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If you think about it, writer-director Greg McLean is like a one-man “anti-tourism” board for the great nation of Australia. McLean’s first two films, Wolf Creek (2005) and Rogue (2007), seemed bound and determined to make sure that folks stay far away from the Land Down Under: after all, he’s given us an unstoppable serial killer who targets tourists and a massive, man-eating crocodile that targets tourists…by this point, McLean could probably direct a reboot of Short Circuit (1986) and have Number 5 slaughter tourists. In some ways, it’s a decidedly niche acre to plow but it’s all McLean’s and he’s done amazingly well with it. The first Wolf Creek was a nasty modern classic, a frequently revolting, tough as nails horror film that introduced the world to Mick Taylor, the grinning, sadistic purveyor of the “head-on-a-stick.” As portrayed by John Jarratt, Mick was an instantly memorable character: a crude, racist, blood-thirsty pig-hunter who wanted to keep Australia “for the Australians”: if it meant massacring every foreign tourist he came across, well, so be it. There was real power in the character of Mick, a queasy combination of tough-guy “cool” and pure, unadulterated evil: Mick was charismatic and crazy as a shit-house rat…never a good combination.

When it was announced that McLean would be returning to the character of Mick, after almost a decade, I found myself wondering how this might work out. After all, I never thought that Wolf Creek had the potential to be a franchise: it was just too gritty and mean-spirited, for one thing but the character of Mick was also problematic. As we’ve seen with Freddy, sequels can often have a way of leaching the sinister cool from a villain, turning them from pure evil into something resembling a mass-murdering Henny Youngman. As portrayed in the first film, Mick had just the proper balance of dead-eyed evil and smarmy attitude: would McLean be able to keep this balance or would Mick begin a journey that would lead him to the same land of one-liners as Freddy and the Wishmaster? In many ways, Wolf Creek 2 (2013) is a much different beast than its predecessor, more of a bleak action film than a stalk-and-slash torture porn, similar to the difference between Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). But what about Mick? Does the Outback boogeyman still possess the ability to freeze the blood or has he joined the comedy circuit?

Wolf Creek 2 kicks off in high-fashion with a couple of corrupt highway patrolmen pulling over Mick’s truck, by way of a speed trap. The two cops are complete assholes, both belligerent and belittling to our “anti-hero” and the look on Mick’s face pretty much says it all: “Not a lot of pigs down south,” he sniffs, eyeing the high-powered rifle hanging in his truck cab, and the hog-hunter’s emphasis is pretty clear. Sure enough, as the cops take off, celebrating their “fun” with Mick, he calmly blows off the top half of the driver’s head (in a scene so astoundingly gory that it almost becomes parody), causing the car to flip. Mick calmly tracks the wounded survivor as he crawls from the wreckage, incapacitating him with a knife to his spinal cord (the aforementioned “head-on-a-stick”) before carrying him back to the car, strapping him in, soaking the whole thing in petrol and burning him alive. Mick walks off into the Outback, smiling, and we roll credits. It’s an intense, bravura, horrifying way to open the film and a pretty unforgettable way to reintroduce us to the bastard that is Mick Taylor.

The movie, proper, begins with a couple of young, energetic German tourists, Katarina (Shannon Ashlyn) and Rutger (Philippe Klaus), hitchhiking through the Outback. “Born to Be Wild” is on the soundtrack, the kids are having fun, it’s a sunny day and everything’s groovy. The pair is heading for Wolf Creek Crater which, as astute fans will remember, is ol’ Mick’s stomping grounds. As they travel, Rutger experiences some frustration with getting drivers to stop and pick them up: he complains about the loss of “community” and “altruism,” taking to task people who are afraid of foreigners and strangers. Rutger, of course, won’t know how bad the situation is until Mick stops by their campsite that evening. He’s come to tell them that there’s no camping in the national park areas and to offer them a ride back to town: Rutger is right to be suspicious, since the only things on Mick’s mind are carnage and rape, not necessarily in that order. After Rutger prevents Mick from assaulting Katarina, he gets dismembered for his troubles, allowing his companion to sneak away. “Hide and seek, eh,” Mick giggles when he discovers Katarina gone…and we’re off to the races.

From this point on, Wolf Creek 2 becomes a bit of a chase film, as Mick pursues first Katarina and then the poor, unlucky shlub, Paul (Ryan Corr), who makes the drastic (if noble) mistake of trying to help Katarina. The rest of the film entails the cat-and-mouse chase between Mick and Paul, as the terrified British tourist is chased from one end of the Outback to the other. Mick is intent on only one thing: punishing Paul for getting between him and “his meal.” Despite Paul’s best efforts, he’s not much of a match for Mick and the film swings into another mode as Mick finally catches up to Paul, becoming the torture porn film that the original was. Will Paul be able to survive the horrors that Mick intends to inflict on him? How good is Paul at Australian trivia? And what, exactly, does Mick intend to do with the electric belt sander? All these (and more) await within.

Right off the bat, as mentioned above, Wolf Creek 2 is much less a horror film than an adrenalized, gritty cat-and-mouse chase, with enough jawdropping gore and horror elements to keep a foot firmly in each camp. While I wasn’t expecting this, I must admit that it was an effective tact, for a while, at least. For a time, Ryan Coor’s Paul is actually a pretty good match for Mick, out-driving and out-maneuvering him, which lends the film a bit of the feel of a ’70s Ozploitation movie. Unfortunately, at some point, Paul turns into a whiny shit, which drastically reduces the association one can feel with him: it’s much easier to associate with an asskicker who won’t give up than it is with a crying dude blowing snot bubbles. In a way, this is odd criticism, since the first film was filled with whiny victims. Perhaps Paul’s “change of personailty” is so troubling because it takes him from hero territory, which is new to the Wolf Creek films, right back into simpering victim territory. On the whole, I would’ve liked Paul a lot more if he’d been more consistent: hard to tell if this is an issue with McLean or with actor Ryan Coor, although I’m willing to lay the blame at both their feet.

But what about Mick? As we know from the first film, these films (like most films like this) are all about the badguy: how does he stack up this time around? Unfortunately, not so well. As I feared earlier, Mick has begun to drift heavily in the direction of “wise-cracking killer,” ala Freddy, and this significantly reduces a lot of the fear around him. While John Jarratt is still a massively impressive presence as Mick, this is a decided step-down from the original portrayal. Quite frankly, Mick talks way too much: he has a one-liner for the murdered cops, quips for the German tourists, plenty of jokes for Paul…it just goes on and on. In the first film, Mick was a silent, grinning shark, an unstoppable killing machine who was so terrifying precisely because he was such an enigma: he could, literally, have formed fully sprung from the Outback, for all we knew. In Wolf Creek 2, not only is Mick one talkative fucker but he also has a clearly delineated mission: keep Australia safe from non-Australians. While this goal formed the subtext of the first film, it’s the entire context of the sequel. Time after time, Mick takes care to explain how the tourists only come there to “shit in his backyard” and have no respect for the country. He mocks the Germans national heritage and incorporates British/Australian conflicts into his impromptu trivia game, making his point all to clear. This is not to say that horror movie killers don’t need agendas (even Freddy had one) but the “anti-tourism” angle in Wolf Creek 2 just seems like a shorthand way to fill out Mick’s character. The more we know about Mick, however, the less he seems like unholy evil and the more he comes across like a racist redneck. Again, this was subtextual in the first film but McLean goes all-in on the sequel. It reminds me of the current trend (thanks, Rob Zombie) to explain, in detail, the origins of horror killers: the more we know, the less terrifying it becomes.

Despite my disappointment with the “evolution” of Mick and the mess that Paul became, how does the film actually hold up when compared to the first film? Not surprisingly, Wolf Creek 2 manages to amp up the gore and setpieces but loses out on much of the claustrophobic, hopeless atmosphere that made the first film such a horror classic. I won’t lie: there are some pretty spectacular setpieces in the film but most of them end up being more action than horror-oriented. One of the most bravura, if disturbing, scenes in the whole film is the one where Mick steals a semi-truck, turns on “In the Jungle”, and proceeds to plow through an entire herd of kangaroos, all in the pursuit of Paul. The scene is sickening, disturbing and, quite frankly, utterly amazing: it goes miles towards establishing Mick’s character without the need for pithy quips and is one of the best setpieces I’ve seen in years. Equally impressive is the trivia scene, where Mick tests Paul’s knowledge of Australian history. The scene is masterfully set-up, veering from torture porn distress to genuine comedy and back to the torture: it messes with audience expectations in a big way and provides one of the few examples of the sequel trumping the original.

Ultimately, Wolf Creek 2 is an odd film: McLean ends the movie in a way that all but guarantees a sequel, yet there’s the distinct notion that any future films will continue to expand on Mick’s new “stand-up comic” personality, which is pretty much a lose-lose situation. Perhaps, as such a fan of the first film, I went into this with unfair expectations. Truth be told, Wolf Creek 2 is an extremely well-made film, filled with some absolutely gorgeous Australian scenery and some truly gut-wrenching violence. The film is miles above most similar fare, particularly 90% of the odious torture porn subgenre, which makes it much better than many horror films out there. And yet, at the end of the day, I can’t help but feel let-down. I went into the film expecting the same unbelievably tense, gritty, nihilistic atmosphere as the first film but ended up with something distinctly more goofy, action-packed and run-of-the-mill. While I was a huge fan of McLean’s first two films, I can’t help but feel that Wolf Creek 2 is a solid step down into more generic “genre” territory. Here’s to hoping that McLean rights the ship for his next feature: I’d hate to think that the king of feel-bad cinema was about to abdicate his throne but his newest is almost the definition of “reduced expectations.” My advice? Next time, tell Mick more choppin’ and less yappin’.

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