Moira Macdonald of The Seattle Times walked out of Wolf Creek but reviewed it anyway, in the form of an editorial explaining why it was not worth reviewing. Roger Ebert dusted off his zero-star review, denouncing the film as something that he could not sit through "without dismay." Other critics have responded similarly. Ok, fine. But my question is this: why does it cause less dismay for these critics to sit through comedies like the Friday the 13th and Scream films, which make sight gags of slashed-up bodies, heads crushed like walnuts and popped-out eyeballs? Consider this tidbit from Ebert's review of a recent Michael Myers film: "There is a scene in the movie where a kid drops a corkscrew down a garbage disposal.....I am thinking, if this kid doesn't lose his hand, I want my money back." No dismay there. The key stylistic change between that film and Wolf Creek is that in Wolf Creek, death is not played for laughs. The characters are not glaring stereotypes, and the audience is primed to take their potential torture and death seriously. The director wants you to be legitimately scared or to cry, as some people around me in the theater were doing, when the carnage begins. So, why is that no longer a legitimate aim of horror cinema? Why is writer/director Greg McLean being castigated for doing his job effectively?
To back up a bit, Wolf Creek is an Australian production that was self-evidently financed for a song, with five or six speaking parts and no sets to speak of. The plot could fit on a post-it: three teenagers encounter a homicidal Crocodile Dundee during a sight-seeing trip in Who Knows Where, Australia. There's an opening credit statement about the story being based on this or that true event, but it has no gravity since we've been fooled before. Thank the Coens. Director McLean opens the show by plunging us into a drunken revelry, with college-age hooligans splashing down drinks and jumping headlong into a swimming pool – this is how Aussies say goodbye, apparently. Good old bloke Ben (Nathan Phillips), impressively-chested Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and thin-lipped brunette Liz (Cassandra McGrath) are being seen off on a long excursion. They are traveling by car to a national landmark - an enormous crater with a circumference that stretches more than a few city blocks. The director has given no clues by this point (except for the ominous opening statement) that danger is afoot, which is to his credit. There's nothing worse than a horror film that feels compelled to extend one long note of creepiness from start to finish. It's much scarier when it sneaks up on you.
I'll keep the spoiling to a minimum and tell you that the car will break down and the three heroes will unwisely accept a ride to a remote farmhouse. At least one of them will be captured, bound and subjected to a routine of pitiless psychological and physical torture that includes having a rifle fired near their head and being told convincingly that they are about to be raped and killed. There's a lot of screaming in the film, and it hits our ears as authentic because it doesn't dissipate in time to allow other characters to speak. Stepping on each others' lines is always a good trick for actors, and in this case it adds to the effectiveness of a couple of scenes. There's also some begging and some unwanted sexual interplay between the kidnapper/torturer and victim, which is what I imagine goes on between kidnapper/torturers and their victims, so it doesn't really seem appropriate to put the director in the dock for allowing it into the film. Is it the scent of misogyny that has ruffled the feathers of the critics so much, or is it the issue of psychological torture in general? There's not a big tradition in mainstream American horror films of psychological pain inflicted on victims - it's seen as something akin to unsportsmanlike conduct.
Victims in a typical American slasher film will stumble around in the dark for a while, opening closets and backing into darkened rooms until they finally get a knife in the back. Then it's on to the next one. There are always at least four or five characters lined up to be butchered in such films, probably to avoid a fixation on one particular victim and the natural discomfort that crops up when we are asked to focus on one character's suffering. American slasher victims are also aggressively devoid of any personality, so much so that their eventual retirement from the story is a non-event. They didn't exist before and they don't exist after. Wolf Creek, probably by being foreign-made, is refreshingly free of these studio-enforced conventions. Its characters are very slight, but they don't actively fight our attempts to see them as plausible human beings. They don't speak in one-liners. What you get is a film that is ninety percent chase-and-escape and ten percent vomit-inducing violence. It makes an honest attempt to scare us, which is no more morally reprehensible than a comedy that tries to make us laugh. I wish the critics who have been so quick to upbraid the makers of this film would do a better job of explaining what makes it so much more unpalatable to them than the typical plate of slasher piffle dished out every summer.