Nothing screams “holiday cheer” like a movie about a serial killer terrorizing tourists in the Australian outback.
But ho ho ho, here comes “Wolf Creek,” amid all the high-volume family films and high-minded Oscar contenders. (This is what we call “alternative programming.”)
The feature debut from writer-director Greg McLean will serve as a gift, though, to fans of ’70s-style slasher flicks, who’ve already been treated this year to Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” and the French “High Tension.”
The revitalization of the genre continues to go global with “Wolf Creek” and its no-name actors, bleached-out setting and utter lack of irony. The young people who become the film’s eventual victims don’t do stupid things simply for the sake of furthering the story, there’s no gratuitous nudity and the characters don’t joke about the fact that they know they’re in an ideal horror-movie setting.
They do what real people do, which makes the film even more unsettling in its realism: They go on vacation, become stranded in the middle of nowhere and rely hesitantly on the kindness of a stranger who offers help but has harm in mind. (Supposedly, “Wolf Creek” is based on actual events.)
Ben (Nathan Phillips), Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) enjoy one last night of partying with their mates on the beach before heading out on a journey to see the meteor crater at Wolf Creek National Park.
(Apparently the rules for movie road trips apply internationally. They pack up their motley travel belongings in an old, beat-up station wagon, take two-lane back roads to reach their destination and stop at a run-down gas station populated by creepy locals along the way. Oh, and they sing in the car, too.)
McLean vividly captures the vast bleakness of the beautiful but unforgiving terrain. And as soon as the trio pulls up to the site, where a sign warns them that it’s a three-hour hike to the crater, you know they’re in for trouble.
The tension builds slowly as the friends explore the scenery — no cheap scares or doom-laden music — and the actors have an easy camaraderie that makes you believe they’ve known each other for a while. When two of them kiss for the first time after harboring a long-standing secret interest in each other, the moment is awkwardly sweet.
Once they return to where they’ve parked, they find that their watches have stopped working and the car’s battery has died. As the skies grow darker and the night drags on, they become understandably frustrated and a little scared.
Enter Mick (John Jarratt), the uber-Aussie, dressed in cargo shorts and dropping the native slang. He has a tow truck and offers to bring them back to his ranch where he says he has a part to fix the car. He seems jovial and folksy enough, and they have no other options, so why not?
After passing out in front of the campfire at Mick’s ramshackle place and waking up in dire straits the next morning, the threesome realizes too late that they shouldn’t have been so trusting.
“Wolf Creek” has a brutally sadistic, misogynistic streak, even for a slasher flick, and some moments are incredibly difficult to watch both for what they show and for what they imply. Mick is a former animal hunter in the outback who now preys on people, like some crazed Crocodile Dundee.
The ending provides little satisfaction for the tortures you’ve just witnessed — unless you like the idea of a sequel, which is heavily suggested, and which theoretically could be ready in time to serve as a stocking stuffer for next Christmas.