“30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year. 90% are found within the first month. Some are never seen again..."
...Most likely to the strong displeasure of the Australian Tourist Board, Wolf Creek opens with the claim of “based on a true story”. Not quite true, but two Australian killers in the 90s and early 2000s did target backpackers, so close enough. Director Greg McLean (The Belko Experiment, The Darkness) created a very dark film with excellent performances, adept cinematography, and plenty of cringe-worthy gore. The visceral action in Wolf Creek provides an uncomfortable ride for all the characters involved. Editing keeps the moments sharp and unrelenting and even the so-called moments of calm actually serve as subtle tension builders. Premiering 15 years ago, the grit and unforgiving violence portrayed in Wolf Creek often earns a comparison with the hard-boiled horror from the 1970’s such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or other cabin in the woods/Slasher films. The plot follows so many films in this subgenre with the inclusion of good-looking 20-somethings, whispered legends of the otherworldly, a broken-down car, and a seemingly unassuming backwoods local acting like a good Samaritan. But ignore all that. Or let the predictable path to slasher-fun lead you into a realm of false familiarity because once the film reaches its atmospheric destination, good ol’ ‘uncle’ Mick becomes a killer to remember.
On the sunny beach of Broome, Western Australia in 1999, a young man named Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips) purchases a car with the intention of travelling around the country with two of his British friends Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi) who are currently on holiday. The plan involves following the Great Northern Highway all the way to Queensland, but along the way the group of happy backpackers stops at Wolf Creek National Park. The prelude to the danger shows three friends drinking and partying, long but enjoyable treks in the car, and teasing conversations around a campfire. The moments of camaraderie help build the friendship between the three travelers and shows -despite the long hours they spend together- they do not tire of each other’s presence. After an unpleasant encounter with some burley locals, the group finally arrives at their destination. Despite the dreary weather and threats of rain, Kristy, Liz, and Ben decide to tackle the three-hour hike up the Wolf Creek trail, so they can see one of the largest meteorite craters on the planet.
The shots of the starry night sky, discussion of UFOs, and the desire to see a giant meteorite crater makes the film start with space themed intentions, however the dangers which befall the trio come from much more human origins. The hike proved nice enough, but unfortunately leaving Wolf Creek becomes impossible when the group discovers the car will not start. Strangely, all of their watches have also stopped working. Luckily for the stranded young people, a crocodile Dundee type character (John Jarratt) shows up with a thick outback accent, peppered with Aussie slang and idioms. He appears jovial enough, so the trio does not put much question into whether they should accept the help of the stranger or not. The group’s new friend offers to tow the car back to his campsite (even further out in the middle of nowhere) where he promises to fix the car and send them on their merry way.
While the set up and unforgiving violence fits the previously mentioned comparison with Chainsaw and similar films, Wolf Creek does not depend on one trope heavily associated with the genre: a mask. The killer in Wolf Creek only ever appears as himself and does not hide behind a mask or disguise his identity in the shadows. No camera point of view lets the victim see his face but leaves us in the dark. We never see Mick Taylor with his back to the camera as he diligently works away on some torture device, leaving his face obscured, but his violent intentions well known. The audience never gets a secret look at the killer as we only witness Mick through the perspective of his victims. In his first scene he plays the role of happy helper, but no one actually believes this. The audience knows he is going to kill the backpackers. Even the backpackers seem to recognize the danger, but still dutifully follow the rules of horror films. Mick offers to give the stuck youth a ride to his workshop, however, his nice guy persona does not completely ‘mask’ his intentions because he still makes comments about not liking foreigners and makes remarks about killing the trio. But the victims laugh it off. Mick Taylor never hides who he is, yet the victims cloud their own version of the guy and create a false image at an attempt of reassurance.
Killers don masks as an attempt to ’other’ themselves and transform into someone else. Masks allow for more inhuman qualities because they rob the victims (and the audience) of any kind of emotion or reaction. We never witness remorse, excitement, or even pain. Just a blank stare of sadistic intentions. So, if the killer does not attempt to hide his identity or intentions, why do so many people follow the backwoods Aussie to their death? In the duration of the film, we closely follow the three main characters through their encounter with Mick, but his workshop shows an impressive collections of bones, decomposing bodies, and a head on a stick, so we can ascertain Mick had no problem convincing people to go with him.
The first part of the movie and even the introduction of the killer follows some kind of unbreakable ritual or prophetic path no one can stop regardless of how open the killer is with his plans. Some movie-goers scoff at the idea of trusting Mick Taylor so willingly and believe no ‘real’ person would make such a stupid mistake. So why do the youth follow him? Because he’s not a fucking alien! The first half hour hints heavily at encounters of the third kind and even when Mick first appears the shivering backpackers only see his headlights and believe aliens are landing. When the UFO turns out to be a middle-aged man in a beat-up old truck, they feel relieved. Their imagination betrayed them into fearing otherworldly beings, so a very human looking person cannot compare to the fantasy anxieties they concocted for themselves.
But perhaps the alien red-herring allows Mick to fulfill more of the Slasher characteristics than we first believed. Michael Meyers, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface all fall into a category of beyond human due to their large size and ability to take a heavy amount of physical damage. Mick Taylor takes a bullet and several beatings but continues to shrug off the injuries and lives long enough to walk off into the sunset. Perhaps his immortality stems from the desire for sequels, but a closer look at the setting may allow for a different analysis. Mick Taylor follows an almost ritualistic killing. He follows his victims to Wolf Creek, tampers with their vehicle so he can come to the rescue, then takes them back to his workshop. The opening of the film makes several references to otherworldly existence and the reason for trekking out to Wolf Creek is to see a giant meteorite crater. So, the travelers attribute the broken car and watches to aliens. Mick reveals he messed with the car so it wouldn’t’ start, but how could he have stopped all of their watches? This little unexplained fact lets us wonder is there some kind of supernatural effect in play? Perhaps Mick’s proximity to the crater gives him some superhuman capabilities or even drives him to kill.
So, if you have not re-visited Wolf Creek in a long time, or perhaps you never saw the movie because you dismissed it as a “predictable” slasher or Chainsaw wannabe, maybe hike down that long trail and see what you can discover. Not quite a slasher, but also not the Hostel-esque torture films from that era. McLean creates a beautifully shot film and at the heart of his landscape stands the unmatched John Jarrett as Mick Taylor. The director and the actor create an intimate relationship between the killer and his victims, and never let you look away because they leave everything out in the open with nowhere to hide.
By Amylou Ahava