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ScreamFest Reviews: Wolf Creek (2005)

Attended the Screamfest screening of WOLF CREEK last night. This is the Aussie film that supposedly has generated a bit of a buzz because the Weinstein Company (run by the Weinstein brothers, who are famous for picking up independent films and turning them into sleeper hits) bought the distribution rights at Sundance Film Festival and plan to have the film in theatres in January.

Fortunately, the situation at Screamfest was quite a bit improved over Saturday. There was no unwanted noise from the projection booth, and the film unspooled without any of the annoying technical problems that undermined the presentation of BUNSHISABA/OUIJA BOARD.

Still, the festival was running late (which appears to be the norm). So before going inside, those of us waiting for the film were invited to wander over to the Tu Tu Tango Restaurant, where our ticket stubs entitled us to free margaritas. These were made with an interesting brand of tequila called Tarantula Azul (“the official spirit of Screamfest Films Festival 2005”), which (as its name implies) is blue. The resulting concoction was quite a bit sweeter than what most people probably expect from a margarita – unless you favor the fruit-flavored variations like Strawberry and Watermelon.

As for the movie itself, WOLF CREEK seems designed to convince us that traveling the Australian outback is every bit as dangerous as exploring the plains of Texas – essentially, it’s a remake of the original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, right down to the title card claiming it is based on a true story.

The story follows a trio (two girls and a guy) taking a long ride to Sydney. In the middle of nowhere, they stop at Wolf Creek, site of an ancient meteor strike, but their used car won’t start. A friendly gent (who initially resembles Crocodile Dundee on steroids) shows up and offers to help, but you just know things are going to turn out bad. And they do. Really, really bad.

Although it never matches the unrelenting intensity of its model, writer-producer-director Greg McLean’s film is in some ways better than CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The long first act that establishes the character’s and situations is actually very entertaining — long before the horror strikes, you’re totally involved with the film, which seeks to establish a genuine audience identification with its protagonists before putting them in harm’s way. Let’s call this the “Lamb to the Slaughter” approach to filmmaking.

The result is that the movie is not a pleasant thrill ride, nor a goofy gorefest. Having established a convincing sense of verisimilitude, with its hand-held camera work and grainy images, the movie is intentionally unpleasant and harrowing once the horror kicks in. The overall effect is grim and gruesome, albeit not especially graphic by modern horror standards.

The film has more a bit more than unendurable agony going for it. The story plays an interesting narrative trick, splitting the protagonists up after they’ve been captured and showing us what happened to them in more or less sequential order, instead of intercutting between them. Let’s call this the “Three Little Pigs Approach”.

The difference, of course, is that the Grimm fairy tale had a point: you don’t identify with the first two pigs who get killed; you identify with the third one, who survives because he is smarter. In effect, the two victims are just dramatic devices that serve to illustrate the moral of the story, which is frightening (to children at least) but not traumatic, because it provides a soothing sort of catharsis when the third little pig survives.

Well, you ain’t gonna get that here. Dramatic resolutions and catharsis are just too comforting for this kind of film, which exists purely to put you the viewer through the ringer for an hour and a half and then send you back into the real world, presumably shell-shocked. I might be able to forgive this if McLean had pulled it off with total effectiveness, but the movie simply winds down to an anti-climactic finish that felt so bogus I kept expecting him to pull a twist, say it was all a dream, and show the survivor back in the killer’s clutches again.

That said, the film is far more effective than this year’s other CHAINSAW clone, HOUSE OF WAX — an opinion confirmed by listening in to audience conversations after the film was over. I also got perhaps more insight than I need into what the audience for this kind of film is looking for. There was quite an enthusiastic discussion about how effective was the scene wherein one unfortunate character loses a few fingers to the sweeping blade of a knife, before having the spinal cord severed (a technique the film dubs “head on a stick” because it paralyzes the victim). “They had a really good sound effect for that,” one appreciative viewer mumbled.

(Which reminds me: What is it with severed fingers — which seem to be the gross-out of choice this year? One was snipped in WAX MASK. Three are chopped and ground in a blender in “Cut,” the second episode of THREE EXTREMES, which screened on Saturday at Screamfest. And now this.)

In the end, WOLF CREEK is not quite the gem its supporters claim. For all its efforts at avoiding the usual slasher movie nonsense, it does fall back on some familiar, lame plot devices: the characters neglect to finish off the psycho killer when the briefly get the upper hand midway through; later, he pops up in the back seat of a car as if he’s been lying in wait –even though there’s no way he could have known his victim would have chose that particular car. This is not enough to undercut the overall effectiveness of McLean’s film, but in spite of the Weinstein Company outlay for the U.S. distribution rights (reportedly $3-million), I can’t imagine this becoming anything more than a cult film in America, beloved by the sort of audience that championed THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and/or HIGH TENSION.

The Screamfest Film Festival continues through Sunday at Universal Studios Cinemas. Highlights include a screening of the unrated version of LAND OF THE DEAD on Thursday, October 20.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a couple of people say that WOLF CREEK is coming out next month, but both IMDB and Moviefone.Com confirm that the release date is set for January next year. At this point, the official Wolf Creek movie website has nothing but a Flash-generated teaser telling us how many people go missing in Australia each year and are never found, followed by the words, “Coming Soon.” Hardly sounds as if the release is primed and ready to go anytime soon.