This review is intended primarily as a response to Roger Ebert’s silly, thoughtless take on Wolf Creek. As such, you should probably read that first. Go ahead, read it. I’ll wait here.
All done? Good. If that piece seems familiar, that’s because it’s not the first time Ebert has written it: see also here (attacking one of my favorite horror films of the decade) and here. There are a number of reasons to be irritated by this indignant triptych of reviews: they’re bizarrely moralistic, for one thing, as well as downright freakin’ wussy (if you can’t stand the heat, Rog, you know what to do). But most annoyingly, in his anger and disgust, Ebert stubbornly refuses to engage with what’s on the screen, stooping to reviewing the audience instead of the film, letting sarcastic jibes take the place of any real insight. This is unfair to a film like Wolf Creek, which can certainly be portrayed as a nihilistic torture-fest by a mean-spirited reviewer, but is in reality a fine, gritty, suspenseful, and yes, enjoyable genre piece that deserves the mild accolades it has received.
At the core of Ebert’s review is a nasty, malicious mischaracterization of why horror movie fans go to see movies like this. “To laugh through the movie, as midnight audiences are sometimes invited to do, is to suggest you are dehumanized, unevolved or a slackwit,” he writes, finishing off with this little gem: “If anyone you know says this is the [movie] they want to see, my advice is: Don’t know that person no more.” Oh, spectacular. It is not enough that the people behind Wolf Creek are depraved loons, but those who enjoy it are necessarily the same: crazies who get their kicks from seeing people tortured and killed in front of them.
I did not laugh through Wolf Creek. Nor, believe it or not, did I attend with the intention of laughing through it. I went for the same reason I go to any horror movie — to feel suspense, excitement, fear, maybe terror — and any movie in general — to empathize, feel something, perhaps learn something. And for the most part, Wolf Creek serves nicely. Like many good horror films before it, it aptly conveys an ominous sense of building dread, followed by one of helplessness and horror. McLean spends a lot of time on set-up, but it’s worth it: we know what’s coming, and as we get to like these characters a little bit, we’re overcome by despair.
Yes, despair. Ebert writes that sitting through Wolf Creek filled him with “dismay,” as if that were a criticism. Yes, Wolf Creek does fill the viewer with dismay. Is that a reason not to see it? Maybe. Some would say it’s a virtue. You tell me. I like horror films. And if the film does not offer much possibility of hope, well: who says it must?
If the visceral reaction of terror and despair is not enough to defeat the charge of “pointlessness,” I offer this: the movie shows, effectively, how maladapted we are to survival without the societal structures to which we are accustomed. Put us in a place with no one around for miles and miles, and we are essentially helpless. The only thing that can save the protagonists here is a rush to civilization, preferably by plane; nothing else — not knives, not guns, not running — will do.
An intelligent response to a film like Wolf Creek would take the fact that it inspires feelings of dismay and despair as a neutral given, and talk about the film on its merits (rather than condescend to explain the meaning of the word “misogynist” to the clearly dull-witted reader). I think it’s a solid, potent horror movie. What do you think?