- Just in time: Somewhere for horror fans to go during the holidays.
For everyone else, strong caution is advised. This is a brutal tale, with no disposable characters or cartoonish boogeymen. The Joe Bob Briggs Rule -- anyone can die at any time -- is strictly adhered to. But the film's descent into hell is, as in life, a gradual one. Half an hour has elapsed before our main antagonist arrives, and another half-hour before he shows his true colors. By that time, our heroes are screwed, and you've been suckered into caring about them. Let the carnage begin.
Things begin rather unfortunately, with some boring, sub-MTV Spring Break scenes of partying and a shaven-headed, freshly tattooed fellow by the name of Ben (Nathan Phillips) renting a car with which to drive into the Australian outback. The car is a problem right from the start, but Ben doesn't think to take the extra insurance. His companions are two fine English lasses, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi). Both think Ben's hot (despite his insistence on doing terrible impersonations of Darth Vader and Captain Kirk), but he claims to have a girlfriend waiting for him in Sydney. Nonetheless, Kristy graciously agrees to let Liz be the one to put the moves on him, if anyone's going to.
Their destination is Wolf Creek, where there don't seem to be any wolves, but there is a large crater, and, as Kristy eloquently puts it, "There's poo everywhere! Yea! We're on the poo planet!" (critics of Wolf Creek will pounce on lines such as those). In addition, the crater appears to generate electromagnetic pulses, so everybody's watches stop, and the car dies. And none of them has a cell phone or even mentions one -- not that one would work, even if they did. Nobody's around for miles. Oops.
Then, in the middle of the night, up drives Mick (Picnic at Hanging Rock's John Jarratt), a wisecracking type who seems as if he might be right at home assisting Steve Irwin in a crocodile-wrestling match. (Ben hammers home this point with another of his "hilarious" impersonations, of "Crocodile Dundee" Paul Hogan.) Mick doesn't look threatening -- he even seems endearing -- so our three vacationers take him up on his offer for a tow and repair. Back at his place, they get to drinking and telling tales around the campfire. Then Liz wakes up to find herself bound, gagged, and locked in a shed. Things go way downhill from there.
Jarratt is excellent as Mick. Too many characters like him tend to be so obvious in their intentions that you'd wonder how anyone could be stupid enough to trust them (think R. Lee Ermey in the Texas Chainsaw remake). But Mick seems like a guy you'd want to have a beer with; heck, he could probably win elections. But when he turns torturer, you believe that too.
Shot on high-def, the movie looks fantastic -- a very auspicious debut for director of photography Will Gibson. Night actually looks like night, which is rare onscreen, and the Australian deserts look immense, beautiful, and intimidating. Editor Jason Ballantine needs some minor chastising, though: There's a chase sequence where it's not entirely clear if we're watching one vehicle or two, at least until the very end; some cleaner cutting could have helped. There's also a moment when a character discovers a videotape that would seem to implicate a conspirator of Mick's . . . but then it doesn't, and it's dropped.
Writer-director Greg McLean, who has many shorts and commercials under his belt, makes a significant feature debut here, with unapologetic horror that doesn't compromise. Perhaps there ought to have been a more cathartic climax, but he's probably saving that for the sequel.