two-bit antipodean horror becomes a classic

katerina sakkas: sonya hartnett on wolf creek

Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek

THE LATEST IN CURRENCY PRESS AND THE NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE’S AUSTRALIAN SCREEN CLASSICS, A SERIES OF COMPACT VOLUMES AIMING TO “MATCH SOME OF OUR BEST-LOVED FILMS WITH SOME OF OUR MOST DISTINGUISHED WRITERS AND THINKERS,” SEES WRITER FOR YOUNG ADULTS SONYA HARTNETT DELVE INTO DIRECTOR GREG MCLEAN’S BRUTAL WOLF CREEK (2005).

Her opening chapter, which details a pivotal childhood moment, is a powerful evocation of squalor and highlights an ugly aspect of the Australian psyche that, though usually hidden, is always ready to bare its teeth. Thus Hartnett demonstrates her own affinity with Wolf Creek’s darkness, as well as positioning the film as quintessentially Australian: “two-bit antipodean horror,” as she puts it.

This deeply felt beginning raises expectations for her analysis of the film, and in many respects we’re not disappointed. Hartnett’s elegantly measured prose matches Wolf Creek’s own controlled pacing and considered atmosphere, and she brings a poetic sensibility to material that some might think of as anything but. The vast meteorite crater at Wolf Creek is “a great wound from which a scab has been gouged.” As the film’s young travellers ride closer to their fate, “the road sign they pass is blacked-out, for they have ceased to exist in the known world.”

Throughout her narration of the film’s plot (more on this narration later), Hartnett sets the scene culturally and geographically. Italicised factual inserts about the Falconio disappearance and the Backpacker murders place the film’s events alongside their real-life counterparts in a way that creates a feeling of dread in the pit of the reader’s stomach. We are never in any doubt that Australia is a dangerous land, both in fact and in fiction. Paralleling the film’s deliberate weaving of imagined and actual events, Hartnett draws upon both cultural and historic examples in discussing the traditional white Australian fear of the bush that coalesces in the enduring theme of the lost child. These observations, though not original, are pertinent to the material.

“Home isn’t homely when it can’t be trusted,” Hartnett writes, effectively making Australia the embodiment of Freud’s unheimlich—the uncanny—and, as such, a natural backdrop for horror. This idea of a menacing, predatory land is extended to encompass its human monsters, men such as Bradley Murdoch and Ivan Milat, on whom Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor is modelled—men described here as “dust devils.”

In some of her most insightful passages, Hartnett alerts the viewer/reader to the disruption of typical horror narrative that makes Wolf Creek such a singular and unsettling experience. In the beginning, “the world being depicted is a replica of the real world, peopled with unremarkable characters, messy in its casualness, riddled with holes.” As in Hartnett’s novels, the writer is awake to Wolf Creek’s depiction of the indiscriminate nature of death.

If there’s a flaw in her approach, it comes perhaps in her decision to retell the film’s entire narrative chronologically and (if you’ll forgive the phrase) blow by blow. It’s understandable that a storyteller seeks to examine a film by telling its story, but frustrating for those readers already familiar with the film who are in search of something more theoretically meaty. The final chapter provides more in the way of straightforward criticism, with Hartnett dwelling lyrically on Wolf Creek’s subtlety and complex handling of character while simultaneously addressing its lapses in judgement. The moral ambiguities inherent in a film which takes real-life tragedy as its starting point are tackled here, as they must be, and through reference to her own work, Hartnett mounts a convincing, if qualified defence.

It is rare to come across a considered, empathetic account of a horror film, horror being a genre that usually provokes responses ranging from the flippant or asinine to the dismissive. Hartnett refers to Wolf Creek as “less a horror film than a film in which horrifying things happen.” While appreciating the distinction, for some of us this just makes Wolf Creek a particularly fine horror film. Interestingly, there is no mention of a couple of Wolf Creek’s cinematic forbears: Wake in Fright (the subject of Tina Kaufman’s book in the same series), an example of “two-bit antipodean horror” if ever there was one, and Picnic At Hanging Rock, which Wolf Creek deliberately references (though you could say Hartnett indirectly refers to the latter in her discussion of the lost child).

This is a personal reading, a storyteller’s account. The historical facts referred to will be familiar to an Australian audience, fascinating to those not from this country. What both will gain is an appreciation of the sophistication of a film that is more frequently spoken of in terms of its crude brutality.

Sonya Hartnett, Wolf Creek, Australian Screen Classics, Currency Press and the National Film and Sound Archive, Sydney, 2011

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 20

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 April 2012