Pros: jaw dropping cinematography, clever writing, genuine suspense
Cons: stock characters, a couple of cheesy CGI shots
Greg McLean's Wolf Creek is quite possibly the most underrated horror movie of the decade. Unfairly labeled as "torture porn" and dumped in theaters on Christmas Day(!) by those dastardly Weinsteins, the picture was terrifying, and it wasn't just because of the violence. McLean created real characters and put them in a place that was at once uncomfortable and dangerous. By doing this, throwing a madman into the mix felt like an added threat to the already apparent tension. McLean is a native Australian, so it's interesting that his movies make the viewer leery about wanting to visit.
Given my enthusiasm in regards to Wolf Creek, I couldn't wait to see what McLean would do next. The Weinsteins came back on board as producers for his follow up, Rogue, but as expected, the project got screwed over. Early buzz was exciting, which inexplicably wasn't enough for the former Miramax heads, so they gave the picture an almost invisible theatrical run and then dumped it on video. The fact I did not get to experience Rogue on the big screen is a shame to be sure, for like Wolf Creek, it features jaw dropping cinematography you don't normally see in a horror picture - especially one that revolves around a thirty foot crocodile.
Yep, it's true, Greg McLean has made a creature feature and at first, I can't say I was too crazy about the idea. What made Wolf Creek so effective was the way it championed genuine suspense over traditional horror tactics. My assumption (and you know what is said about those) was that since McLean was making a killer crocodile picture, it was going to be an excuse for him to have a bloodthirsty monster turn a bunch of frightened humans into lunch. Instead of taking the easy way out though, McLean has called my bluff and made a movie that works for many of the same reasons his last one did. It's not quite as strong as Wolf Creek, but still rather impressive.
The picture's greatest weakness is its characters. The main focus is on Pete (Michael Vartan), a travel magazine journalist who is in Australia for a couple of days and decides to take a boat tour guided by Kate (the gorgeous Radha Mitchell). The ten or so other tourists are your usual assortment of horror movie cutouts, automatically leading us to believe they're all going to end up devoured by the time the final credits roll. That they don't is to McLean's credit. He's more concerned with establishing a series of hyper tense moods based on the characters' fear of when the crocodile will strike. It's strange the way he throws in nice little moments for a few of the characters but never takes things further than that.
The early scenes of the movie are filled with unbelievably luscious aerial shots of Australia that, according to McLean, have never been seen on film before. Eventually, all the beautiful landscapes lead to an overhead view of the tour boat riding through a narrow path, a sure sign that something bad is on the horizon. As expected, the crocodile lets the tourists know they're on his turf by ramming the boat and causing a leak that leaves it shipwrecked on a small island. Land would normally be a welcome sight; that is, until someone notices that the tide is coming in and before sundown, there won't be a dry area left to stand on.
McLean has definitely studied his monster movies. The crocodile is kept well hidden for almost an hour, although there are a handful of appropriate teases pertaining to his actual size. The attacks are nicely spread out and amazingly, we don't see very many of them occur. This is certain to disappoint genre fans, but for those who like to put themselves in the characters' shoes, it makes the situation that much scarier. Even given the limited setting once the boat crashes, McLean still manages to keep the visuals appealing. The nighttime scenes are rather striking, mainly when pertaining to the long shots.
Naturally, a movie like Rogue needs a worthy monster, and I was quite taken with the one on display here. A combination of puppetry and CGI, the crocodile only looks fake during a couple of scenes. It's a good thing too, because otherwise, the Final Showdown (which may very well be the best act of the picture) would have zero chance of succeeding. I can understand why McLean wanted to make Rogue; what horror director wouldn't want to helm a creature feature? As I mentioned before though, if it's gore or elaborate kills you're looking for, you'd be better off renting Lake Placid, Alligator, or the dozens of low budget killer crocodile movies that are currently collecting dust on many a video store shelves. This picture is in a different league than the others (though I must confess Alligator is pretty fun), even if I can't say it's a step forward for McLean. More than anything, it's further proof his career is one worth following.