Wolf Creek’s Roots and Serial Killer Aesthetic

Wolf Creek 2005. Directed & Written by Greg McLean.
Starring John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, Gordon Poole, Guy O’Donnell, Phil Stevenson, Geoff Revell, Andy McPhee, Aaron Sterns, & Michael Moody. The Australian Film Finance Corporation & The South Australian Film Corporation/403 Productions.
Rated R. 99 minutes.

POSTER This movie is firmly planted in fiction. No doubt. Even so, Greg McLean’s lead antagonist in Wolf Creek is quite obviously modeled on one of Australia’s most notorious killers, Ivan Milat. Between 1989 and 1992, he tortured, sexually molested, and murdered seven backpackers, whose bodies were then dumped in the Belanglo Forest, which is south of Sydney. As a big fan of the psychology behind criminals, particularly serial killers, I read a fascinating book by Christopher Berry-Dee and Steven Morris called How to Make a Serial Killer. One of the cases they examine is Milat. The book takes a look at nature versus nurture, or rather Berry-Dee and Morris contend that it’s usually, more often than not, a combination of the two elements. The extensive chapter on Milat’s crimes is shocking, almost more so than McLean’s screenplay, which is god damn chilling, and rough in terms of horror. One of the best quotes is from a forensic psychiatrist named Dr. Rod Milton, he says that Ivan “enjoyed the power and the sexual gratification that he got from his victims. I think it was violence for the sake of violence in someone who enjoyed the explosion of violence.”
In Wolf Creek, none of the victims or even the killer gets named for their real life counterpart. Which is good because that takes a certain responsibility off of McLean to keep things completely real to Milat’s life, as well as preserves at least some respect for the victims of the actual horrors. Yet the stories are the same, and this one doesn’t shy away from being brutal, nasty even at times. The explosiveness of that violence in Milat is very present in our killer here. McLean manages to make what others will call ‘torture porn’ into something better, focusing more on the people the killer encounters than the killer himself. Although, sometimes that’s what holds this film back.
One of the majorly scary parts about Wolf Creek for me is how Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) has all that isolation in the Outback. Just as Milat did. Essentially, he had miles and miles all as his own playground, to do what he wished with his victims. Worse than that he always did the Good Samaritan gig. Like when he encounters the guy and the two women partway through. So once people were out in the midst of nowhere, Milat did his thing with little to no fear of ever being noticed. Scarier still is his pathology as a serial killer. In the Berry-Dee/Morris book there’s another creepy quote that’s always in the back of my mind later on during the film when we see some of the atrocities in his little playground at home: “He would play with the corpses of his victims, posing them in positions that held some secret meaning for him & then secreting the bodies in places & in a manner that would signify something intensely personal to him.” As the corpses of some victims of Mick’s lay around in his garage, where he further tortures his latest victims, just look at how they’re strung up and arranged. Then think about that quote. Maybe there’s something more to it than a mutilated body being posed that way than only convenience, as every killer’s got their own horrifying little quirk that speak to their individual psychology.
Now this brings me to one of my only negative points about McLean’s writing. I do dig the fact we’re given so much time with the eventual victims before what happens in the second half of the film. Because more than some slashers where we get a little lead in before characters start getting axed, Wolf Creek really allows us the time to get to know these people. They feel genuine and real, so their plight is even more troubling. However, other than the killing we don’t get much of Mick. There’s a good little bit where he does the nice guy routine, luring them in, lulling them down to a sense of complacency before striking. But personally, having read about Milat, it would’ve done us good to get a little bit more insight on Mick as a character. Not saying there needs to be a prequel or that the movie needed an extra hour. Just that for a movie with such rich characters, its killer deserves more. Let’s face it, he is one of the major reasons this movie is actually scary. As unsettled as you are knowing something is eventually going to go bad, Jarratt makes Mick into something altogether appalling. The transition from nice to nasty is impressive, as some actors would have that kind of mean streak running through them the entire performance. Not Jarratt. He truly sells Mick’s whole helpful persona, being this foolish, silly kind of guy up until he’s not. With such a solid performer as Jarratt, it’s an even bigger shame the character doesn’t get fleshed out a little more. Still, that doesn’t change the fact Jarratt makes this killer into an intimidating figure.
The look of the film is great. Everything looks and feels natural. Best of all, the scenery, the design of Mick’s Outback camp/house, is so spot on. And it doesn’t feel like they tried to replicate Leatherface’s house, as so many modern horrors tend to go when creating a lair for their villain. There’s no shortage of macabre delights at Mick’s place. It just isn’t a ridiculously overblown design. Everything is perfect in that regard. On top of that, all the principal photography for the movie was done handheld. This gives things an even more realistic flow and atmosphere. The lighting and everything makes some of the scenes, after things turn frightening, so wonderfully sinister. There’s always a grim and ominous atmosphere even from the start, as there always feels danger might be around any corner, but things definitely kick into gear later on with Mick doing his torture routine. McLean and cinematographer Will Gibson capture a lot of good stuff here. As opposed to a standard slasher we’re instead given something that comes off as much more close to life just by how it’s shot.
François Tétaz composed a score that pairs well with the horror. There are many moments where the only sounds we hear are those plied out by Mick from his victims. Then underneath, Tétaz plucks away with little woodwind sounds and cymbals, other tiny sounds, and that only intensifies those scenes where suspense is running high. A cheesy or shitty score can really detract from a good horror. In this case, it does the opposite. Tétaz draws us in with gorgeous pieces, as well as those small bits that augment what would be a simple torture scene in another film, but becomes something more interesting with McLean calling the shots. For me, the score is a big part of what separates this from other similar movies that focus on the hideous acts of serial killers, and it makes Wolf Creek even more unsettling at the right times.
Not perfect, but Wolf Creek packs an indelible punch. There’s still terror each time I decide to put this one on. John Jarratt’s charmingly psychotic role is one of the highlights. Overall, though, Greg McLean has given us a pretty good modern horror. A realistic slasher, almost. Using the roots of Ivan Milat to ground the character of Mick Taylor in the real world, McLean presents us with unabashedly brutal horror, as he gives us insight into the terror of a serial killer’s victims. And as the film wears on, so does its haunting nature. This one stayed with me a while after simply because of its raw quality. Not everyone’s cup of tea surely. Yet this is one bit of horror that keeps me glued to the screen.

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