Wolf Creek has attained a reputation as a litmus test for audiences who like their horror films brewed from decidedly strong and bitter leaves. What its detractors often fail to acknowledge is its intensely felt sense of existential despair. There’s something censorious about the assertion, even critically, that all films must essentially be optimistic, and Wolf Creek discharges a cathartic shock of undiluted nihilism. Director Greg McLean plays fair: He doesn’t skirt over the individuality of his doomed characters, and so your face is rubbed in the muck of what feels like real violation—the most difficult sensation for movies, which often follow prescribed, instantly recognizable narrative structures, to convey. There’s an explicit sense in Wolf Creek of life interrupted—of life unfairly, randomly, and indifferently exterminated.
Wolf Creek 2 has a hard act to follow, then, and it’s much better than you’re probably expecting, though that surprise allows for an irony: It’s good enough to confirm McLean as a major talent, which inspires you, in turn, to wish that he’d moved on to new material rather than contriving to revisit his first success. Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), the once largely unseen killer who stalked the first film’s titular Australian tourist destination, has been predictably promoted to the sequel’s center ring as a deranged, cackling vaudeville ghoul. The film has a bisected structure that’s informed by Death Proof: We watch as Mick brutally kills an attractive German couple (Phillipe Klaus and Shannon Ashlyn), and then we watch him again as he pursues Paul (Ryan Corr), a British surfer who happens to stumble upon the wrong place at the very wrong time.
When a horror sequel elevates a villain to the status of leading player, it’s often at the expense of the humanity of their victims. A Friday the 13th or Saw sequel can’t really function if the audience feels the pain of every murder, because the films are meant to resemble game shows: Their characters are poorly behaved contestants who receive fabulously gross comeuppances from leering hosts. They’re party movies, superficial gross-outs that thrive on the denial of emotion as well as of any sensation other than a flinch or a gag reflex. There are cheap shocks in Wolf Creek 2, particularly an instance of an over-the-top beheading involving an obviously fake dummy. But there are also terrifying moments that poetically command our empathy, such as an image that shows Paul twisting from exhaustion and thirst in a weedy desert field that’s lit in hyper-gritty bold yellows that evoke a florid torment reminiscent of Van Gogh.
This mixture of high and low art creates a tension in Wolf Creek 2 that often works for it. You’re never allowed to adjust to the tone and get comfortable with your bearings. Wisely, McLean has conceived this film as less a horror movie in the key of the first entry than a grindhouse road flick that explicitly suggests Road Games, Mad Max, Duel, and particularly The Hitcher. The disparity of these influences fosters a movie logic that revels in the arbitrariness of one of those nightmares in which you’re pursued by an unstoppable someone for no apparent reason. One moment, Paul’s fleeing from Mick in one of the most thrillingly coherent highway chases in recent cinema; the next, we’re watching haplessly as Mick offs an innocent in a shot that’s blocked to resemble the closing moment from The Searchers and scored to Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Wolf Creek 2’s scattershot invention never manages to mask its inability to match the original’s purity of purpose, but it’s an unusual example of a horror sequel that was produced by people who’re trying to somehow sell out with integrity.