You know that feeling you get the morning after Christmas? The one where you wonder if all the running around and the credit-card bills and headaches were worth it? That feeling you get from the slightly sickening appearance of mountains of torn wrapping paper surrounded by too much conspicuous consumption? Hollywood knows it.
This is a hunch, but that post-holiday depression is why, without fail, smack in the middle of your Christmas pudding, the studios manage to drop one or two horror flicks down your chimney every year. Wolf Creek, on the other hand, which opens today, is not only aimed at exploiting those feelings of sadness and angst, it has to be one of the bleakest and most unpleasant widely released holiday pictures in years.
The first time I saw it was last January at the Sundance Film Festival; then back in October, when a publicist casually mentioned to me it would be opening on Christmas Day, I laughed it off as a mistake.
Well, here we are.
Ho, ho, ho, kill, kill, kill.
Even scarier, however: It was rumored at Sundance 2005 that Dimension Films, a division of Disney, bought Wolf Creek for $3.5 million, weeks before the festival began, sight unseen, too.
If so, the studio knows what it's doing: Purely from a business standpoint, Aussie writer-director Greg Mclean's first feature is assured and well-made, and more importantly, in line with that quiet wave of new horror pictures (High Tension, from the spring, being the last one) less interested in the traditional jump-in-your-seat scares or cat-and-mouse charades of a Friday the 13th and their ilk, than placing its characters in a worse-case scenario - and keeping it blunt. But as much as I admire the stripped-down approach of these films, the point of them (including Wolf Creek) runs roughshod over our simple desire to get scared and veers off into gruesome pretentiousness.
Ben is an Australian surfer dude (Nathan Phillips). We don't know much about him at first except we would like to be him: He hooked up with two fetching British backpackers, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), for a three-week road trip across back-road Australia.
Mclean is a patient guy. Rather than sneak a scare in here or there, he allows the first 45 minutes for simple getting-to-know time: We like these kids and their awkward attempts at flirting. We also notice the way the sky looks over the Australian brush, and the way the weather itself seems to change the closer these kids get to their inevitable (and gruesome) destination. If you didn't know it was slasher picture, it might bring to mind other backpacking tragedy pictures - which tend to be slightly more austere, like Gus Van Sant's Gerry and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout.
Anyway, Ben, Liz, and Kristy check out the remote meteor craters in the Wolf Creek National Preserve, and that's where, with no explanation, their watches stop working at exactly the same time. Their car, likewise - the battery is dead. With no hope of finding help unless someone happens to be wandering through the outback, the group settles in for the night and before long, well, whadayaknow, a real Crocodile Dundee-type named Mick (John Jarratt) asks them if they need a lift - he knows of a repair shop a ways away. He'll tow them, and they can be on their way in the morning. He looks nice enough.
In very graphic ways.
Pictures like this make movie critics uncomfortable and dyed-in-the-wool gore freaks giddy. Critics (myself included) tend to grudgingly disapprove on moral grounds; often these films either lack a morality altogether or their filmmakers treat punishment as an end unto itself.
As for the fans, they see in pictures like Wolf Creek, High Tension, The Devil's Rejects, and Cabin Fever (and next month's Hostel), a return to the simplicity and free-ranging ominousness of grind classics from the 1970s, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and those Italian zombie pics that played the bottom half of drive-in double features. They're sorta nostalgic.
I suppose you could say their return is a reflection of the free-floating anxiety of the times - a way of expressing that feeling that calamity can reach everyone in the 21st century, without warning or mercy.
My guess is the filmmakers themselves would agree - and why not? Why else would they spend so much time photographing the skies, establishing characters, and generally wasting talent on elegantly constructed films that end with 40 minutes of crucifixions and nails through heads and tongues? The watches stop at the same time in Wolf Creek. There's talk of UFOs. None of it is explained. None of it is clear. Do we gather something from this?
Should it mean anything?
And if it doesn't, why are the filmmakers (and the dozens like them) so afraid to admit they just want to make you squirm?
Why all the pretty pictures?
Scared of a little blood?