Aliens, werewolves, ghosts, and demons.
All of these monstrous staples of the horror genre have been endless sources of terror onscreen for generations of movie-goers. Everyone has their weaknesses, that one thing that scares them more than anything else. Maybe it’s bugs, with movies like The Fly and Arachnophobia making you positively squirm in your seat. Maybe you’re deeply Catholic, and anything involving a possession or an exorcism sends shivers down your spine.
Me, I find that what tends to scare me the most veers a little closer to reality. No matter what the movie is ultimately about, if you slap the phrase “Based on true events” in front of it, it’s absolutely guaranteed to creep me out exponentially more than it would have otherwise. Naturally, this tends to lend itself more to human threats than anything supernatural. After all, what’s scarier than something that could actually happen to you?
Still, an air of realism is required to make a human antagonist in a horror film credible. In the modern age, films like The Strangers and Hush have really tapped into the very real fears that we all share in our day to day lives. Things like home invasions and serial killers are legitimate dangers. And the stark, uncompromising way in which these films portray their lifelike, tangible villains lends them a legitimacy that truly elevates them beyond the realm of cheap thrills.
The grandfather of this particular style of horror filmmaking is, unquestionably, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Released in 1974, there really hasn’t been anything like it since. It’s terrifying in a way that’s difficult to accurately qualify, depicting a horrific series of events with the frankness and stillness of a Ken Burns documentary. It feels wrong having seen it, like you were never supposed to have stumbled onto the footage in the first place. Voyeuristic, grimy, and relentless, this iconic film would go on to define horror in the mainstream for decades to come.
Wolf Creek, released 30 years later in 2005,is very much Australia’s answer to Texas Chainsaw. In fact, if you really boil it down to its most basic components, the two films are remarkably similar to the point of almost being the same film: A group of young travelers find themselves in the middle of nowhere, crossing paths with a dangerous, backwoods killer. This killer has lived in plain sight for an indeterminate amount of time, brutalizing unsuspecting victims and escaping unscathed, both physically and legally. Our young heroes are mercilessly mowed down, one by one, until a single survivor remains, clawing their way back to civilization alive but broken. The killer is never found, no doubt roaming free and continuing their bloody rampage on unsuspecting backpackers and hitchhikers.
Like with Chainsaw, Wolf Creek is presented in an extremely bleak, minimalist manner that makes it seem, at times, overwhelmingly oppressive. The violence is not stylized or over-the-top; Instead, it almost clinical in its gratuitousness, presenting its scenes of death and torture with gut-wrenching sincerity. Shots are framed matter-of-factly, verging sometimes almost within the realm of documentary filmmaking, making it extremely difficult to disassociate with the violence on screen as is so easily done with the majority of other horror films. Part of the motivation behind this style is the desire to convey the events of each respective film closely to a series of real-world inspirations: With Chainsaw, it’s serial killer Ed Gein; And with Wolf Creek, it’s the now-infamous backpacker murders that took place between 1989 and 1993 in the Australian Outback. These non-fictional parallels aid immensely in giving each film a sickening level of honesty to their brutality.
And yet, there’s an element of beauty to everything as well. While the cinematography is nothing fancy, it’s deliberately framed in such a way to really give the audience a sense of majesty and wonder in the landscape. Both the wild plains of southern Texas and the open Outback of Australia are stunning backdrops, and both films give them their due diligence. But there’s a sinister component to this artistry: The splendor of the settings only helps to accentuate the depravity of the horrors that they contain, with the blood and screams that follow throughout the film clashing uncomfortably with the gorgeous scenery.
Wolf Creek’s protagonists follow in the vein of Chainsaw’s in that they are similarly stripped-down, realistic depictions of youth. These aren’t walking stereotypes or cardboard cutouts of characters, written as vaguely as possible because they’re only meat for the grinder. No, they feel like living, breathing human beings, with personalities and aspirations. The travelers we follow in Wolf Creek, much like their predecessors, are extremely likeable and complex people. We really bond with them before the horror begins in earnest, and the whole thing feels vaguely like a coming-of-age romcom for the first act. Of course, as with Chainsaw, this only makes the latter half of the film all the more harrowing.
But there’s also several key differences that make Wolf Creek a terrifyingly unique beast in its own right.
The big one is in their choice of villains. While the icon of the Texas Chainsaw franchise is undoubtedly Leatherface, the simple-minded, hulking brute who wields the titular weapon, he’s actually a relatively minor antagonist in the grand scheme of the original film. Sure, he poses the clearest physical threat to our teenage heroes and heroines, but he’s arguably just a tool for his family, the sadistic, cannibalistic Sawyer family. It’s the assorted and assembled clan of crazies here that serve as our primary villains, with Leatherface rising to individual prominence more so in the sequels. And even then, he’s more of a strong, silent type akin to Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, with not much personality to speak of outside of some general sheepishness and a subservience to his kin.
Wolf Creek, on the other hand, has a single, solitary killer stalking its frames, and boy does he have a mouth on him. Our murderer of the day here in the land down under is top bloke Mick Taylor. He’s a walking, talking stereotype of everything the western world has come to distill from Australia, taking heavy inspiration from the likes of Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin. This is all done in a calculated, deliberate fashion, of course: Much like the contrast created between the bright, sunny establishing shots and the dark, grimy scenes of sadism, our villain’s jovial demeanor is meant to lull us into a false sense of security, making it all the more shocking when he’s taking shots at our heroes with a long rifle.
Taylor is a disturbed individual. He’s charismatic, charming, and disarming. He cracks jokes, offers a helping hand, and comes across as a genuine, salt-of-the-earth type. Yet beneath this extroverted veneer is one of the most twisted, genuinely malicious horror slashers of the modern era. He has no motivation, no tragic backstory to speak of. No underlying trauma, no family egging him on or split personalities dueling for control; Mick Taylor kills because he likes it. Because he thinks it’s fun. For him, it’s a sport, a game, one that is fair and equal for anyone and everyone to play. Over the course of the film, we find that he’s killed scores of men, women and children, all in a similarly gruesome and prolonged fashion. Whereas the Sawyer family kills for food, primarily, Taylor seemingly does it out of sheer fascination with savagery. And unlike Leatherface, who is clumsy, relatively dumb, and relies on brute strength, Mick gets by on sheer wit and skill. He’s and expert hunter and tracker, making him difficult, if not downright impossible, to escape from.
He’s a tougher, smarter, trickier killer for the new millennium, and one that matches the unforgiving ecosystem of the Outback perfectly.
The other major difference between Wolf Creek and its predecessor is one that has less to do with the film itself, I’d wager, and more to do with the general shifts within the horror genre since the 70s, when Chainsaw was released. Although at the height of the Grindhouse era, Chainsaw chose to be relatively subtle with its violence. No one is actually murdered with a chainsaw onscreen, and the gore is kept strictly after-the-fact. Despite its reputation as being inundated with carnage, thanks largely in part to its later remake in 2003, the original film is fairly bloodless. Not so with Wolf Creek.
Wolf Creek is mean.
Riding high alongside the new wave (at the time) of “torture porn” horror films like Saw and Hostel, Wolf Creek is about making its unlucky characters as miserable as humanly possible, and showing the audience every bloody detail. This is not a movie for the faint of heart, or the squeamish. The teens in in Chainsaw may go through hell, but the sole survivor in that film escapes only psychologically scarred, more or less. She escapes with her body intact, and her friends that die do so without any real torture. Wolf Creek puts its versions of the same figures through the ringer. And as I said earlier, you really learn to like these characters, so seeing them brutalized in scene after scene really begins to weigh on you after a while. We see crucifixions, fingers being sliced off, spines being severed, and all other manner of grizzly and gruesome dismemberment and mutilation. The film is certainly one that wears the trends of its time proudly on its sleeve, and uses them to great effect.
But it never glorifies or revels in its misery. Whereas the aforementioned Hostel takes a gleeful, sado-masochistic delight in its cruelty, Wolf Creek never strays too far down this road. It treats the horrific as horrific, and never tries to portray its admittedly charming antagonist as anything but the monster he is once the action begins. And frankly, it makes the film that much more effective.
There’ve been a lot of films to emulate The Texas Chain Saw Massacre over the years, and very few have really succeeded (even its own sequels). Films like Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses have nailed the aesthetic and the characters, but never the atmosphere, pacing, or tone. It’s not a mindless slasher, and filmmakers haven’t quite seemed to have come to terms with that fully. It’s a slow, deliberate experience, one that veers more into arthouse territory at times than grindhouse. And yet, somehow, this tiny little Australian film, with a relatively microscopic budget, has managed to nail everything that makes it work and bring it into the (then) modern era. It’s an amazing achievement.
And its success has earned it quite the reputation of its own, with Wolf Creek spawning a sequel in 2014, a spin-off TV series, and a third installment set to release later this year. It’s become a cult classic, with Mick Taylor (and actor John Jarratt’s portrayal) having been solidified as a bona fide genre icon. If you’ve got the stomach for it, I highly suggest you give it a shot. Just don’t expect to feel great afterwards.
If you’ve already seen Wolf Creek, what did you think? Does it deserve its cult status, or is it just another generic, mid-2000s slasher? Let me know in the comments!
And, as always, Happy Halloween!