“Rustic charm” wasn’t exactly the term for Greg McLean’s stunningly effective 2005 slasher thriller “Wolf Creek,” but that grisly tale of a jovial outback psycho carving up hapless backpackers had a scrappy, earthy shock value that even the most well-conceived sequel couldn’t hope to match. So it’s just as well that McLean’s surprisingly belated follow-up isn’t playing quite the same game, baiting auds with more-of-the-same terror for its first third, before taking an unexpected left turn into something approximating culture-war comedy — albeit with lashings of Grand Guignol gore. Neither as striking nor as fundamentally scary as its predecessor, this pumped-up, robustly crafted pic is still quite a ride, and one that genre-inclined distribs should have no qualms about hitching.
Opening, like the first film, with a “based on actual events” title card that should be taken not so much with a pinch as an entire mine of salt, “Wolf Creek 2” wastes little time in reintroducing viewers to Mick Taylor (returning thesp John Jarratt), as he dispatches a pair of corrupt traffic cops with efficient sadism before the opening credits are through. A paunchy middle-aged bushwhacker whose mild-mannered taste in safari shirts and cheery Crocodile Dundee lingo still make him one of modern cinema’s more flummoxing serial killers, he looks not unlike Hugh Jackman’s similarly mutton-chopped Wolverine gone rather badly to seed. So it feels appropriate that the new film departs from its predecessor’s relative realism to portray Mick as a kind of unkillable anti-superhero, with his ramshackle desert lair having morphed into a rotting, elaborately booby-trapped underground empire of torture.
With his conflicted identity no longer a secret, and the character having acquired cult standing in the horror community — enough to get Jarratt a cameo in “Wolf Creek” admirer Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unclained” — McLean works instead on expanding Mick’s motivation, with vague plausibility. It turns out he doesn’t merely prey on young tourists because they’re the most plentiful (and vulnerable) visitors to the titular natural landmark, a wondrously vast crater on which Mick has effectively marked his territory. Rather, he’s driven by a fervently right-wing loathing for all foreign intruders, carrying a bloody chip on his shoulder from the days of Australia being used as a salubrious depot for exiled British convicts.
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Though the film’s opening act is largely dedicated to Mick’s terrorizing of sweetly smitten young German couple Rutger (Phillipe Klaus) and the longer-lasting Katarina (Shannon Ashlyn), his beef is principally with the Limeys. No reference is made to the first film’s doomed British protagonists, though it becomes horribly clear — if it weren’t already — that their story was far from a unique one. With a single rifle shot 40 minutes in, the focus of Mick’s latest chase elegantly and unceremoniously shifts to Paul (the disarming Ryan Corr), a handsome, well-educated Englishman on a gap year.
By stripping the narrative in the latter half down to a two-man hunt, McLean curbs the bloodshed to a degree — onscreen, at least, the film’s wallaby body count may actually be higher than its human one — while allowing for some imaginative, mind-based showdowns between the two. Playing Paul with more snap and savvy than the victims are usually granted in torture-porn cinema, Corr is a strong, witty match for the affably repulsive Jarratt in their scenes together, notably a grotesquely funny face-off that comes down to, off all things, an Australian history pop quiz. The stakes of this improbably tense scene are best left unspecified, but they might make “Wolf Creek 2” the first film of its type to have audiences yelling the name of Australian cricketing legend Donald Bradman at the screen.
This allusion to the long history of Anglo-Australian sporting rivalries ties into the thin political subtext of McLean and co-writer Aaron Sterns’ script. It’s an aspect that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny, but two films in to what may as well be a series, it’s nice to learn that Mick cares about something.
Production values are uniformly topnotch, reaping the benefits of what appears to be a considerably expanded budget: McLean can now afford 18-wheeler trucks barreling down hillsides in his chase sequences, and isn’t afraid to use them. Toby Oliver’s slick widescreen lensing delights in the warm coloring of Outback brushwood and human entrails alike, while Johnny Klimek’s sparsely thrumming score sits in stark contrast to music supervisor Gary Seeger’s gleefully cheesy soundtrack choices: Even the first “Wolf Creek” wouldn’t have dared unite killer and victim in an impromptu singalong of Rolf Harris’s “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.”