When Greg McLean unleashed his unrelenting, horrifying feature film debut 'Wolf Creek' onto unsuspecting audiences in 2005, he did so in the midst of a reassessment of Australia's cinematic past. Mark Hartley's acclaimed documentary 'Not Quite Hollywood' (2008) was still a few years away, but already in 2005 the Aussie exploitation films of the 60s, 70s and 80s were experiencing a reassessment, fuelled by the DVD boom. Distributors like Umbrella and Madman were delving into the dark recesses of Australia's film libraries and unearthing these rough-hewn gems, offering an alternate history of our cinematic past separate from 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' and 'The Man from Snowy River'.
At the time of its release, 'Wolf Creek' was seen as the revival of this legacy with its extreme violence, remote Australian setting, reliance on established "ocker" stereotypes and impressive handle on its style. A film like 'Wolf Creek' likely couldn't be made today with its uncomfortable language and unsettling violence towards women (its inventive 2013 sequel even shifted gear more towards comedy), but looking at the film now nearly 20 years after its release, it's seamlessly transitioned into something far more intriguing. Rather than just a prime example of that burst of hyper-violent horror films from the 2000s or a simple retreat of ozploitation traditions, 'Wolf Creek' feels more akin to the darkest of Grimms' fairytales, a simple story of unsuspecting innocence wandering into the lair of a monster that speaks to our uncomfortable relationship with Australian identity and masculinity.
The centrepiece of the film is John Jarrett's iconic performance as Mick Taylor, a giggling larrikin psychopath modelled after an horrific Australian serial killer (we all know who it is, so there's no need to mention his name any further). At the time, the film's connection to this historic case was much publicised, but now that the film has been able to emerge as a cultural object in its own right, Mick Taylor likewise emerges as a far more fascinating and unsettling mythological figure. If we look at 'Wolf Creek' as a kind of fairytale, then the monster of Mick serves a thematic and metaphorical purpose as much as a narrative one. With his beaten Akubra, his tattooed arms barely contained in his flannel shirt, a wise-cracking grin and a tendency to say whatever he wants, Mick is an almost absurd embodiment of the stereotypical Australian male, sitting closer to Russell Coight than Crocodile Dundee. This is why, from the offset, British tourists Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) trust him - he's more of a cartoon than a person. It's also the reason why Ben (Nathan Phillips) is immediately threatened by Mick - not because he is a physical threat, but because he is more of an Australian Man than him ("Why don't you sound like that?" asks Kristy around the campsite.) They are disarmed by this performative Australian masculinity, because at no point have they been led to believe it could be a threat. They've only seen these qualities as something to be entertained by.
'WOLF CREEK' TRAILER
It is also worth pointing out that 'Wolf Creek' was released four years before the rediscovery, restoration and re-release of Ted Kotcheff's 1971 masterpiece 'Wake In Fright', itself another cinematic fable on Australian masculinity that leads its protagonist into the abyss. In that film, that larrikinism also ultimately becomes a threatening and violent force, but not to the graphic or disturbing extent to which McLean pushes it in 'Wolf Creek'. These two films act as a counterpoint to the Crocodile Dundee stereotype, where the latent sexism, homophobia and entitlement is seen as charming masculinity. With 'Wolf Creek', the full unrelenting force of those qualities is manifested in Mick Taylor and unleashed with startling, stomach-turning ferocity. In Mick's eyes, the three backpackers fulfil very simple functions, the women to be ultimately consumed and the man to be ultimately annihilated. He doesn't see them as human beings, describing tourists as like the kangaroos he shoots as pests. His inability to see these people as his equal give him permission to do whatever he wants to them, the same way many Australian men see their "inherent" physical and sexual dominance as an excuse to inflict abuse on people of different genders, sexualities and races. The horror of 'Wolf Creek' is not in the jump scares it throws at us, but in its vision of what would happen if the icon of the Australian Male were allowed to act without consequence.
There's also an undercurrent of class commentary in 'Wolf Creek', one that doesn't excuse Mick's actions but adds to their complexity. There's an assumption by the three backpackers that they hold a moral and intellectual high ground, not just over Mick but over all the Australian men they meet in the Perth outback. They dismiss the men in the truck stop as animals and the service station attendant as a simpleton. While there are no immediate consequences to this, it does lead them to assume Mick is well-meaning and harmless. Despite the warnings McLean puts in their path, they knowingly wander straight into his trap, and part of their willingness to do so are their assumptions based on their intellectual and/or socioeconomic superiority. Perhaps the most unsettling moment in the film is where Ben pulls his Dundee impression on Mick, an unintentional but obvious form of mockery. At this stage, they think this man is helping them, and yet Ben engages in this flaccid, dismissive form of intellectual dominance over Mick, who responds with uncomfortable, prologued silence, staring at him as if he is a piece of dirt on his boot. They have been charmed by Mick's performance, but they are clouded by their assumptions and judgements of him, to which he will later respond with mockery, cruelty and barbarism. The genius of this small quiet moment around the campfire is that Mick will use these same tactics - even these same words - on them when they become prey, dialling them up to unfathomable levels. He doesn't even care about their expensive gear or video cameras, the accoutrement of their middle-class capitalist lifestyles. None of that matters here, and it takes them too long to realise how far from they are from that world. We often criticise characters in horror films for getting themselves into trouble or not killing the monster in time or going into places they shouldn't. The truth is, a horror film wouldn't function if character were that knowing, but the cold tragedy of 'Wolf Creek' is how expertly it justifies their choices to walk into hell and how easily they could have seen the savage monster leading them in for what he was.
Rather than diminishing into a relic from an uncomfortable period of horror filmmaking or a pastiche of Australia's exploitation cinema past, 'Wolf Creek' has grown richer and darker with time. It takes the fable-like structure of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974) and carefully weaves in the commentary on Australian masculinity of 'Wake In Fright' into one of the great cinematic Australian myths. We spend more time getting to know Liz, Kristie and Ben as people so that when they are led into the slaughterhouse, the way their are completely disassembled is all the more horrifying - but more importantly, Mick Taylor remains completely a mystery to us. It's as if he has been birthed from the landscape itself, but not from its natural elements. He is oil and piss and blood, rusted metal and twisted barbed wire and burnt wood. He is the colonising Australian man as the dark beast in the forest, a blight on the natural landscape he stalks with the confidence of an invading parasite, waiting to devour and destroy any living thing innocent and stupid enough to wander into his lair. What terrifies us though, deep in our bones, is not the idea of Mick Taylor wandering in the outback, ready to strike; it's the idea of Mick Taylor potentially inside hundreds of thousands of Australian homes, just waiting to give itself permission to wake up.
In Mick's eyes, the three backpackers fulfil very simple functions, the women to be ultimately consumed and the man to be ultimately annihilated. He doesn't see them as human beings, describing tourists as like the kangaroos he shoots as pests.
PICTURE & SOUND
'Wolf Creek' was previously released on Blu-ray in Australia by Roadshow in 2014. I don't have access to that disc to compare, but I would assume that the 1080p 1.78:1 transfer for the theatrical cut of the film on this new Limited Edition from Via Vision uses the same from that release. It's not the most inspiring of transfers, though this may be as much to do with the limitations of the HD video source. Colours are rich and dark but detail in the image isn't as strong as one would expect from a high definition transfer. There is some grain present though, suggesting that the transfer was taken from the 35mm negative printed for its theatrical release in 2005. 'Wolf Creek' is a beautiful-looking film, but this transfer can only go so far.
The highlight of this Limited Edition set is the long-awaited local release of the US Unrated Cut. The transfer includes the logos for the film’s U.S. distributor Dimension Films, unlike the theatrical cut. This suggests that the transfer was sourced from Lionsgate, who is now in charge of titles in the Dimension catalogue and who has been collaborating with Via Vision on a number of home entertainment releases. Surprisingly, the 1080p 1.78:1 transfer for the Unrated Cut has a slightly different look to the theatrical cut. The image is a touch brighter and colours much stronger, with the image in general looking a lot more stable. Comparing the footage to that in the making-of documentary and the second U.S. trailer (both in the special features), it looks like some additional colour grading work might have occurred for the U.S. release in 2005. In general, I preferred this transfer to that of the theatrical cut, often impressed by how beautifully the film hold us nearly 20 years later.
The theatrical cut includes a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that offers a round, rich sound, engaging the surround channels in the film's more atmospheric moments. The LPCM 2.0 track on the Unrated Cut doesn't quite compete, but it still offers an effective aural experience. It's a pity the Unrated Cut didn't come with a 5.1 track to complement the superior transfer.
The Unrated Cut is the major extra included in this handsome Limited Edition release, adding around four minutes of footage. As well as a few small inserts, the two major additions include a scene early in the film where we discover that Kristie has slept with Ben and a later grizzly scene where Liz discovers Mick's previous victims at the bottom of a well on the compound. None of these additions really add to the film, but they do offer a little more nuance to some of the characters.
As well as the Unrated Cut, the set also brings together all the features included on the 4-Disc Collectors Limited Edition DVD set released by Roadshow in 2006 (excluding the CD soundtrack). On the Theatrical Cut disc, we get the excellent audio commentary from McLean, Magrath, Morassi and producer Matt Hearn, which offers some valuable insight into the making of the film. On 'The Making of Wolf Creek' (51:51), we're given a thorough look at the development and making of the film, including screen tests and interviews with all of the major cast and crew. The selection of deleted scenes (6:13) mostly feature scenes restored to the film with the Unrated Cut, while the two U.S. trailers (2:14 and 1:45) give a glimpse at the heavy-handed way in which the film was sold as a traditional slasher film in the United States. The set finishes off with a standard photo gallery slideshow (3:41).
On the Unrated Cut disc, we get an excellent interview with John Jarratt from around the release of the film (21:49), with the actor talking about how he developed the character and his working relationship with McLean. There's also a storyboard and production sketch montage (3:09) showing how McLean and his team planned some of the more elaborate sequences in the film, but the most bizarre feature on the disc is a music video for the song 'Broken n Twisted' by the band Auxiliary One (5:00). I'm not sure how it is connected to the film, but it seems to have been made as part of the promotion for the film's U.S. release.
The two-disc Blu-ray set in this limited edition comes housed in a handsome and sturdy lenticular hard box set featuring the film's original Australian poster art on the front and a still of Mick Taylor on the book. Also included is a set of art cards featuring stills for the film in a black envelope. Only 1,000 copies of this Limited Edition set have been printed, and the stock on Via Vision's website has already sold out, though stores such as JB Hi-Fi may have copies available. The set will be re-released as a Special Edition in July, without the hard box case and art cards.