2½ stars (out of four)
As horror movies go, this is a pretty good one, at once a tense, visceral and tightly woven tale of three twentysomething backpackers making their way across the Australian outback, and a truly horrifying glimpse at some of the brutal methods allegedly used by Oz's most notorious serial killers. Two failings keep it from being great: the "based on true events" tagline that opens the movie and the discernible glee with which the filmmakers showcase this killer's most misogynistic tendencies.
Ben, Kristy and Liz are typical road-trippers, heading from Broome, on Australia's west coast, to Cairns, on the east, with a stopover at Wolf Creek, the famous meteor crater that sinks deep into the country's vast and mostly unpopulated back country. The women, both British, have teamed up with Aussie Ben, and the movie opens with the requisite scenes of the trio partying before heading off on their next adventure. They buy a crappy car, fill it with their camping gear and hit the road. As they make their way across the Australian countryside, the music blares, the spectacular scenery drifts by, and everyone smokes a lot of pot.
It's a slow build, but it works, mostly because it gives the audience time to give a darn about the three protagonists. By the time the trio reaches Wolf Creek, it's clear they are decent, normal kids, lacking the dimwittedness that undermines so many teen-scream flicks.
When the travelers return to their car, it won't start. And their watches have stopped. All very strange, and never really explained -- the movie's first storytelling hole. Just as they settle into their car for an uncomfortable night's sleep, a truck appears out of the darkness. And thus begins the horror segment of our story.
The guy who picks them up appears to be the sort of person you might meet in an Australian tourist board advertisement: a salt of the earth do-gooder, only too pleased to bring the stranded trio back to his camp where he'll do the requisite repairs to their car. Sure, this guy's a little bit weird, and goes into a little bit too much detail about his days as a "vermin killer" on various farms (if you ever wondered how to slice a pig open, well, wonder no more). But he's good company or so it seems.
What follows is by turns hair-raising and bile-producing. The erstwhile mechanic is, in fact, a lunatic murderer, whose tricks of torture and humiliation are almost beyond imagination. His treatment of the women (Ben is held in a dank cell off-screen for most of the truly gruesome scenes) is so horrifying that it's hard to watch.
"Wolf Creek" director Greg McLean has said he feels it was important to show the torture and suffering in the most direct and unblinking way possible, because, hey, this is what happens to people and we need to know about it.
That said, there is very little hard evidence to support what Mick Taylor (this film's killer) does to his victims; it's mostly speculation. Clearly, director McLean felt free to take some liberties with the torture scenes, and this makes one fear for both his sanity and his sense of decency.
The acting is far better than this genre would lead us to expect. Nathan Phillips (Ben) is a bona fide movie star in Australia, and Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi are rising stars there as well. Phillips pulls off his character's amiable lunkheadedness with elan, but Morassi and Magrath are the real standouts of this film, never bowing to the horror-film convention that aimless screaming is as good as a swift kick to the killer's groin.
John Jarratt, (who plays the demonic Taylor) is best known for his role on the Australian television programs "Better Homes and Gardens" and "McLeod's Daughters," and his turn as a cold-blooded murderer is getting quite a rise out of his fan base.
"Wolf Creek" has moments of real suspense, and there's a humanity to the main characters that makes the extreme violence against them even harder to take. Caring about the characters, unfortunately, makes the abrupt ending (complete with fabricated epilogues for each of the "victims") feel totally unsatisfying. Telling a story that's meant to be couched in reality, the filmmakers use the crutch of a documentary style to imbue their fiction with more weight than it actually carries. It's not a crime, but it's not exactly admirable either.
Produced, written and directed by Greg McLean; photographed by Will Gibson; edited by Jason Ballantine; production designed by Robert Webb; music by Francois Tetaz; co-produced by David Lightfoot. A Dimension Films release; opens Sunday, Dec. 25. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: R (strong gruesome violence and language).
Mick Taylor -- John Jarratt
Ben Mitchell -- Nathan Phillips
Liz Hunter -- Cassandra Magrath
Kristy Earl -- Kestie Morassi
Old man -- Gordon Poole
Car salesman -- Guy O'Donnell
Mechanic -- Phil Stevenson
Petrol attendant -- Geoff Revell
Barry -- Andy McPheeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun