Wolf Creek

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Starring Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, and John Jarratt. Rated 18A.

The intro to Wolf Creek claims that 30,000 people are reported missing every year in Australia and that 90 percent of them are found within a month. Of those who are never heard from again, there's little doubt that some are murdered; there's been a spate of backpacker killings down under in recent years. Writer-director Greg McLean's uncompromising take on such real-life cases shocks with the same gritty realism as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The movie opens with rugged Aussie good guy Ben (Nathan Phillips) buying a cheap used car and picking up two friends, British holidayers Liz and Kristy (Cassandra Magrath and Jennifer Aniston look-alike Kestie Morassi). The carefree trio have plans for some outback sightseeing, and after a routine run-in with rednecks at a remote gas station, they reach their destination, a meteorite crater at Wolf Creek National Park. Everything goes fine until after their hike, when it's time to leave, and the newly purchased clunker won't start. As the group hunkers down for the night, a jovial hick named Mick (Oz screen veteran John Jarratt) shows up in a big truck and offers to tow them back to his place, where he'll fix the car for free and send them on their merry way in the morning.

At first, their talkative host seems harmless enough; he's the type of macho, eccentric loner you'd expect to find living out in the boonies. But when one of Ben's smartass remarks draws a long, cold stare from Mick, it becomes pretty clear that the party has to end. Sure enough, after being drugged with spiked rainwater, the guests awaken to find themselves bound and at the mercy of one well-armed and extremely sick puppy. McLean's digital videocam doesn't pan away from Mick's casually administered yet shockingly gruesome tortures, and the ghastly images are hard to shake. The tension meter gets stuck on high for the last 30 minutes of the film, culminating in an action-packed highway sequence straight out of Mad Max.

Wolf Creek relies as much on the extreme environment as the twisted motivations of a sadistic killer to instill fear and compound dread. The sheer, desolate expanse of the outback makes it obvious that even if the victims manage to escape the psycho's grimy lair, their chances of survival are slim. McLean's cliché-free script and the believable performances by Phillips, Magrath, and Morassi keep you focused on their characters' grim, life-or-death struggles against the unfathomable evil of man and the unforgiving power of nature. Low-budget horror doesn't get much better than this.