Australian screen classics are seminal for a range of reasons: whether it is a particular title’s popularity and impact upon popular culture, its cultural and textual meaning, or what the film tells us about the social, political and cultural climate from which it emerged. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005) is undoubtedly an Australian screen classic. The film was an impressive low-budget breakout success, which played a big part in the renaissance of contemporary Australian genre cinema by opening doors for genre filmmakers targeting international markets in ways that haven’t been seen in Australia since the 1980s. Wolf Creek has become the quintessential Australian horror movie. It has captured collective national fears and anxieties about the Australian outback – the isolation, the repressive desolation, the idea that the landscape itself is your enemy. It challenges traditional representations of Australian masculinity and the “ocker larrikin” to show a negative image of the rural ocker which dominated Australian screen in the 1970s and, to lesser extent, the 1980s.

Wolf Creek, written by Sonya Hartnett and published by Currency Press as part of the Australian Screen Classics series, however, provides little sense as to why the movie is an Australian screen classic. Nor does it nail down exactly why the movie is the quintessential Australian fright flick or what makes this movie so notorious that people who’ve never seen the film before cringe at the very mention of its name – although the movie’s gore factor and body count are low. If a film is elevated to the status of a modern screen classic, surely a book in a screen classic series should attempt to explain how and why, or at least provide a basic cultural or cinematic context? Other books in this series, such as Alvin Purple by Catharine Lumby and The Mad Max Movies by Adrian Martin, are excellent examples that do precisely this(1). This book, while it touches upon issues like the landscape and Australian gothic, is a patchwork quilt of ideas that never really pins down the movie’s significance.

The vast majority of the book is a detailed retelling and unpacking of the movie’s plot; indeed pages 5 to 45 (from a total of 53). This retelling of events is spliced together with asides/insights/facts from famous stories of children lost in the bush (including Azaria Chamberlain) to the oppressiveness of the outback, and fragments of the two notorious true crimes which inspired Wolf Creek’s premise: the murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio by Bradley John Murdoch and the Ivan Milat Backpacker Murders. While the retelling of these true crimes, roughly in chronological order with the unfolding of events in the movie – the backpackers, the journey, the torture – are intriguing, they only ever provide a fleeting glimpse of the actual events from which Wolf Creek’s narrative has been developed. The Peter Falconio and Backpacker Murders are macabre but fascinating stories in their own right, and to catch small fragmented flashes of them without more detail and discussion of the specific ways in which they inspire the film, leaves a reader wanting more than the book offers.

Hartnett uses the retelling of the movie’s plot predominantly as a way to analyse character. Indeed, this is what she does best. As she unpicks the plot, she examines the protagonists’ relationships with each other, with the boogeyman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), and with other supporting characters. At the beginning of the film, when Ben (Nathan Phillips) buys a second-hand bomb for the trio’s outback road trip – with English backpackers Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) – Hartnett points out that Ben rejects the stereotypical blokey “ocker” sensibility when the salesman (Guy O’Donnell) remarks crudely about girls being “easy” on a road trip. Though masculine, Ben is a metropolitan twenty-something who does not share the traditional, swear-hard “look at them sheilas” ocker outlook: “He won’t respond and thereby align himself with the salesman, and in his refusal to do so we see him for who he is: not the outlaw he presents as, but someone with a cultivated soul” (p. 7). As the narrative continues, Hartnett forensically examines how this muscular young man with shorn hair, who is outwardly tough and confident, has his masculinity tested; his strong veneer ripped away as they enter deeper into the outback interior.

The dualism of Ben and Mick (or, as she refers to the latter, the “dust-devil” [p. 19]) is a key underlying theme of the film and Hartnett explores it well. When the three young backpackers arrive in the remote outback town of Emu Creek, Hartnett nicely dissects Ben’s character:

Ben, the charming life-of-the-party, so accustomed to being liked, welcomed, wanted, whose world has brimmed, to this point, with promise, only imperfectly understands that in this place he possesses none of the power he has known … he doesn’t see that, here, being a young middle-class, city-born male marks him out as an obvious target (p. 10).

Inside a dilapidated pub in Emu Creek, a group of scruffy, tattooed truckies – relics from an era of working-class traditional ocker masculine values – challenge Ben’s masculinity. Later, it is Mick who will confront and ultimately defeat Ben for the status of alpha male in the company of Liz and Kristy.

Another key strength of the book is Hartnett’s attention to minute detail. She picks up on the reflection of Kristy’s locket in the dingy bathroom in Emu Creek and observes that “each of the young travellers wears one, large and talismanic yet capable of providing no protection at all” (p. 10). She points out that the carcass hanging beside Ben in the abandoned mineshaft appears to have been ripped apart from the waist down by the same caged dogs that snap wildly at Ben as he hangs crucified upon the wall. Though I’ve watched this movie countless times, these and other small plot details or explanations had eluded me.

While the book is a useful character study, the movie is arguably less important within the context of Australian cinema for the relationships between characters – although Mick Taylor is a critically important character in his own right – than for how it contributes to numerous discourses prominent within Australian cinema: for example, how the movie taps into unique cultural fears and why; how it figures in oscillating debates around national cultural identity and popular movie genres; how it foregrounds the changing nature of Australian masculinity and how traditional representations of Australian masculinity so celebrated in the 1970s and 1980s are in decline; and, of course, how it deals with landscape within the context of Australian cinema.

Like most titles in this series, the book is well written and Hartnett’s unstitching of the narrative is impressive. But overall, her flowing text interspersed with bits and pieces of plot, true crimes and factual snippets gets in the way of talking about the alchemy of the movie and the reasons for its phenomenal success, the genesis of the film in true crime, and so on. This book is not a seminal account of Wolf Creek, nor is it the ideal reference guide for understanding the film within the context of Australian cinema, but may be of interest for its nuanced character analysis and textual dissection.

Wolf Creek, by Sonya Harnett, Australian Screen Classics series, Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive, Strawberry Hills and Canberra, 2011.

Endnotes

  1. Catharine Lumby, Alvin Purple, Australian Screen Classics series, Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive, Strawberry Hills and Canberra, 2008; Adrian Martin, The Mad Max Movies, Australian Screen Classics series, Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive, Strawberry Hills and Canberra, 2003.