In many ways, writer/director Greg McLean’s feature debut Wolf Creek feels like a spiritual successor to the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Like Chainsaw, Wolf Creek begins with text informing viewers that the film is based on true events. But while the earlier film just had some superficial ties to the case of Ed Gein, McLean had very specific Australian murder cases in mind to base his fictional story upon, with the main inspiration being the case of serial killer Ivan Milat.
As with Chainsaw, McLean’s characters are a group of youths on a road trip, in this case Australia native Ben and two female friends from the UK, Liz and Kristy. But rather than cruising around Texas back roads, this trio is on a drive through the vast Outback.
A lot of time is dedicated to developing the characters of Ben, Liz, and Kristy, we get to see what they’re like as people, get a glimpse into their lives, a romance begins to bloom between Ben and Liz. But as their road trip goes on, things around them seem to be getting stranger and stranger. They meet some unpleasant people, and the atmosphere out in the desert just feels odd.
They stray from the highway to do some sight-seeing at Wolf Creek National Park, site of a massive crater caused by a meteor strike thousands of years ago. People claim to have witnessed UFO activity in the area around the crater, so thoughts of the possibility of creatures visiting from another world makes the trio’s time in the Outback even creepier.
While they’re visiting the crater, their watches stop working at the same time. 6:30. When they get back to the used car Ben recently purchased, the engine is dead. Night falls. Is it something to do with the meteor that caused their watches and the car to die? Will they be abducted by aliens in the dark of night?
The threat Ben, Liz, and Kristy have to worry about isn’t supernatural, and it isn’t from another planet. It’s a man named Mick Taylor, who shows up at the park and offers them help. Mick is very much a man of the country, and at first he seems very nice and likeable, making an attempt to fix Ben’s car and sharing with the youngsters stories of his life, of his former career working on farms as a head shooter, picking off unwanted animals that wandered onto the farmers’ property. Kangaroo, buffalo, horses, whatever needed shooting, he shot. Then, like the murderous family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre who were driven out of the slaughterhouse industry by automation, Mick was put out of a job when farmers decided poisoning the critters was better than shooting him. If Mick has a job now, he’s not sharing the details on it, and he’s living at an abandoned mining site, which he tows Ben’s car to so the kids can spend the night at his place.
But the water he gives them has been drugged. The road tripping youths pass out, and when they wake up, they find that they’re living a real world nightmare.
Mick Taylor is no friendly hick, he is a sadistic psychopath who lures tourists to the mining site so he can string them up, torture them for his own twisted amusement, and then murder them in horrendous, brutal ways. Even if you escape from him, don’t get your hopes up. He is a very capable tracker, he knows the Outback very well, and he will stop at nothing to finish off his prey.
What happens to Ben, Liz, and Kristy is shockingly horrific. One of the girls is the recipient of one of the most horrible, disturbing injuries I’ve ever seen in a movie. The fact that McLean got this detail from the true murder cases makes it even worse.
Despite the fact that his character is one of the most evil bastards to ever grace the screen, John Jarratt is also the standout of the film in the role of Mick Taylor. His heavily accented banter when he’s making nice, the glee with which he carries out his homicidal hobby, it’s captivating stuff. The slow build of the movie’s first half may be off-putting to some viewers, the level of violence in the second half may off-putting to others, but regardless of your feelings for the movie overall, there’s no denying that Jarratt delivers a fantastic performance, one that you’ll never be able to forget.
McLean also demonstrates some great skill as a director, impressively handling all of the sequences of tension, horror, action, even a climactic car chase. It’s kind of a shame that the only movies he has made in the nine years since Wolf Creek are the crocodile movie Rogue and the recently released Wolf Creek 2, because this guy should be working a lot more and on bigger scale films.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’74 is one of my all-time favorite movies, so the fact that I compare Wolf Creek to it is quite a compliment. I don’t like Wolf Creek nearly as much as Tobe Hooper’s classic, but it is a very well made film that is extremely effective at being unnerving.