Wolf Creek and Hostel (review)

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Bad Things Happen When You Leave the City

Well, there goes my dream of driving across Australia. I used to think, Hey, if I’m ever gonna go to all the expense of traveling to the opposite side of the planet, and spend 24 hours on a plane to get there, I’m not gonna go for just the weekend — I’m gonna stay and see as much as I can, cuz who knows when I’ll get back? Probably never. So buy a clunker of a car, motor across the outback, and see the only country that’s its own damn continent, too.

After Wolf Creek, though… if I ever do get Down Under, I ain’t never leaving the cities. Cuz Wolf Creek makes it perfectly clear that there’s nothing in the outback — and I mean nothing — but empty space and homicidal maniacs.

Okay, the flick also makes it plain that there’s gorgeous scenery and breathtakingly starry nights and the possibility of being abducted by aliens and other tourists fulfilling their dreams of driving across Australia, but still: the homicidal maniac thing is enough to put a damper on a previously pleasant vacation.

I shouldn’t say too much, because this is one scary movie, sorta elemental and visceral like, oh, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe Duel — you know, the horrors of remote places and the strange people who live there and man’s inhumanity to man on a personal level and all that — but if you overexplain it, it either sounds not-scary or else ruins what’s scary about it. One of the truly unsettling things, though, about writer/director Greg McLean’s first feature film is that it’s inspired by true stories. Not in the details — there was no trio of college students named Liz, Kristy, and Ben who in the summer of 1999 were driving across the outback when they stopped to see a way-cool meteor crater in Wolf Creek National Park and found themselves subsequently at the mercy of murderous nutjob Mick Taylor. But there have been real guys like him, who did real nasty things to real backpackers and hitchhikers and unsuspecting tourists traversing the great Aussie desert. Which makes me wanna drive the outback even less, now that I know that. The film plays with the “based on a true story” conceit a bit, so that you’re never really sure whether that’s a Blair Witch fakery, an attempt to lend an air of authenticity to an entirely invented story, or what. Suffice to say that its flirtation with reality only deepens how disturbing this movie is.

And McLean captures that real horror in a brutally unHollywood way, one that goes beyond the frank, almost documentary style of the cinematography and performances and the presentation. The young actors playing the kids — Liz Hunter, Kestie Morassi (Thunderstruck), and Nathan Phillips — are so simply effective that they couldn’t be more removed from the jokey, self-aware snarkiness of most modern “horror” movies, in which everyone knows they’re following a formula and the ending is preordained and it’s all a big joke. And John Jarratt’s Mick is something of a throwback, in the best sense: he’s not a cartoon maniac, like Jason or Freddie, but a genuine human person who’s gone off a deep end that is, unfortunately, all too familiar in the modern annals of crime and depravity.

Mostly, though, it’s how McLean refuses to give in to the expectations we typically bring to horror movies, that everything must wrap up in a particular way and concepts like justice and fairness must prevail. Cuz as we all know, the real world is only rarely that satisfying.

actively hostile
And that’s but one of the horrendous problems with Eli Roth’s repulsive Hostel: for all that it wants to be about Oh, the terrible things people do to one another in the name of fun and profit and perverse curiosity about the particularly squishiness of human flesh, it’s depressingly conventional. It wants to shock you with its grossness and its willingness to push the envelope for Hollywood horror movies, but it ends up being merely sadistic, pointlessly so, and ridiculously happy-ending-ish.

And you know what? It’s stupid, to boot. Again, it’s three traveling buddies who are caught up in a web of dismemberment and bodily mortification: Americans Paxton (Jay Hernandez: Friday Night Lights, Ladder 49) and Josh (Derek Richardson: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd) and their Icelandic pal Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) get suckered into Eurail-Passing it to Slovakia, where they are assured the pussy is oh-so easy. But they’d have to be the dumbest rockheads in existence not to realize that the small-town hostel to which they have been directed is a setup: the fact that the absurd women there, with their enormous breasts that are not naturally found on such skinny bodies, are inviting these dorks to the naked sauna ten seconds after meeting them is not a scenario that happens anywhere outside of a porno film.

Sure, there will be those — such as Roth, and Quentin Tarantino, who “presents” this disaster — who will argue that this is a satire on how easily men are lead around by their reproductive organs, or a study of the horrible things that happen in the world under the noses of God and everyone. And depending on what was to come after that, it might have been either or both of those things. What actually comes next, though, is merely an orgy of gore and torture and brutality seemingly designed more to titillate the audience than to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of being a guy who lets himself be so easily led into mortal danger by the promise of a screw with a skanky, slutty chick. And if it was meant to condemn the evil that men (and women) do, etcetera, it ends up seeming more to say, Hey, shit happens, and sometimes that shit is gory and messy and kinda cool. Which is downright stomach-turning.

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