Escalation is the strategy most horror sequels adopt. Audiences become jaded, the filmmakers reason; to win their repeat patronage, antes must be upped, body counts must rise, and the violence must intensify. So for anyone who’s white-knuckled their way through Wolf Creek, Greg McLean’s 2005 Aussie shocker, the mere notion of a sequel might provoke waves of preemptive nausea. After all, the first film—about a trio of backpackers brutalized by an eccentric Outback loon—may be the most harrowing nightmare in the boonies since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Where could McLean possibly go from a horror movie so horrifying it earned the mutual scorn of test audiences and professional critics, the former of whom issued it an ultra-rare “F” CinemaScore while several of the latter confessed to storming out mid-screening?
Arriving nearly a decade after the release of its predecessor, Wolf Creek 2 answers that question right out of the gate, throwing down the gauntlet with an opening scene of crazed pig hunter Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) dealing with a pair of highway patrolman unwise enough to cross him. Back on board as writer and director, McLean spends the next hour and change trying to top himself; his sequel triples the fatalities, amps up the already-heavy sadism, and piles on the slaughterhouse imagery, going as far as repositioning its fearsome antagonist as a limb-severing cannibal. This uptick in extremity may appease Fangoria subscribers, but it won’t necessarily satisfy those who saw both elegance and take-no-prisoners intensity in the original. In some ways, the film is comparable to Tobe Hooper’s 1986 Chainsaw Massacre sequel, a follow-up whose increased splatter factor couldn’t compensate for the loss in primordial dread.
There is something admirable about McLean’s refusal to simply replicate the structure of his divisive debut. Yet part of what made Wolf Creek so effective was the way it steadily built tension, using its first hour to ingratiate viewers to the heroes/victims while slowly tightening the noose around their necks. Here, McLean puts the pedal to the metal from the start, forgoing suspense in favor of instant, gruesome gratification. For a while, as Mick goes about his deranged business, the film fails to even settle on a rooting interest; around the midway mark, a nominal protagonist finally emerges, but some viewers may be too numb to invest at that point. Once you’ve seen someone butchered like a hog in front of his girlfriend, the capacity for dramatic involvement tends to diminish.
Clearly working with a much bigger budget than last time, McLean splurges on exploding craniums; stacks of festering, prosthetic corpses; and a car chase that ends with an epic explosion. Smartly, he also reserves a few dollars for air coverage: The Outback itself, the stealth secondary villain of these movies, looks even more menacing when glimpsed from above. As for Mick, he’s still a terrifying human monster, swinging suddenly from dimwit congeniality to hellish malevolence. (Jarratt deserves a place in the fiend hall of fame.) But McLean missteps in taking the man’s mad motives from subtext to text; an amusingly grim game of trivia devolves into a bona fide mission statement, the filmmaker reducing his ruthless killer to an anti-imperialist bogeyman. Wolf Creek had the better sense to leave Mick a force of nature, emerging from the bush to prey on those who stray too far from civilization. Mostly, though, part two just suffers from a miscalculation in tactics; it inspires more disgust and depression than raw terror. Even in the international arms race of extreme horror, less is sometimes more.