In October 1993, the bodies of two British tourists were found buried under twigs and ferns in an area of Australia's Belanglo State Forest known as "Executioner's Drop." After an extensive search by authorities, an additional five bodies were discovered -- all had been travelers just passing through. Each had been systematically tortured before being murdered; one body was even found decapitated. After an intensive investigation and a round-up of potential suspects in the area, the real killer was apprehended: Australian outbacker Ivan Milat was convicted of all seven deaths, and today he remains sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Milat's crimes became known as the "Backpacker Murders," and in 2005 -- in hopes of creating an "Australian boogeyman" -- independent filmmaker Greg McLean turned them into a movie. "Executioner's Drop" became 'Wolf Creek,' Ivan Milat became "Mick Taylor" (played by John Jarrett), and McLean reduced the number of potential victims to three young, photogenic tourists Liz (Cassandra Magrath), Kestie (Kristy Earl) and Nathan (Ben Mitchell). Shooting entirely in HD and giving the film a 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' meets 'Blair Witch Project' authenticity, McClean turned a mere $1 million budget into a minor indie sensation. 'Wolf Creek' earned a Grand Jury Prize nod at Sundance, and grossed nearly $20 million at the domestic box office. Pretty impressive for a low-budget Australian horror film.
Unfortunately, I had heard so much about 'Wolf Creek' prior to seeing it -- much of it breathless praise (including Quentin Tarantino proclaiming it "the scariest movie I've ever seen!") -- that I was left utterly underwhelmed. Was I wrong to expect more than just another bunch of hoary horror movie cliches and conventions, this time with an Australian accent? More than just a "Crocodile Dundee meets Leatherface" mad slasher? More than just the stupidest characters doing the stupidest things I've ever seen in a horror movie?
Despite all the buzz, and the now-obligatory "Based on a True Story" phooey, it is surprising how little McLean delves into the real-life story of Milat. Indeed, this kind of material, though certainly unpleasant and difficult, can make for compelling, humane and honorable filmmaking. Just look at 'The Silence of the Lambs,' a film that I'm still shocked today's horror directors haven't learned more from. Visceral, frightening and certainly gory enough, 'Lambs' was also literate, compelling, dramatic and even transcendent. It, too, exploited the notoriety of a real-life serial killer (Ed Gein, whose crimes also inspired 'Psycho' and the 'Chainsaw' franchise), but it also explored the motivations behind his madness and took seriously the impact of his deeds. The same can't be said for boring, sadistic "torture" films like 'Wolf Creek,' which gives its Mick (despite a spirited performance by Jarrett) nothing to do but glare at his victims, make vulgar Freddy Krueger quips, and cut off fingers. ' 'Hostel' and the recent remake of 'The Hills Have Eyes' are two other recent offenders, both simply copying the look, feel and "hardcore" aesthetic of the '70s American horror film, but without the soul. 'Wolf Creek' and its ilk may get the grist and the grue right, but because they are not "about" anything, they are about as incisive as a blunt butter knife.
Before you call me a moralistic old fogey, let it be said I'm a huge horror fan, having grown up feasting on all the modern classics of the genre. I stand behind even the most unpleasant and notorious of the '70s exploitation entries, including the original 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'The Hills Have Eyes' and 'The Last House on the Left.' But those films did more than just rip open the envelope of onscreen violence and sadism. They were composed, intelligent and ultimately legitimate (if crude and cheap) responses to the sanitized vision of violence Hollywood was still churning out post-Vietnam. Whatever their faults, their makers had a real passion to say something about the human capacity for cruelty and our culture's apathy towards it. It is also fundamental to note that even in a film as reviled as 'Last House on the Left,' death was never seen as funny, trivial or convenient. There are moments in those old '70s horror filcks that are as cringe-inducing as any ever seen in cinema, but they were put there for a reason -- not just to outshock and outgross their latest competitor in the drive-in sweepstakes.
Upon its release, 'Wolf Creek' inspired controversy over what some deemed its inherent misogyny. I personally don't think McLean expresses a hatred of women in the images he created -- instead I think he projects a conscious indifference towards their intelligence and resourcefulness in the hopes of subverting genre expectations. Who is going to live and die is pretty obvious by now in these types of movies, but 'Wolf Creek' tries not to stick so slavishly to these rules, and for that reason I can see why some may have found it if not terrifying than at least shocking.
Unfortunately, the fact these characters are absolutely the dumbest I can remember seeing in a horror film doesn't help engender sympathy for them. I personally found myself cheering the killer on -- not because I get off on men torturing women, but because I just wanted the movie to be over with. I won't ruin the movie's many "surprises," but there are several points in 'Wolf Creek' where the movie would have been over in an instant, if McLean had not turned his characters into blubbering idiots with an unconscious death wish (at the theatrical screening I saw, someone behind me yelled out, "Do these dumb bitches want to die!?") If 'Wolf Creek' is truly offensive in any way, it is because as a film that is supposed to condemn the evil acts of a Ivan Milat, it instead only serves to make those he killed look like they deserved it.
As one of four titles in the Weinstein Co./Genius Products HD DVD launch wave, 'Wolf Creek' comes to high-def in its Unrated form, featuring five minutes of additional gruesome footage as well as a deleted narrative scene edited back into the feature.
But before we discuss picture quality, I have to report a technical glitch I encountered while trying to boot up the disc. Even with the latest firmware upgrade for my Toshiba HD-XA1, my copy of the 'Wolf Creek' HD DVD just chugged and chugged (and chugged) for over a minute before it would finally play. Access times for the disc's pre-movie content (FBI warning, etc.) also stopped and stuttered for what seemed like forever. I took the disc out of the player two more times and tried again, just to see if it was a temporary glitch, but no luck. While the disc did eventually play, I have no idea why access times were so damn clunky (note that I've had no such problems with other Weinstein discs, such as 'Scary Movie 4').
On to the picture quality, which is unfortunately somewhat limited by its source material. Shot in 1.78:1 HD, director Greg McLean manages a fairly effective gritty-'70s look-meets-'Blair Witch'-style handheld digital visual style. Darker scenes look "grainy" in the shadows (aka, expect some video noise), with colors noticeably less vibrant than even low-quality 35mm film. Though some of the outback sunsets have a nice, burnt orange hue and the interiors of Mick's house of horrors boast robust blues and greens, don't expect to be wowed by the color purity on this one. Blacks are consistent for the most part (only some of the early, endless character-exposition scenes have a slightly washed-out, overt video-esque appearance), with contrast a bit on the hot side. As with 'Blair Witch,' whites bloom and blur, which doesn't aid detail. Still, many moments in 'Wolf Creek' have that you-are-there shot-on-HD clarity, and sharpness is above average for a shot-on-digital feature. I wouldn't pull out 'Wolf Creek' as demo material, but it is a strong transfer of low-budget source material.
Like all of the Weinstein HD DVD launch titles, the packaging for 'Wolf Creek' indicates only "Dolby 5.1,' but a full Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track is also included on the disc. That doesn't help 'Wolf Creek' that much, though, because the film's sound design is (intentionally) sparse and subdued.
As with the visuals, the filmmakers again downplay the bright, cheerful and bouncy with the soundtrack. Surrounds are rarely active for the first half of the film. It is only after we enter Mick's lair that some very creepy discrete sounds emerge -- indeed, I haven't heard such spine-tingling uses of scraped metal, revving motors and nature sounds since the first time I entered Freddy Krueger's boiler room back in 1984's 'A Nightmare on Elm Street.' 'Wolf Creek's "score" is also about as minimal as it gets, so natural sounds are really what drive the film's atmosphere. The track's timbre and clarity is impressive, however; I honestly expected a lot worse from a low-budget indie, such as fake ADR and lots of shrill effects. But dynamic range is solid and low bass reasonably strong. Rather good stuff, really.
'Wolf Creek' came to standard-def DVD with a pretty good assortment of extras, all of which are carried over to this HD DVD release. Nothing amazing here, but Weinstein should be commended for giving this one more attention than most low-budget horror films receive these days.
The two main extras serve to compliment each other, although they do overlap a bit. Both the audio commentary with director Greg McLean, executive producer Matt Hearn and stars Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi, and the surprisingly comprehensive "The Making Of 'Wolf Creek'" (which runs nearly 60 minutes), focus on the trials and tribulations of producing a feature film on location for under $1 million. I personally preferred the documentary, because the wealth of behind-the-scenes footage is simply more interesting than hearing the same information spoken in audio form over the movie. Regardless, McLean emerges as the star of both -- I hoped for far more from the actors on both the doc and especially the commentary. Magrath and Morassi add little more than sporadic bursts of "Ohh, that was scary!" and praise for their fellow castmates. If nothing else, there certainly didn't seem to be any claims of misogyny on-set -- everyone seems like they and a great time making this very dark and depressing film. If you don't want to spend nearly three hours behind the scenes down at 'Wolf Creek,' then I would just go with the doc.
Other extras include one brief Deleted Scene, amusingly titled "G'Day," plus the film's Original Theatrical Trailer presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and 480p video.
I love horror movies, but I'm sorry to say I laughed all the way through 'Wolf Creek.' I guess I've just about run out of patience for stupid characters doing stupid things in torture flicks. But if you're new to the genre you might be scared by 'Wolf Creek,' and this Unrated version should definitely satisfy gore fans. As one of the Weinstein Co.'s first HD DVD releases, it is another solid effort. A good transfer for a film shot entirely on HD, and the extras are fairly substantial. Aside from my weird boot-up problems with the disc, this is worth checking out for fans of the film, or for those aspiring to be Australian boogeymen.