The prologue of this don’t-go-in-the-woods horror overlaps with the grim historical drama Van Diemen’s Land, and evokes the historical character of Alexander Pierce (Peter Docker), a 19th Century convict who went on the run in Tasmania and was popularly believed to have resorted to cannibalism to survive. There was even a third Pierce/Pearce film about at the time, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce – which makes you wonder how this odd footnote character suddenly became a hot horror topic. In the historical film, he’s a desperate soul, the apportioning of guilt isn’t clear and a caption has him hanged – here, he’s a toothy Irish ghoul and seems to vanish into the wilds, having earned a gruesome Sweeney Todd-like nickname (‘the Pieman’) and a nursery rhyme. Then, in modern times, four young folks unwisely venture into the wild woods, supposedly in search of the rumoured-to-be-not-quite-extinct Tasmanian white tiger, though the Irish Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) is also keen on learning what happened to her sister, who went missing in the area some years earlier and whose gruesome fate she keeps having (psychic?) glimpses of.
The guys are veterans of recent horror hits on a torture theme – Matt (Saw’s Leigh Whannell) is the sensitive semi-wimp while Jack (Wolf Creek’s Nathan Phillips) is the Ugly Australian who keeps up a constant patter of insults, needles and thuggeries as if begging the inbred-looking locals (he’s the one who mentions Deliverance) to attack; the girls are decorative, with Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo) the pretty tagalong who is obviously going to get got first and suffer the most gruesome fate (her butchered nude carcass is hung from a tree). Director/co-writer Jody Dwyer doesn’t exactly innovate: the early stretches pick out ominous details of the grottiness of life hereabouts, a bedraggled little girl (Sheridan Harvey) takes a bite out of a friendly hand, locals leer at the women and the incomers (especially Jack) go out of their way to irritate them. Jack is more pro-actively violent than usual in these things, stabbing a tire to avenge being cut off on an outback road, battering a leering red herring goon to pay back a scratch on his car and using a Burt Reynolds bow to skewer a cute little bunny: all of which is set up for indignities visited on the party later, when it turns out that toothy Pierce descendants still live in shacks out near a dam which might not be on the map, the little waif is Nina’s niece and her mother was abused and eaten by a hairy hermit (Bille Brown), and the taste for human flesh has been passed down in these parts, which makes one suspicious of the contents of the popular local pies.
The setting is beautiful and menacing, and Dwyer can stage a decent stalking and a series of sudden shocks (the local pinned to a tree by an arrow semi-accidentally shot through his cheek), with a few narrative feints: the story seems to wind up when the police are called in, but there’s another act of miserablist doom to go. However, though the Pierce connection gives it specific Tasmanian resonance, there’s little here that hasn’t been seen in many other backwoods cannibal horrors (and even in their remakes) and that gruelling, tortured-and-killed-and-raped-and-abused schtick has been overused recently, to the point that confrontational horrors have started to seem samey and almost comically overwrought.