Horrors of history: on the politics of Wolf Creek 2

Wolf Creek 2 is Greg McLean’s sequel to his notorious 2005 debut. It has impacted national film culture in a number of significant (although not totally surprising) ways. Without doubt it is more violent and vicious than its predecessor, a perversely admirable feat considering Wolf Creek became a frequently cited example of ‘torture porn’. Alongside the Saw and Hostel franchises and the more notorious examples of the New French Extremity, such as Frontiere(s) (2007) and Martyrs (2008), Wolf Creek is regarded as a classic, as one of the defining works of the subgenre. The latest film’s box office success also makes it notable – the $1.68 million it took in its opening weekend is considerably higher than is usual for successful local productions. But most significant of all was the critical reception: Wolf Creek 2 became the centre of a frankly bizarre controversy when cultural gatekeepers Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton refused to review it on their ABC programme At the Movies.

Much has been made of Pomeranz and Stratton’s snub and – in the ensuing teacup-storm – of the merits or worthlessness of such films. Perhaps typically, responses to Wolf Creek 2 have spanned the aggressively defensive to the outright derisive: articles in the News Corp and Fairfax papers have ranged from condemnations of the movie as ‘a knuckle-dragging exercise in torture porn’ (the Herald Sun) through to defences of these types of films as potentially high art (the Sydney Morning Herald). Patrick Stokes’ recent article on The Conversation demonstrates what has very quickly become apparent in Wolf Creek 2 discourse: we are much more comfortable talking around films like this than about them. These movies make cinematic civil libertarians of us all: we defend your right to see the films, so long as we don’t actually have to watch them ourselves.

Now that the dust has settled, it may be fruitful to place Wolf Creek 2 in a broader critical context, to consider it historically, generically and geographically. In his foundational work on trauma studies, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema and the Modern Horror Film, Professor Adam Lowenstein examines the relationship between horror movies and the real-world horrors that have plagued humanity. Lowenstein convincingly argues that the affective intensity of horror grants it a unique power to ‘return to history through the gut’. He expands on Walter Benjamin’s argument that representations of historical trauma are allegorical: they ‘honour … representation’s promise that trauma can be communicated – its commitment to the image of death is simultaneously a commitment, however conflicted and provisional, to the past’s value to the present.’ The allegorical moment is crucial to Lowenstein’s examination of the horror genre: he defines itas a shocking collision of film, spectator and history where registers of bodily space and historical time are disrupted, confronted and intertwined.’

By drawing convincing links between specific horror films and major historical traumas – such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War; Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) and the Holocaust; Shindo Kaneto’s Onibaba (1964) and the bombing of Hiroshima – Lowenstein suggests that horror offers fertile terrain for historical trauma to be teased out. More recent examples supporting his argument are Cloverfield (2008), which attempts to comprehend both the symbolic and literal magnitude of 9/11, and – even more notoriously – Srdan Spasojevic’s shocking A Serbian Film (2010). The title of the latter alone makes its unrelenting parade of graphic violence (one that makes Wolf Creek 2 look like The Silver Linings Playbook) inseparable from its production context: Spasojevic made this explicit by describing the film as nothing less than ‘a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government’.

Lowenstein’s analysis of The Last House on the Left is particularly useful when considering Wolf Creek 2. His reading begins with a central question about the broader potential of the genre to explore trauma: ‘what does cinematic horror have to tell us about the horrors of history?’ By applying a similar approach, we can better understand the political critique underlying McLean’s latest offering.

The Last House on the Left is a brutal remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). Wes Craven updates the location of the medieval Swedish rape-revenge film to the United States of the early 1970s, granting the film its ideological centre. With this new setting, a period in which the realities of the Vietnam War were increasingly encroaching upon daily life, Craven’s version becomes a frenzied response to the defeated ideals of the 1960s: the hippy dream is over, and spectacularly so. As two canonical examples of the notorious rape-revenge category, The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left share basic story elements, but while Bergman’s catharsis relies on the redemption of its rape-revenge-seeking protagonist, Craven denies the luxury of any ethical purification. For Lowenstein, The Last House on the Left ‘offers an indirect glimpse of the film’s allegorical promise: that “only a movie” as extreme, confused, and courageous as Last House can confront the divisive historical trauma of the Vietnam era along the axes of political demonology that constitute it.’

Even ignoring the controversies surrounding its release, Wolf Creek 2 can, from this perspective, be considered one of the most unrelentingly political films produced in this country in recent years. The film follows serial killer Mick Taylor as he slices and dices his way across rural Australia, through the bodies of a seemingly never-ending parade of young foreign backpackers. The film’s power and impact is less in its narrative – the structure of which is aggressively pared down, even by horror standards – than it is in McLean’s scathing reflection on Australia’s contemporary political climate, a climate marred by the shameful torture, abuse and – with the death of Reza Berati – murder of asylum seekers. At the heart of this lies an obsession well beyond McLean’s earlier takedown of grizzled outback masculinity: while it was widely acknowledged that the first Wolf Creek film playfully subverted the ocker hero typified by Paul Hogan’s Mick Dundee, there is no such joy in Wolf Creek 2. Here, Taylor is explicitly a rapist, explicitly a racist. He wants to kill foreigners simply for their desire to be here. There is no subtext.

For those unconvinced of the political potency behind Taylor’s bad puns (which by this stage have begun to outdo those of horror cornball supreme Freddy Krueger), consider these further examples. At one stage, Taylor tells a young British victim that he will release him from his Lucio Fulci-inspired subterranean torture chamber if – and only if – he can answer ten questions about Australian history, immaculately mimicking those on the real-life Australian citizenship exam (Taylor even includes one about Don Bradman). You can live, Taylor suggests, if you can prove to me you are ‘Aussie’ enough. Combine with this the number of overt visual references to the iconography of literary luminaries such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson – the film contains a number of blatant nods to The Man From Snowy River, in particular – and the savaging of wild colonial boys like Taylor becomes almost embarrassingly obvious: Clancy of the Overflow has become the Legend of the Overfiend. Still need convincing? The last two words of the film are ‘permanent resident’, inverted commas and all.

There has and always will be a large number of people unfamiliar with and unsympathetic to the perverse pleasures horror affords. These people will no doubt dismiss arguments such as mine and Lowenstein’s as tenuous attempts to elevate a lowbrow genre to something more cerebral or culturally worthy. Such arguments miss the point entirely. No film – or any cultural artefact, if you will – is made in a vacuum. Even those that may be easily dismissed by the self-appointed elite as hollow or empty still respond (whether consciously or not) to the broader socio-political climate in which they are produced. That you are not in sync with this particular avenue of cultural production is one thing, but to discredit it wholesale as valueless speaks less of the artefacts you are critiquing and more of your own biases. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu: ‘taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.’

For better or for worse, Wolf Creek 2 is, in many senses, contemporary Australia’s The Last House on the Left. McLean has made a film that revels in the visceral muck of what we are becoming; what is on screen reflects the horror being played out in the nation’s name, from Canberra to Manus Island. Like a slew of horror films before it, Wolf Creek 2 does not seek a didactic voice, but rather aspires to hitting us hard – whether we are aware of or receptive to it or not – on the level Professor Angela Ndalianis so evocatively describes as our ‘sensory intelligence’. Paraphrasing Lowenstein, Wolf Creek 2 is contemporary history we can feel through the gut.

But Wolf Creek 2 diverges from The Last House on the Left in one crucial regard: Craven’s film is a surrender while McLean’s is a warning. In 1972, Craven and his generation were shaken to their core by the flood of violent images streaming in from Vietnam, by the growing realisation of the abuses being done by Americans in the name of ‘freedom’. Little did Craven know that this disillusionment was to increase as that Watergate scandal gained momentum (the infamous break-in happened two months before the film’s release) and would eventually result in the resignation of Nixon in 1974. Even with its graphic violence aside, The Last House on the Left is one of the most conceptually bleak horror films ever produced. It offers no hope, no future and no possible redemption for a nation drowning in its own bloodthirsty hypocrisy.

The same cannot be said for Wolf Creek 2: hope is faint, but present. Taylor has grown in strength since the first film was released and has become more vicious, more omnipresent. But not all Australians are Mick Taylor … yet. There are still those who want to help, and not all of these (such as one easily missed minor character, an elderly woman with a car full of goats) fall at the hands of the monstrous white masculinity personified by the central villain. The film’s message may not be subtle, but it is both desperate and important: wake up, Australia, there is already blood on your hands. If you’re not careful, this is what you risk becoming.


Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

More by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays