Welcome to the very 1st edition of Horror Down Under, a new column series in which I review horror films from my home country of Australia. One of the main reasons why I created this column is that compared to other countries around the world, I always felt that Australia has been very underappreciated in what it has brought to the world of horror. Now I’m not just saying that because I’m an Aussie myself, I legitimately believe that Australian horror films need to recognised more to what they have contributed to the genre. So the purpose of this column will be that it will act as a showcase for various horror related film projects that has been made Australia in hopes that it will get you interested in checking them out for yourself. I’ll be reviewing a wide range of Aussie horror films of various quality from the excellent to the terrible, the all time classics to the completely forgotten, etc. For this very first one I decided to review a film that not only is it my all time favourite Australian horror film, it’s also a film that practicality revitalised the genre here in Australia: writer/director Greg McLean’s 2005 true life inspired slasher film WOLF CREEK…
SCRIPT: Greg McLean
CAST: John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips.
PLOT: Three backpackers stranded in the Australian outback are befriended by a local who turns out to be a sadistic psychopath and will plunge them into a hellish nightmare of insufferable torture.
If you asked any Australian what their favourite Aussie horror film would be, I guarantee you that the first answer would be WOLF CREEK. If you have seen the film, it’s not hard to understand why that is. Before the film was released in 2015, Australian horror films were basically dead at the cinema. Sure there were some still being made but they were few and far between and they sadly a lot of them didn’t do well either critically or commercially. When WOLF CREEK was finally released in Australia after being played at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, it became an instant box office hit that was praised from both Aussie critics and audiences. Although when he film was released in the rest of the world, the reaction was definitely mixed to negative (legendary critic Roger Ebert gave the film a ZERO star rating in his review and it’s one of the only few films to receive a F rating from Cinema Score). While I definitely understood the negative reaction that he film has received but for me personally, I think it’s one of the best horror films made in this century so far. When I first saw the film back in 2005, it absolutely floored me. Seriously while I was watching it, my heart was pounding in my chest the entire time over how terrifying it was. I’ve seen the film many times over the years and it’s still just as intense today as it was when it came out 12 years ago. There’s a lot of reasons why I think the film works as well as it does overall and I believe it’s all due to one man: writer/director Greg McLean, who made his directional debut with this film.
On his first try out in the director’s chair, Greg McLean crafted a truly terrifying, intense, and disturbing horror film that in my honest opinion ranks up there with the classic survival horror films of the ’70s like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Just like that horror masterpiece, McLean used two horrifying real life crimes that happened in Australia (the Ivan Milat murders and the murder of Peter Falconio) as inspiration to how he approached both the film’s story and villain. In fact one of the film’s most shocking moments (the infamous ‘head on a stick’ scene) was based on something that serial killer Ivan Milat actually did to his victims, which added another disturbing layer to the film. That’s one of the things what I always really loved about the film is that instead of taking a very mainstream approach as most horror were doing at the time, McLean took it in the opposite direction by making it as gritty and grounded as possible. Instead of letting the action happen right away, McLean takes his time to set up the story/characters so that when the horror finally hits (exactly 50 minutes into film), it has more of an impact. Plus his script even subvert our expectations by giving us some surprising and unconventional plot turns that we don’t see coming. As a filmmaker McLean does an equally fantastic job with his direction here as well. The semi-doco style approach that he gives the film’s visual look was really effective. At times you almost feel like a voyeur as you’re watching everything unfold. Especially in the 2nd act, which was superbly executed in both tension and dread. The violence in particular, while not too gory, was presented in such a believable way that you can’t help but be completely disturbed by what you are seeing.
Another thing that McLean does extremely well as a director is that he knows how to get strong turns from his cast. The film’s main leads Cassandra McGrath (‘Liz’), Kestie Morassi (‘Kristy’) and Nathan Phillips (‘Ben’) each give a great performances in their respective roles. I found their characters to be very likeable and onscreen chemistry with each other felt very believable (most of their dialogue was actually improvised, which I think added a lot to their performances). So once the horror begins, we’re genuinely frightened for these characters and we care about what happens to them. For me personally the stand out was definitely Kestie Morassi, who gave the most psychically and emotionally demanding turn of the three. Especially during the ‘Shed’ scene, which she made really hard to watch during how unflinchingly raw her performance was. However, despite the three lead’s impressive work, the film really belongs to John Jarrat. His performance as ‘Mick Tayor’ is without a doubt one of the most sickest and terrifying characters ever put on film. It’s very clear that director McLean and Jarratt wanted to subvert the CROCODILE DUNDEE style bushman character that a lot of people associate with when they think of Australia. The gave us a character who at first is friendly and funny but as the film goes along, we see his true horrifying nature. Jarrat portrays both of these aspects of ‘Mick Taylor’ brilliantly and he’s a true force of nature when he is onscreen. What’s funny is that even though Jarrat is a veteran actor who started in many Aussie films throughout the ’70s to the ’90s but when I was growing up, I only knew him as the likeable host of the Aussie gardening show BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS. So seeing him play a character as terrifying and vile as ‘Mick Taylor’ was a shock to the system to me. It really is an amazing performance that I wished was recognised more by the horror community.
On the technical front, one of the biggest highlight of the film is the cinematography by Will Gibson (who sadly passed away after shooting this film and director Greg McLean’s follow-up sophomore effort ROGUE). His work in this film is absolutely terrific and it’s definitely one of the most visually stunning horror films I’ve ever seen. Gibson captures the eerie and isolated landscape of the Aussie outback perfectly. In a lot of ways the landscape almost acts like another character in the film. He shoots it both equally beautiful and dirty. Another aspect that I loved was François Tétaz’s creepy and haunting score. The music that composed for this film isn’t the traditional type of score that you would expect to hear in a horror film but that’s what makes it work effectively due to the unconventional nature of it. Now you’re probably wondering if I had any problems with the film? I must admit that I don’t really have that many due to how very minor they are but there is one flaw in particular that I found very annoying and it’s something that happens in every horror film: the character’s making really stupid mistakes. Usually it wouldn’t bother me that much in most horror films but since this one strives to be as grounded and believable as possible, it sticks out a lot more when it does happen. There were a couple of times where I was very frustrated with the characters for the idiotic decisions they made.
Overall while WOLF CREEK is a film that won’t be for everyone (I know quite a few people who hate it for either being too slow or too violent) but when I think of great Australian horror films, this is the very first one that I think of. It truly is an absolutely fantastic horror film that’s definitely earned its status as an Aussie film classic regardless of its genre. It’s impact caused a resurgence of Australian horror films in the years following its release, opened the door for Greg McLean as a major filmmaker in the horror genre (his latest directorial effort THE BELKO EXPERIMENT has just been released in cinemas) and even spawned itself a successful franchise that includes a hit 2014 released sequel, prequel novels and even a well received T.V. series. Plus the character of ‘Mick Taylor’ definitely deserves his place alongside Freddy, Michael, and Jason as iconic horror villain. If you’re someone who has an interest in or hasn’t probably explored Australian horror, I definitely recommend WOLF CREEK as the first one to check out. Hopefully you’ll see and understand why it’s considered by my country as one of the best horror films we’ve ever produced.