Welcome to the Mick Taylor Cooking Show
The object of this kind of film is purely to scare the crap out of the audience.
—Greg McLean, “The Making of Wolf Creek”
I had to be Mick from the time I started to the time I wrapped. I had to have Mick about me, because John Jarratt just couldn’t get there. I had to stay in his little callous mind.
—John Jarratt, “The Making of Wolf Creek”
Now that, that’s for fuckin’ wreckin’ my fuckin’ truck, you bitch!
—Mick (John Jarratt)
“We kind of realized that it should feel like a sort of postcard-grab of moments into these people’s lives as opposed to full kind of scenes.” Writer-director Greg McLean talks in this ambiguous, opening-out manner, his language allowing for possibilities and nuance, or maybe just uncertainty, as he describes the opening scenes in his Wolf Creek. As he points out which scenes were improvised (“I wish I could take credit for the dialogue [in one scene], but I didn’t write it”) or put together with stock footage (a beach scene shows close-ups of actors, a wide shot of a different beach), he’s not only open about budget limits and formal choices, he also lays out a creative process, informed by chance and design.
Commenting for the “unrated edition” DVD, along with executive producer Matt Hearn and actors Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi, former art student/painter McLean remembers as well scenes that were cut from the theatrical version (say, a “cute little scene” where it’s clear that Liz [McGrath] and Ben [Nathan Phillips] have had a night together, unnecessarily complicating “the main storyline”). While the actors tend to remember that scenes were “fun” or how they made up songs for driving sequences, McLean and Hearn focus more closely on editing strategies and historical backgrounds (UFO sightings, locations, narrative planning), as well as details about how they achieved certain remarkable shots (for instance, the ominous wide, wide-angley-looking shots, taken from a portable tower they devised, and could set up in a four or five minutes).
The film they’re describing is more than a little horrific. Based on “actual events” (specifically, the “Backpacker Murders,” seven committed between 1989 and 1992), Wolf Creek sets up with sketches of its three victims to be. 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 first appears as he purchases a rickety station wagon from a sleazy salesman, who imagines the boy’s purposes: “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.”
The “they” in the salesman’s formulation are the two girls Ben picks up, Liz and Kristy (Morassi). On summer vacation, the girls (from England) and Ben (from Sidney) decide 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 fireside story about UFO sighting; 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.
Back at the car, the travelers discover their watches have stopped and the car is dead. Spooked by the similarity to Ben’s UFO 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 parodies the famous Crocodile Dundee line about what constitutes a “real” knife in the outback.
As McLean describes this setup in “The Making of Wolf Creek,” he poses a basic question: “What would it be like to be struck in this incredibly isolated place with the most evil character you could possibly imagine, who was also distinctly Australian?” He describes this “iconically Australian bad guy” as a combination of Australia’s most famous exports—Dundee and Steve Irwin—twisted up with “the much darker people who have been in the press a lot for the past 10 years,” that is, serial killers.
A student of classic horror and slasher movies, from Wes Craven and John Carpenter’s grisly early work to Kubrick’s elegant Shining, McLean sets up builds a context for Mick’s violence by any number of ostensibly mundane, potentially resonant details, from the sexist “morons” they run into at a bar (who asks Ben if the girls might be available for a “gang bang”) 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 chilling: “Maybe it was drawn to something in the earth, like when lightning strikes.” Perhaps everything is random, perhaps nothing.
Mick’s assault on the travelers seems 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. As Mclean says during the group commentary track, “Basically, from the moment that we wake up, the film switches to Liz’s point of view and essentially the audience becomes what Liz sees until we get back into escaping the shed.” This extremely limited perspective is aptly unnerving: she gets out of her shed, hears Kristy screaming in another one, and then peers inside, where she sees Liz tortured by Mick, tied to a post as he swaggers toward her with clicking rifle and unzipped pants. (This is, as McLean notes, one of two “walk-out spots” in the movie, when audience members decide this film is not for them.)
In the making-of piece, Jarratt describes the project (“the best script I’d ever read, full-stop”) and his process of getting “into” Mick. Jarratt says, “When I first read it and knew the depths that I had to go to, and there’s nothing nice about this guy at all, I just wondered what sort of strange place I had to go to to get inside of this character.” (Hearn says Jarratt didn’t bathe for six or seven weeks before the shoot, in order to establish Mick’s depravity.) As Mick both embodies and challenges “the character of the Outback,” so strange and beautiful, frighteningly free and also trapped inside his sense of ritual and seeming primal needs, he’s both a cliché and an utter enigma.
As Liz observes Mick’s assault, McLean notes the absolute counterpoints provided by Mick and Kristy, two characters who can only not know one another. Or so it seems. The great horror of Wolf Creek lies in the victims’ transformation, their efforts to survive by becoming their tormentor. Liz looks to be the plucky last girl, game and determined as Kristy is understandably hysterical. Liz’s brief victory—she grabs hold of a gun, shoots Mick, then whomps him with the barrel—only prolongs the journey, by which the victims must become their other.
Liz comes on a collection of snapshots and video footage of pervious victims (which Hearn mentions are all photos of “family and friends,” making the scene especially “creepy” for the crew to watch) and Ben’s own tape, made during a gas station stop, now so distant and lost. At this point, she realizes that she’s dealing with a serial killer, with focus and careful 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,” a description that underlines that his awfulness is not his alone, but representative, following and produced by a long history of torture and atrocity.
At the same time, Wolf Creek recovers another sort of history, in terms of other films of its ilk. The victims become monstrous to fight back, a transformation justified and also appalling. As one of several recent horror films that exact emotional tolls for watching them (including Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes), Wolf Creek displays the banality of the monster as well as his eeriness. As McLean puts it, “How do you humanize the face of a psychopath? It’s more chilling if you give the audience a moment with him alone. When you cut to a close-up of him after that [brutal murder], you’re wondering what could possibly go through someone’s mind after doing that kind of stuff. And I’m not quite sure what John finally ended up doing, but it was to do with seeing Mick consider the result of his action.”
That layering of contemplation—Mick’s and yours—is almost unspeakably unnerving. You’re not sharing his perspective, but you do see it.