Film

‘Wolf Creek’ Became a First-Rate Horror Series Only When It Made the Jump to TV

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It’s rare for a franchise, especially in the horror genre, to actually get better as it progresses — doubly so if the final part of said progression is a TV series. Yet in six-part miniseries form, currently airing on the you-didn’t-know-you-had-it Pop network following a broadcast in Australia earlier this year, Wolf Creek has matured into something interesting and worthwhile.

This wasn’t always the case. Despite acclaim from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, the original 2005 movie is horror primarily aimed at audiences who don’t go to scary movies for catharsis, but for ugliness. It’s on a spectrum that includes Michael Haneke implicating his Funny Games viewers at the high end and classless rape-revenge like I Spit on Your Grave at the low. These films are for folks who like being disgusted. Wolf Creek‘s bad guy, an Aussie pig hunter named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), was like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Freddy Krueger, if both were also rapists, and there was never any doubt he would win in the end.

Though the movie was promoted as being based on “true events,” the real-life story had a vastly different ending. Ivan Milat, one of two killers who inspired the Mick character, did not work alone, and wound up hunger-striking in prison when he couldn’t get a PlayStation. Murderous mechanic Bradley John Murdoch, who already had an arrest record for, among other things, shooting at football fans, is a bit closer, but has only been convicted of one murder. As in similar movies like The Strangers, the “true events” tag seems an excuse to end on a downer, as though that’s more realistic and might scare you into thinking a movie-grade invincible killer is still out there.

Wolf Creek 2 took a turn toward the comic, opening with Mick blowing away two power-tripping asshole cops who, in slasher-movie terms, deserve it. Because we already know he’s a horrible person — movie one took its time to fully reveal the extent of his villainy — the filmmakers have space to set up the stakes and make viewers feel like the victims actually stand a chance this time. Jarratt clearly had more fun with the role, too; in this one we learned that Mick is a racist-nativist who might actually be willing to spare victims if they can prove through history quizzes that they are as patriotic about Australia as he is.

When a movie manages a decent sequel, its auteurs often claim that they had all along conceived the work as a trilogy, yet I don’t think there has ever been one in which two basic exploitation flicks set up a conclusion that is, essentially, a six-hour final film. This may be TV, but Wolf Creek: The Series is cinematic in all but its length. Certainly horror fans need not worry about edits for content, as a child is killed on-camera within the first 10 minutes, and the population of its Australian outback swears as much as you’d expect.

Perhaps in answer to charges of misogyny leveled at the features, the show centers on an active female protagonist, 19 year-old Eve (Lucy Fry), who survives an initial encounter with Mick by not being quite as dead as he thinks. Everything that ensues is her story, as she seeks revenge against a man so off the grid that nobody even believes he’s quite real. Eve, an American tourist with no family, is massively ill-equipped to take on a serial killer who is specifically skilled in navigating the outback, and that’s largely why this story needs its six-hour length — it allows her to believably acquire the skills that aren’t always credible from a “Final Girl” in a 90-minute adventure.

Mick, who has previously been the focus of the franchise, here is more of a man of mystery; we occasionally see him kill some random person, because you can’t discard the franchise’s baggage completely, but mostly he retains an air of enigma, particularly for new viewers. There’s even some suggestion of the supernatural, but that’s kept ambiguous and possibly imaginary; it’s not hard to intuit that this is the direction things could go in next if more Wolf Creek happens in any form.

The outback, as depicted here, is almost a fantasy landscape, a horror take on the Old West. Sunbaked eccentrics live out in the desert, and what passes for a town may be little more than a bar next door to an auto shop. Eve is the archetypal stranger who comes to town looking for the man who done her wrong, and just like in the Kurosawa samurai movies that were reinterpreted with Clint Eastwood, she’s not above pitting gangs against each other or rounding up momentarily convenient compadres.

Geoffrey Hall’s cinematography renders the minimal settings both epic and fantastical, from wide shots of the empty vistas to the blue-tinted underground snake dungeon of one particular unusual new character. It is both nightmare and dream, a welcome stride away from the silly “true events” hook of the first film. So is the wide roster of characters, which creates a sense of a living world rather than just Mick versus victim.

Unfortunately for fans of Wolf Creek 2, the funnier, drunken patriot side of Mick gets no airing here. Maybe in a year when brain-dead violent nativists appear to be globally winning elections, they’re not as easy to have fun with in fiction anymore (indeed, Mick endears himself to people with a manner you might call “refreshingly politically incorrect,” until it invariably turns nasty). You do learn more about Mick’s origins, and while they imply a tragic side to him never previously shown, he isn’t let off the hook in any way.

Instead, his backstory contributes to a sense that he might be vulnerable and not the indestructible, unbeatable force that drained all the tension out of the original flick. The climax, as a result, is the most satisfying of any Wolf Creek yet. That said, even if it would kill the series, I’d still love to see a final installment in which Mick goes on a hunger strike in prison to obtain video games, then cuts off his pinky and swallows razors, as Ivan Milat did. (He lived.)

The point is that real-life evil is often banal, and when confronted, easily turns pathetic. Removing the true-story aspects was the only way to keep Mick Taylor movie-mythical. Here he’s the embodiment of the perception of the angry backwoods xenophobe as all-powerful threat, far from the reality of broken homes and shattered dreams, of people left behind economically and seeking someone to blame. Framing him as truth is a gross stereotype, but making him a fever dream, not unlike his similarly behatted progenitor Freddy Krueger? That’s how potent mythologies are made.

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