Harrowing and unpleasant, Aussie horror pic "Wolf Creek" invites comparisons to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" not just for content, but because both are based -- albeit faintly -- on real-life serial murder cases. Dimension Films caused a stir by buying U.S. rights, supposedly sight-unseen, for $3.5 million weeks before the pic's Sundance bow.

Harrowing and unpleasant, Aussie horror pic “Wolf Creek” invites comparisons to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” not just for content, but because both are based — albeit faintly — on real-life serial murder cases. Dimension Films caused a stir by buying U.S. rights, supposedly sight-unseen, for $3.5 million weeks before the pic’s Sundance bow. They should have little trouble scaring up a profit on that investment, particularly if pic is sold as a more conventional genre item than it really is. Impressive first feature for writer-director-producer Greg Mclean is a more gruesome downer than giddy thrill ride, however, which could limit word-of-mouth and repeat-biz.

After too many bits of ominous explanatory text, college-aged pals Ben (Nathan Phillips), Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) have a last drunken night on the beach on the western coast of Australia, then take off in a cheaply bought used wagon for three-weeks’ drive across the continent.

The two girls are Brit tourists, Ben a Sydney surfer. It’s not spelled out how they met or how long they’ve known each other, but their wisecracking camaraderie is instantly appealing. It’s a measure of the performers’ naturalness and Mclean’s sharp direction that when a mutual crush running between Liz and Ben briefly finds expression, the moment is sweet, awkward and infinitely more real than the usual horror flick hookup between cardboard hotties.

When the trio returns from a long hike to a crater in Wolf Creek National Park, they find that not only have all their watches stopped, but the car is dead. There’s nothing to do but wait out the night and hope help arrives — which, surprisingly, it does, in the form of big, back-slapping bushman Mick (vet Aussie thesp John Jarratt) and his massive truck. He diagnoses their vehicle’s ills and offers to fix it for free at his camp a-ways down the road. Actually, it’s a very long way down the road, making the youths nervous if still grateful. They fall asleep by the campfire as Mick pokes around the lifeless engine.

Comes the dawn, and Liz wakes to find herself bound and gagged in a small room, the others nowhere in sight. She manages to free herself, and the suspense never lets up from this point onward, with the balance of power shifting sometimes in the protags’ direction — but seldom for long — as they fight to survive.

Like recent “Haute Tension,” “Wolf Creek” is essentially a worst-case-scenario white-knuckler executed with terrifically focused skill and realism. When the gore finally arrives, after an unusually long buildup, it is not of the slasher-pic variety, but rather is more vividly painful. Narrative shows no more mercy than its villain does.

Ending leaves the door open for sequels, though it would be rather depressing to see Mick (who does sport a rather sickening cheerfulness) turn into another wisecracking Freddy Kreuger type. Actual Aussie perp the pic was very loosely inspired by, early ’90s “Backpacker Killer” Ivan Milat, was sentenced to life imprisonment for seven murders in 1996.

It’s hard to believe “Wolf Creek” is a first feature for both writer-director Mclean and d.p. Will Gibson, whose HD-shot color lensing mixes headlong immediacy and often stunning landscape imagery to richly atmospheric effect. All other contributions are spot-on, notably Francois Tetaz’s eerie score.

Ending on a rather bleak note, and lacking the kind of false scares or other devices that normally give horror auds an occasional breather, pic is scary cinema pushed to the brink of punishment. But there’s no question that what it sets out to do, it does alarmingly well.

Wolf Creek

Australia

Production

A Dimension Pictures release of a True Crime Channel production in association with Darclight Films, Mushroom Pictures, Arclight Films, Film Finance Corp. Australia, 403 Films and South Australia Film Commission. Produced by Greg Mclean, David Lightfoot. Executive producers, Matt Hearn, Gary Hamilton, Simon Hewitt, Martin Fabinyi, George Adams, Michael Gudinski. Co-producer, Heam. Directed, written by Greg Mclean.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Will Gibson; editor, Jason Ballantine; music, Francois Tetaz; production designer, Robert Webb; costume designer, Nicola Dunn; sound (Dolby Digital), Pete Smith; special makeup FX, Connelly Make-Up FX Team; second unit director, Matt King; assistant director, Ric Beecroft; casting, Angela Heesom. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition), Jan. 25, 2005. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Mick Taylor - John Jarratt Ben Mitchell - Nathan Phillips Liz Hunter - Cassandra Magrath Kristy Earl - Kestie Morassi
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