At just over the midway point, Wolf Creek had the makings of a modern and comparably scary Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Regrettably, major script issues begin to creep in, giving this otherwise tense, raw and (in some twisted way) artistically-shot horror movie an unrecoverable black eye.
Returning from their epic hike, the trio discover that their watches have inexplicably stopped and the car's engine won't turn over. Almost on cue, a colorful and eccentric chap named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) shows up and offers to tow their vehicle to his camp where he can affect repairs and the trio can crash for the night. But as it turns out, trusting this seemingly sincere offer for assistance turns out to be a horrible mistake. After nodding off, Liz wakes up bound and gagged alone in a shed. Although she manages to escape, her subsequent rescue attempts end up pulling everyone through a knothole of abject misery and unimaginable terror.
There are plenty of things that work really well in Wolf Creek. Director Greg McLean's background as an art student ensures that there are some stunningly beautiful and hauntingly evocative shots of the Australian outback. This is expertly contrasted with the ugliness of Mick's junkyard camp as well as his crazed behavior. In a wise and welcome move, McLean also gives us plenty of time to get to know his troika of main characters. In fact, a good fifty minutes clock by before anything particularly odd happens.
Mick's one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn from down-to-earth yokel to raving loon is completely convincing. When warning signs begin to appear that Mick might not be all there (his awkward silence after Ben's "Crocodile" Dundee joke is particualrly unnerving) you can't help but start yelling at the screen: "Fly you fools! No!!! Don't drink that!!!" John Jarrett does a phenomenal job creating a character ten times more frightening than Jason Vorhees could ever hope to be. Armed with a slew of creepy personality tics and a laugh that will haunt you long after the credits roll, Mick Taylor is a repellently genuine creation.
The three victims are also well realized. Since Mick is clearly infuriated by the concept of Ben as the "modern Aussie male", Nathan Phillips is the perfect foil for our villain. Cassandra Magrath is tremendously sympathetic and we really want to see her survive. But it's Kestie Morassi who'll really pull your heart through the ringer. The scene in which she's being tortured by Mick is almost unwatchable. I wasn't surprised to learn (via the "making of" doc) that the crew often felt compelled to rush onto the closed set after hearing Morassi's heart-rending and painfully authentic wails of anguish.
Unfortunately, about three quarters of the way through, Wolf Creek started to piss me off. I sincerely hope that these characters aren't based on real people, since their decisions were so infuriatingly stupid that it's an insult to the viewer's intelligence. The script suddenly becomes a brain-dead puppet master, forcing its automatons to do things that will leave viewers feeling manipulated and resentful. Liz in particular takes several actions which only serve to pad the film's run time, add needlessly to the backstory or unnecessarily jeopardize the characters.
I really don't want to throw the scary It's Alive baby out with the fetid bath water. If you take away the moronic scripting choices you're still left with a tense, memorable, and genuinely frightening film with an uncomfortably authentic antagonist. It's a pity that the ill-gauged deviations make for a scripting cardinal sin of near-murderous proportions.