Then - snap! - the film becomes as taut as the rope Jarratt's kangaroo shooter uses to tow the tourists back to his isolated desert camp on the pretext of fixing their car. Around a campfire, he tells his captive audience: "Fair dinkum, I get around. You never know where I'll pop up." Almost an hour into Wolf Creek, the pressure has become almost unbearable. Which is exactly how first-time writer-director Greg Mclean wants it. When he learns that at a recent screening, five people left the theater around this point in the movie, and only four came back, his voice perks up: "They came back? That's amazing."
Amazing, too, has been the trajectory of this low-budget Australian horror flick. With a financing history as tortured as its plot (one of the producers had to mortgage his Adelaide home to raise the last of its budget), Wolf Creek was snapped up by the wily Weinstein brothers for international release. Opening in the U.K. in September, it grossed $3 million, roughly three times its budget; late last month it was nominated for seven Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Director and Original Screenplay for Mclean. Fueling the buzz were reports of hardcore violence, including finger slashings and execution-style murders, which managed to earn the film a respectable four and a half skulls on the gore connoisseur website bloody-disgusting.com.
But the film, which opens in Australia this week ahead of a February release in New Zealand, has raised as much ire as it has gooseflesh. Loosely based on a number of Australian crime stories, including the notorious series of "backpacker murders" committed by Ivan Milat between 1989 and 1992, the film is seen by some as flirting insensitively with the traumas of true crime. The film begins with the statement, "Wolf Creek is based on actual events…," and Mclean does nothing to make audiences doubt his tale's veracity. "When we show it in the U.S. and France," he says, with barely disguised glee, "the audiences believe every single thing they've seen is true. Which says a lot about (their) gullibility, which is good for the storyteller." That arrogance extended to Mclean's decision to drop the e from Wolfe Creek, digitally removing the letter from maps and signs in the film: "I didn't like it, and that's it."
His arrogance can be forgiven. Reared in the rarefied domain of theater and opera (he assisted Neil Armfield's acclaimed production of Hamlet, and Baz Luhrmann's staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream), Mclean here applies the finesse of fine art to the pulpiest of fiction. Wolf Creek is impeccably structured (apart from one or two creaky plot points later in the piece), and the director extracts pitch-perfect performances from his young leads, with a marvelously malicious turn from Jarratt, whose Mick Taylor is Grand Guignol with an Akubra hat. As for the charge of exploitation - well, directors have been turning true crime into artful entertainment ever since Alfred Hitchcock dredged up the story of Ed Gein from Psycho's swamp.
Not least of its satisfactions is Wolf Creek's felling of cultural stereotypes. So when Mick Taylor begins riffing on Paul Hogan's line, "You call that a knife?" one senses Crocodile Dundee being buried forever in an unmarked grave. It's little surprise to learn that the director's next project, Rogue, is to be about a marauding crocodile in Kakadu National Park - Steve Irwin, watch your back. Already one can see Mclean setting a steely trap for unsuspecting audiences to slip into.