Head on a Stick
To call Wolf Creek‘s U.S. Christmas opening counter-programming surely understates the strategy. This low-budget Australian horror movie is definitively unseasonal, and comes with adoring, if somewhat menacing, blurbs from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to boot. Based on “actual events” (specifically, the “Backpacker Murders,” committed between 1989 and 1992), it means to unnerve and upset.
Opening on a gorgeous 1999 seaside sunrise, Wolf Creek traces the harrowing adventures of three unpretentious college-age students, exploring their own emotional possibilities while driving cross-country. Introduced mid-story, even mid-conversation, they come without background or motivation. Ben (Nathan Phillips) first appears as he purchases a rickety station wagon from a sleazy salesman, who imagines the boy’s purposes (or, as you come to find, mis-imagines them): “They get real easy when they travel, they loosen up.” Ben smiles as if in concert, drives off in his noisy vehicle, and mutters under his breath that the guy’s a “fucking asshole.”
Come to find out that the “they” in the salesman’s formulation are the two girls Ben picks up, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi). Partying on the beach, they wake beside two boys they’ve just met—for the record, they’ve just met Ben as well. On summer vacation, the girls (from England) and Ben (from Sidney) have decided to take off on a three week excursion to Wolf Creek, a meteor crater in the desert plains of north central Australia. During their drive, they learn a few things about each other, smoke cigarettes, and flirt a bit. Ben tells a scary story about UFO sighting (a driver’s car loses electricity). At the crater, they marvel at the size and peculiarity of the hole, then Liz and Ben wander off on their own, kiss and giggle, and form what looks to be the film’s designated “couple.”
Not so fast. Wolf Creek knows its generic conventions. The travelers make their back to the car, where they discover their watches have stopped and the car is dead. Spooked by the similarity to Ben’s story, they sit in the dark and worry about what will happen next out here in the proverbial middle of nowhere. By now, you’re anticipating what does happen, triggered by the arrival of the stranger, here named Mick (John Jarratt), literally emerging from the pitch-black night, his truck coughing and clunking. Mick offers a tow to his garage where he says he can fix their engine. Uneasy but chiding themselves for being so, these 20somethings go along, trying not to make fun of their “colorful” host, who describes himself as a former kangaroo hunter (“I was doing people a service really, by shooting them. There’s kangaroos all over the place… like tourists”) and is not above making fun of the famous Crocodile Dundee line about what constitutes a “real” knife in the outback.
Apparently a student of classic horror and slasher movies, from Wes Craven and John Carpenter’s grisly early work to Kubrick’s elegant Shining, writer-director Greg McLean builds a context for unbelievable violence by any number of ostensibly mundane, potentially resonant details, from the sexist “morons” they run into at a bar to Kristy’s question about the random creation of the crater: “Wonder why the meteor hit here, in this place, and nowhere else.” Ben’s response is at once meaningless and a little chilling: “Maybe it was drawn to something in the earth, like when lightning strikes.” Perhaps everything is random, perhaps nothing.
Just so, Mick’s assault on the travelers is unfathomable. And once it begins, it continues straight through to film’s distressing end, with one horrific act after another. Following an evening round a campfire, Liz wakes to find herself tied, gagged, and bloodied in a shed, having been drugged and dragged from her friends. Her struggle to survive, even to save Kristy, whom she discovers being tortured by Mick in another building, tied to a post as he swaggers toward her with clicking rifle and unzipped pants.
Liz looks to be the plucky last girl here, game and determined as Kristy is understandably hysterical. When Liz comes on a collection of snapshots and video footage of pervious victims (and Ben’s own tape, made during a gas station stop on the road), she realizes what you have no doubt guessed, that she’s dealing with a serial killer, with focus and plans for abuse, murder, and exacting pleasure from his demonic dementia (in particular, he plies a torture he’s learned from the Vietnam war, called “head on a stick”). As they are most certainly far from “civilization,” Liz has no recourse to phones or even passing cars, though she and Kristy will pursue this potential route to rescue, granting the film the expected targeting, driving, running, and screaming. Lots of all that.
To its credit, Wolf Creek respects its sources, in particular Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With plot predictable by definition, it denies context except as other films of its ilk. The victims become monstrous to fight their abductor. The monster plods on, incessant, cruel, ordinary.