My notes on Rogue.It’s strange (and a bit sad) that Wolf Creek, Australian writer-director Greg Mclean’s effective but thoroughly unpleasant first feature, got a theatrical release and was a modest success in the Hostel-Saw-Haut Tension vein of tied-up-with-barbed-wire-and-tortured films, but his second effort – which is just as suspenseful, much better paced, has at least a couple of ounces of humanity, features some recognisable names (okay, one is a pre-Hollywood Sam Worthington) and delivers good old monster movie thrills – has slunk out almost unnoticed on DVD. It has a few parallels with Blood Waters, the other Aussie giant croc movie, but offers a larger cast of potential reptile chow and a much more impressive crocodile (‘they’re pretty much living dinosaurs who have been perfecting their hunting skills over two hundred million years’). After a prologue in which a water buffalo gets snacked on by a lantern-jawed giant, Rogue opens in a fly-blown, hot-as-hell outback town as a deftly-characterised group of tourists embarking on the proverbial three-hour tour with local guide Kate Ryan (Radha Mitchell, using her natural accent for once), and chugging up the creek to look at the dangerous wildlife. As usual, the outpost of civilisation – manned, in a cameo, by antipodean veteran character actor Barry Otto – is an unappealing tavern, with gruesome news pictures about crocodile attacks framed on the wall. In a nice suggestion of miscommunications to come, the barman (Otto) overhears American travel writer Pete (Michael Vartan) complaining about the terrible service and dumps a dead fly in his coffee – not realising his customer was referring not to him but the mobile phone service (all horror films now have to take place beyond phone range).
There’s a hint of the enmity between outback-dwellers and incomers which featured in Wolf Creek as the tour boat is buzzed by a couple of the strine scuzzbos who have featured in these films for decades (cf: Mad Max, Razorback, Storm Warning). Beery lout Neil (Worthington) gives Kate a hard time in a way that suggests some Straw Dogs-like history between them, spurring mild-mannered Pete (Michael Vartan) to speak up. However, this is a feint – the real trouble starts when, despite grumbles from some of the party who have buses to catch, Kate takes a detour to answer a distress flare. The crocodile, who isn’t strictly a rogue since it’s stressed that he’s defending his territory against human interlopers, wrecks the boat and strands the party on a small island which is shrinking every minute (as in Attack of the Crab Monsters!) because this is a tidal river. One tourist is snatched by the monster when nobody is looking, and Neil comes along to jeer at the castaways then has to join the party when his boat is trashed too (and, refreshingly, doesn’t become a whining traitor but does his best to pull together with the others to get out of this quandary).
Blood Waters was about three people up a tree, but this has a wider range of characters and shows that Mclean has developed as a writer since Wolf Creek. We don’t get the full-on backstories an American disaster movie would saddle its people with, but everyone makes some sort of sense and registers as an individual rather than a convenience: Russell (John Jarratt, the psycho from Wolf Creek, in a kinder, gentler role) has bought two tickets and quietly empties someone’s ashes (wife? a parent?) into the water (but never explains – a lesson more screenwriters should learn: the gesture is enough to make us understand the character, an explanation would just trivialise him); Elizabeth (Heather Mitchell) is terminally ill and thus committed to her family’s survival (neatly, she bonds with the grieving Russell); Gwen (Celia Ireland) is traumatised by the early loss of her matey husband and credibly freezes up while trying to span the water on a rope and panicky people are urging her to get on with it. Even the annoying camera buff (Stephen Curry) and the cheery fat girl (Caroline Brazier) aren’t just comedy relief – and the film doesn’t squander the impact of its casualties by inflicting too many of them.
After a mid-section in which the group try to rig up escape methods or signal for help and the reptile makes sorties that whittle them down, Mclean changes gears: the monster grabs Kate and the survivors scatter, but Pete ventures into the creature’s cavernous lair under a big old tree and battles with it to rescue the injured but undigested heroine. Here, we get solid monster movie stuff as a wimp from the city becomes a resourceful, determined wilderness man in order to save the girl from the seemingly malicious giant creature. This has some structural similarities with the last act of Wolf Creek, which also featured injured folks desperately struggling in a killer’s lair, but this time it’s not a complete downer. Rogue allows the hero to be really heroic and best the monster, a default to the earliest mode of storytelling so rarely used in current cinema it’s powerful all over again. Using some combination of animatronics, CGI and real beasts, the film creates an entirely convincing monster, even when seen up close and personal – and staging the finale in a lair which it’s almost too big for makes for a great claustrophobic suspense sequence. The soundtrack is especially effective, using weird atonal outback noises, but the good nasty humour of the enterprise is sealed by the use of a vintage recording of ‘Never Smile at a Crocodile’ over the end credits.