feel, Wolf Creek is the rare horror movie that earns its screams from the very first shot. By means of intense, restless close-ups and framing that suggests something hideous lurking just out of sight, McLean and director of photography Will Gibson make the mundane menacing and the menacing downright terrifying. A sequence built around little but taillights and milky fog pulses with anxiety, while a roadside encounter with knuckle-dragging bushmen—reminiscent of Kurt Russell’s diner freak-out in 1997’s Breakdown—establishes an unnerving atmosphere of low-key threat. McLean allows us time to connect with his characters (an innocently romantic moment between Liz and Ben is beautifully handled by script and actors alike), so that when the trio accepts a tow to a deserted mining camp and the torture finally begins, we’re sufficiently invested in the outcome to scream right along with them.
Wolf Creek may be nasty and manipulative, but it’s also petrifying; its three victims may be idiotically unprepared for the wilderness, but their lack of pragmatism and innocent faith in their own immortality is also believably age-appropriate. McLean has done his homework, and has stolen from the best; but amid all the gouging and piercing, slicing and dicing, the director never loses sight of his final destination: to scare the bejesus out of us. And yes, sometimes a dangling eyeball is a potent statement on the dangers of voyeurism, but sometimes it’s just a dangling eyeball.