As is standard for Making Of docs, each and every Wolf Creek actor/cameraman/ make-up artist has nothing but gush for their director, Greg McLean. He's a genius, they insist. A visionary. They've worked for all kinds of experienced bosses, but for someone making his first film, this guy was special. He just seemed to really, really know what he wanted to do...
"I wanted to scare the fucking shit out of people!" says McLean. "I wanted to take Mick Dundee and Steve Owen and all those lovable-rogue Aussie clichés and turn 'em into something darker and nastier."
Wolf Creek was originally a more ambitious film with interchanging, multi-character stories. Wisely, McLean stripped it back to focus on two fun-seeking Brit gals Liz and Kristy (Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi) and their perky Sydneysider pal Ben (Nathan Phillips). Bored with beaches and barbies, they drive out to a lonely ugly-spot where a meteorite has thumped a half-mile-wide crater into the baked earth. McLean teases the Close Encounters-savvy audience with wonky watches and spooky car breakdowns. And then, John Jarratt's monstrous Mick swings by and offers to, umm, put them up for the night...
For a solid hour, it's an exercise in hyper-tension. We live with the characters, nosing around in their tics and quirks, spying on their fumbled, all-too-human intimacies. And so, the second half is given extra emotional jangle because it's horror visited on people we feel we know. Unlike, say, Funny Games, which smugly mugs to camera and lectures about how awful the violence must be making you viewers feel, Wolf Creek keeps the voyeurism cold and casual.
Crucially, once Mick starts to have his wicked way with the backpackers, McLean doesn't deliver the expected gore-shower. He's more interested in twanging our empathy, forcing us to be passive through unbearable sights and sounds of abuse and torture. Documentary cinematographer Will Gibson ramps up this terrible intimacy by blending probing close-ups of violated, defeated faces with aloof, sun-flared panoramas - smothering the Jurassic majesty of the Aussie desert with a long slowburn sundown.
But it's Jarratt's cruel, cruel performance that stings sharpest. Mick is a monster all right, but Jarratt smartly avoids any gurning or growling, playing him as a fucked-up loner with a sicko sense of humour. "I spent eight months finding the character," says Jarratt in his DVD interview. "I wanted to know everything about him. I wanted him to be fully-formed." And the moment Mick looms up through the outback gloom, he's much more than banal bad guy or movie serial killer. He's prehistoric and pitiless - way more Crocodile than Dundee. Flooding every shot, he bends the cosy edges of a genre that too often falls back on silly splatter or family-friendly, Ghost Train jolts.
And no wonder the other actors' fear seems so convincing. "I stayed in character during breaks on set," says Jarratt. "It struck me how the kids looked really joyful, frolicking around, all exuberant and happy. I made a point of saying to 'em, 'You remind me of veal...'"