Wolf Creek

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When applied to a horror film, the words “based on actual events” usually just mean that someone, somewhere killed somebody at some point. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was billed that way, yet bore only passing resemblance to the real-life Ed Gein. And now here is “Wolf Creek,” an Australian film that probably follows “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” more closely than it follows the “actual events” it is “based on.”

Either way, it’s a fairly effective slasher movie, equal parts tense set-up and horrific prolonged climax, focusing on three attractive young people who are tormented in the Australian outback by a murderous, perverse lunatic (who is based loosely on several real-life Australian killers).

It begins at the culmination of a Spring Break-like bacchanal, with a few of the nubile young folks deciding to take an extended vacation together and hike the remote Wolf Creek Meteorite Crater. They are Ben (Nathan Phillips), a smiling frat-boy type who claims to have a girlfriend in Sydney; Lizzie (Cassandra Magrath), a smart, pretty English girl with whom Ben develops a rapport; and Kristy (Kestie Morassi), Lizzie’s friend, who hopes to find another guy somewhere along the trip so she won’t be the third wheel anymore.

The three have conversations about UFOs and unexplained phenomena, and also stop at that standard fixture in these movies: the remote gas station, replete with odd denizens, that is the last outpost of civilization. Why don’t they see that something strange is going on and take it as an omen not to proceed?!

Alas, they do proceed, and when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are rescued by a chatty, down-home outbacker named Mick (John Jarratt). He’s full of folksy dialogue like “Lucky you sheilas are traveling with a bloke!,” and he offers to tow them back to his place, where he can fix their car and have them back on the road in two jibbles of a roo’s whisker, or something like that.

I note this, however: Beware of any stranger who tells you that he is an expert marksman. That skill will never be used to your betterment.

The film, ambitiously written and directed by new-comer Greg McLean, spends 45 minutes on establishing the situation and the atmosphere, and it feels too long. We have to rely on our outside knowledge of the film to even know that it’s a horror movie, as there is no direct foreshadowing of such things until the film is half-over. Someone who knew absolutely nothing about it would probably get bored after 30 minutes and give up.

But once it kicks into gear and becomes a horror movie, it proceeds relentlessly and punishingly down that path. It doesn’t begin with creaking floorboards or flickering lights; it begins with sheer terror, and we are immediately thrown into the middle of a nightmarish situation. We don’t get any more advance warning of it than the characters do.

The story is ultimately no more original than the stories that have filled the innumerable other films of this genre, and McLean knows that. He doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here; he is content merely to spin it in clever ways. His filming technique is sparse and the dialogue is believable. He wants it to feel real, and it often does.

McLean also does a splendid job focusing on first one protagonist and then the next, thus preventing us from guessing in advance who will survive and who won’t, as the film never seems to favor anyone. The showdowns between the three figures and their enemy are suspenseful, frightening and often surprising, even for viewers who have seen their share of these movies. There will be, I suspect, not a dry seat in the house.

B- (1 hr., 34 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some graphic violence.)