csaThe trends of horror have finally come back to what I like. For too long horror films were tongue in cheek – even low-budget films didn’t take themselves too seriously. I thought that the death knell had finally been sounded for horror when PG-13 movies became all the craze. But it turns out that maybe that was the best thing that could have happened.

The PG-13 movies couldn’t rely on tits and gore, so they started going for atmosphere. They tried (and usually failed) to be scary, something that can’t be done when you’re spending half the film’s running time riffing on horror clichés. From that attempt to be scary again seems to have risen a new wave of gritty, intense horror films that have made 2005 a pleasure for me.

Some people have dismissed High Tension because of the ending. Fuck them. It’s rare that the ending of a horror film truly satisfies, and while the twist at the finish of that one is lame, it doesn’t really ruin anything, unlike say the end of April Fool’s Day. The Devil’s Rejects was more widely accepted, and it contains a bracing dose of nihilism.

The latest film this year to follow in this return to the old style is Australia’s Wolf Creek. It’s a really small film – three main characters and one killer. When your list of expendables is that small, you can’t just have slashfest. And writer/director Greg McLean understands that, so what he has done is make a movie where you get to really like the characters. When these very likable people are tortured, abused and killed, you really feel it – Wolf Creek is the opposite of the usual mowing down teenagers slasher movie, where each character only exists as a means to a cool kill.

The first half of Wolf Creek plays almost like a travelogue for Australia. Three friends are on a cross country trip, and they’re having a fine time. It’s a guy and two girls making the trip, and there’s a little bit of romance, but it only culminates in a kiss, not the kind of thing that usually calls Jason Voorhees out to slay.

We’re slowly drawn into their world as they head towards Wolf Creek, site of one of the largest meteor impacts on Earth. McLean and cameraman Brandon Trost showcase the beauty of the Australian outback, especially once they get to Wolf Creek. It’s truly a wonder – a massive crater in the middle of scrublands, with a tiny forest in the center. At this point you’re checking the site off on your mental “places to one day visit” checklist.

Not so fast. The trio get stuck at the site, until they are helped by a friendly outdoorsy type. They go back to his place – an abandoned mining camp (he tells them the outback is littered with them) – and things soon get hairy.

What’s nice is that McLean spends some time at the beginning of the film having his characters talk about aliens and UFOs. They get stuck at Wolf Creek because their car won’t start, and their watches have all stopped. When Mick Taylor (the film’s killer, not the Rolling Stone) shows up, his new victims think his truck is a spaceship. But we’re soon quickly shown that the really scary shit happens right here on Earth, and it’s perpetrated by the most normal seeming people.

In the R-rated cut I saw, Wolf Creek isn’t terribly graphic, but each bit of violence carries extra weight because it’s happening to characters we like. There’s a scene I won’t detail to save you from spoilers (although for people who have seen the film, I will say “head on a stick,” and for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, no, it’s not what you’re thinking) that isn’t any more violent than what you might see on television, but which left me horrified and a little queasy. McLean is masterful in the scene, creating amazing dread and a truly horrifying atmosphere.

The film is marginally based on real events, something that’s been a hallmark of exploitation films for decades. It’s caused an outcry in its native Australia, where more respect for the victims of Mick Taylor’s model, Backpack Killer Ivan Milan, has caused people to be truly disgusted by the film. Now that’s the sign of a good horror film.

Wolf Creek is an unrelenting, grueling experience. It’s a short film, but it affects you. It’s grim, and nihilistic in a more mature way than Rob Zombie’s movie. While The Devil’s Rejects has a nihilism born from the idea that everybody is fucked up, Wolf Creek comes from the perspective that truly horrible things happen to people who in no way deserve it – and who can do nothing about it. Again, I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the film goes bleak places. Wolf Creek might be the first film to live up to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s tagline of “Who will survive – and what will be left of them?”

9.0 out of 10