Reviews

Wolf Creek: Widescreen Unrated Edition (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

Greg McLean 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?'"


Wolf Creek: Widescreen Unrated Edition

Director: Greg McLean
Cast: Nathan Phillips, Kestie Morassi, Cassandra Magrath, John Jarratt
Studio: Weinstein
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2006-04-11
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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