One of 2005’s most welcome surprises, Wolf Creek is also one of the past decade’s finest horror films. A lean, mean bit of Aussie slasher nastiness, writer-director Greg McLean’s debut generated suspense by creating empathetic, three-dimensional characters whose survival audiences cared about, and by then pitting them against a redneck villain, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), who came across as less of a stock madman than—courtesy of McLean’s unsettling evocation of his milieu—a manifestation of the primal, borderline otherworldly Outback. Though he had a scraggly, wise-ass personality, Taylor chiefly seemed like the embodiment of larger environmental/natural forces. Thus, the film’s terror came, first and foremost, from a grander portrait of likable people being attacked not just by an unhinged man, but by nature itself.
On the basis of Wolf Creek 2 (opening in limited theaters on Friday), however, McLean misunderstood the power of his own film. The sequel opens with two malicious cops unreasonably harassing Taylor—a set-up that puts viewers in the position of not fearing Taylor but, rather, rooting for him to slaughter others. It’s a victim/victimizer role-reversal that foreshadows the rest of McLean’s severely gory and fright-free follow-up, which backs up the director’s claim that he wanted to make “a much more entertaining movie [that] explores the comedic aspects of Mick Taylor's character.” And it speaks to a far bigger problem plaguing horror cinema: the genre’s habit of tarnishing its greatest boogeymen through misbegotten sequels that turn them into the colorful main attraction.
That horror films (even classics like Dracula and The Wolf Man) rarely spawn worthwhile sequels is not stunning. It’s immensely difficult to frighten people multiple times with the same scenarios and psychos, if only because a good scare often involves surprise, and a sense of real danger. Horror sequels operate from the opposite point-of-view, assuming that if something worked the first time, it’ll work again, with minor alterations to the template that usually involve amplifying the complexity and gruesomeness of a fiend’s murders. It’s a more-is-better strategy that almost always reaps diminished dividends, since familiarity mainly breeds been-here, done-that boredom.
But as reconfirmed by Wolf Creek 2, slasher sequels’ more fundamental problem has to do with the slashers themselves. Be it Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Sleepaway Camp, Child’s Play or the legion of other likeminded franchises, modern boogeymen are in almost every case reduced to cornball caricatures by their subsequent installments. With a few rare exceptions (such as the ingenious Bride of Frankenstein or the underrated meta-comedy Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), it's unintentional. More weapons. More outlandish methods of dispatching their victims. More ludicrous locations for their killing sprees. More one-liners. The result: goofy cartoon monsters whom we’re supposed to find entertaining.
When Wolf Creek 2 has Mick Taylor spout movie quotes or engage in creepy-witty banter with his soon-to-be-dismembered prey, it follows in the footsteps of countless others. Of those ignominious forbearers, the Nightmare on Elm Street series remains the most notorious culprit of this misguided modus operandi. While the Wes Craven-helmed original cast Freddy Krueger as a malevolent return-of-the-repressed predator who was vengefully continuing his child-abuse mayhem via kids’ dreams, the later sagas transformed him from a hallucinatory demon into a cackling, quip-spouting funnyman—more ghastly stand-up comedian than terrifying unholy murderer.
In doing so, the Nightmare films made Freddy the leading man whose homicidal crimes were to be hotly anticipated and enthusiastically celebrated on the merits of their creativity, rather than to be feared. This was also true of the endless Friday the 13th sequels and their increasingly ludicrous instances of Jason rising from the dead to inventively wield a machete. Also see: the gratuitous Halloween and Saw installments that also saw fit to render their victims less empathetic innocents than obnoxious “types” designed to function as cheap meat-grinder fodder for the action’s star attraction: the killer.
By making such fiends the main focus, these sequels neuter the very dread they presumably hope to produce. That’s because films like Wolf Creek 2, Saw IV, and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers don't compel viewers to identify not with the on-screen characters whom they most resemble—namely, the helpless teens and twentysomethings who invariably find themselves in deadly trouble. Instead, they provoke you to connect with the uniquely larger-than-life and powerful monsters. Often given more elaborate back-stories that turn them into sympathetic victims themselves (of mean parents, cruel bullies, and/or unfair society at large), Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, and others court viewers’ understanding and compassion, not to mention adulation for the ingenuity of their every new slaughter.
Consequently, lame sequels like Wolf Creek 2 don’t even try to scare, so busy are they concocting wannabe-awesome ways for their sadistic villains to carry out their dirty work while cracking wise with oh-so-clever bon mots. That’s not horror; it’s just gorehound pandering—and truly something to scream about.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.