Articles by

<Henry Stewart>

05/27/14 11:11am

The Normal Heart, an HBO movie starring Mark Ruffalo, based on the play by Larry Kramer

When The Normal Heart debuted in 1985, it was supposed to break your fucking heart. Larry Kramer’s drama chronicled very real, recent and still-raw history: the gay community’s battle with AIDS, the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the widespread indifference from the powers-that-be in the straight institutions that control the world. He wanted to get you engaged, get you enraged, get you up out of your seat and out into the street to join in the fight in whatever capacity possible. To that end, he emotionally manipulated the hell out of you; I mean, there’s a deathbed wedding, fer chrissakes. But his scheming feels rooted in the real, and rooted in good cause, so you not only forgive him for what he’s done—you ask him for more.


Seeing the show on Broadway in 2011 was gut-wrenching in a way last weekend’s perfectly fine made-for-HBO movie was not. And it’s for two reasons having to do with the nature of film and the way the medium’s used. For starters, the movie, thanks to the immersive nature of cinema, feels like a period piece, stripping the play of its last and maybe hardest-hitting punch: the connection to today, the realization that though the disease now has a name that politicians aren’t so afraid to speak and an arsenal of medical treatments doesn’t mean that it’s cured, or that it’s stopped killing, especially when you stop confining your focus to Manhattan and look at the whole wide world. When you left the Broadway production, Larry Kramer himself (or at least one of his people) handed you an open letter that doubled as a fact sheet.

Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague… Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still minuscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated… Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.

You get similar, though less politically trenchant, information at the end of the HBO movie, but as title cards, it’s easier to ignore, to gloss past, than a piece of paper shoved into your hand on W. 45th Street. And it’s easier to relegate the AIDS epidemic to the past, to safely distance it, when you see the people dealing with it so steeped in period, the clothes and the historical references (Koch, Reagan), the Fire Island idyllic bacchanal that opens the film, giving you a sense of the gay liberation at stake, the freedom to be lost by Kramer’s moralized hectoring. Film can make the past seem real, but in this instance it’s to the material’s detriment.

But what makes the HBO film so much less effective than the stage production I saw is that it’s just not as emotionally manipulative—and The Normal Heart‘s power is derived from its heartstrings-tugging. Two scenes illustrate the problem. One of the most moving scenes on stage was Patrick Breen’s “I’m not a murderer” breakdown, the character Mickey’s big scene in which he confronts the disease’s unknowability and his own potential complicity in its spread. On screen, Mickey is played by Joe Mantello, the excellent actor who played the lead onstage (replaced for HBO by Mark Ruffalo), and he gives the scene just as much stomach-collapsing heft, gasping for air by the end as though almost physically destroyed. Director Ryan Murphy doesn’t need to cut away, to visualize what the character’s describing, because Mantello holds the camera’s attention. How could any man or machine look anywhere else?

So I couldn’t tell if it was Murphy’s incompetence or the lacking talent of one his stars that ruined the other most powerful scene in the show: Bruce’s description of the bureaucratic morass of trying to get his dead boyfriend’s corpse out of a Phoenix hospital, and the orderly who helps by stuffing the body in a trash bag and tossing it into the alley out back. It’s harrowing and horrible, but less so when Murphy makes it literal, showing us the flashbacks as they’re narrated by Taylor Kitsch. It’s self-defeating: no image of a trash-lined alley can compete with the trash-lined alleys of the imagination. Was it that Kitsch, known for his work on Friday Night Lights and action movies, couldn’t handle the grand emotions? Or Murphy couldn’t pass up visualizing the hospital scene?

Either way, it hurts the movie, making it seem sappier and soapier than it should. It’s not as though Murphy’s adaptation, written for the screen by Kramer himself, isn’t often moving, often infuriating, just like The Normal Heart should be. It’s just that sometimes you wish it worked a little better—as well as you know it could.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/21/14 4:00am

Cold in July
Directed by Jim Mickle

It’s not very funny, but this genre-bending, actually thrilling thriller still feels like a classic episode of The Simpsons, just because it ends up in a totally different place than it began. In the process, it runs through a trilogy’s worth of tortuous storytelling; every time you think you know where it’s headed, it swerves, busting cliches even as it navigates the familiarly sordid milieu of a Jim Thompson book, the sort of cynical pulp fiction in which the “bad” guys are better than the “good,” an East Texas full of mafia informants, snuff films, police corruption and coverups. It all starts simply with a mulletted and mustachioed Michael C. Hall (subverting the stoic vigilante archetype with quivering vulnerability) in bed with his wife, who wakes him up because she heard a noise; he goes to investigate, finds an intruder, and kills him, firing in a moment of high anxiety. His finger slipped. Then the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard), fresh out of jail and back in town, starts Cape Fear-ishly stalking Hall’s family, including his young son. And that’s just the half of it—or, literally, a third of it. (Hall is being set up, and he owns and operates a frame shop! Heh.)

Director Mickle exceeds as a stylist, a crafter of moods; his apocalyptic vampire feature Stake Land was most memorable for its end-of-the-world settings, his We Are What We Are remake most notable for its sustained melancholy. The best parts of this movie—besides Jeff Grace’s John Carpenter-esque score, which lends the film a grimy 80s edge—are the sanguinary details: the bucketful of bloody water from a cleaned-up crime scene flushed down a toilet, or the blood-sprayed light fixture that bathes a room in red. (Someone’s been watching his Nicolas Winding Refn! Or Dario Argento.) Mickle and his regular collaborator, writer-actor Nick Damici, have always had a tougher time with characters, so they’re smart here to work with strong material like Joe R. Lansdale’s source novel (rather than their own ideas in Stake Land or the tiresomely mopey script of the original Somo lo que hay), which is so densely plotted it allows the action to define the people that inhabit it. What emerges from this collaboration is something thematically primal, alternately soaked in sun and rain and blood, a movie about the different responsibilities fathers bear vis-à-vis their children: to keep them safe from the world, yes, but also to keep the world safe from them.

Opens May 23 at IFC Center

05/21/14 4:00am

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
Directed by Sam Fleischner

The Rockaways could be God’s Country. On a clear summer day, the oceanside Queens neighborhood easily embodies an imagined halcyon past—which is exactly how Woody Allen used it in Radio Days. In this film, however, it’s filmed as it stands, a working-class community stripped of sun-soaked sentiment: planes fly noisily overhead, and the streets are so desolate people walk right down the middle of them. Cloudy autumn skies and handheld cameras render grand homes ruinous, like some decaying Boston-Irish suburb; director Fleischner even makes the beach unbeautiful, letting it oscillate instead between ominous and menacing, especially as the film reaches its climax during Superstorm Sandy.

Before that, Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), a 13-year-old on the autism spectrum, wanders onto the A train at Beach 98th Street while walking home from school—an eerie resemblance to the Avonte Oquendo story, who walked out of his school a year after this movie finished filming—and spends the next several days riding up and down the Eighth Avenue line while a gentle melodrama emerges at home, family strain between mother, father and daughter exposed by Ricky’s disappearance. The scenes on the train are mostly documentary, improvisational, looking like they were shot with hidden cameras. In my notes, I made a comparison to the films of the Safdie Brothers (like Daddy Long Legs), which blend the real texture of street-level NYC life with scripted drama, and sure enough in the end credits I saw Josh Safdie had made a cameo.

Above ground, we get a sense of the difficulty of the immigrant experience, from the mother afraid to call the police because of her legal status to the father who can’t even ask his employers for the wages he’s owed. The city comes together to help: a neighbor guides the Missing postermaking process, and a hobo gives Ricky a banana. (Meanwhile, when they’re finally called, the cops are useless.) The drama often feels predictable, but at least it isn’t hysterical: instead of screaming about Her Baby, Ricky’s mother (a great Andrea Suarez Paz) maintains a steely facade, too frightened of deportation to let her emotions overcome her caution. Instead, mother nature provides the histrionics, the impending storm—not originally part of the story, but one the filmmakers used as it happened—giving the search some serious stakes: no one needs to underscore the urgency of finding the boy when people are boarding up their windows, subway service is suspended, and backhoes are building makeshift dikes along the water.

Opens May 23 at Cinema Village

05/19/14 9:00am

The cover of Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, a book by Dan Callahan

Last week, Pegasus published Dan Callahan’s Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based author, who’s also our senior theater critic, to talk about the legendary actress.

You also wrote a book about Barbara Stanwyck. How do you decide an actress is worth writing a book about?

I felt that Stanwyck was the best actress of her time, and I feel that Redgrave is the best actress of our current time. They are very different, but they do have one crucial thing in common: neither of them was good at selling themselves and doing colorful publicity to advance their careers. I feel like my books can help to promote the greatness of their work, whereas Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis need no such help.


Was there anything you discovered while researching Redgrave that surprised you?

Oh yes, continually. It was a real roller coaster ride. My heart sank, sometimes, when I was speaking to some of the people who had been in the Workers Revolutionary Party with her in the 1970s. I wish that she hadn’t been in that party. But I think that this is a very sympathetic book. My father, who didn’t know too much about her, just finished reading it, and he told me he admired her by the end of it.

You reviewed a play for us that she was in. What was it like to see her on stage?

Unforgettable. Great as she is on screen, it is on stage where you can feel her full greatness. Seeing Redgrave in The Revisionist was like getting hit by a huge wave at the beach and getting turned upside down in the water and then gasping happily on shore.

For people unfamiliar with Redgrave’s work, what would you recommend as good places to start?

I would tell them to go right to YouTube and watch her performance in the “1961” segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) and then watch her performance as Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians (1984). And get Blow-Up (1966) on DVD, to see what she was like as a young woman. Playing for Time (1980) is on DVD from Olive Films, and she’s devastating in it. My personal favorite is the TV film Second Serve (1986), but that is very hard to see. I’d love to also recommend Isadora (1968) and The Devils (1971), but those are very hard to find in prints that aren’t badly cut. The Fever (2004), based on Wallace Shawn’s play, is also excellent, and very personal for her. 

Has Redgrave read the book?

Redgrave’s agents contacted us last week. She’s living in New York right now, and she saw that we were showing Blow-Up at the Museum of the Moving Image, and she requested a copy of the book. We sent it to her, along with a very impassioned letter from me. I hope that she sees it is a serious and respectful book that was primarily written to celebrate her achievements as an actress. 

Which neighborhood do you live in?
I live in Park Slope with my longtime boyfriend Keith Uhlich, who’s a film critic at Time Out New York. He was living here when I was first dating him, 13 years ago. I have lived with him for nine years. At first, I worried about leaving The City, but I fell in love with the neighborhood right away. All the beautiful buildings from the 1890s give me a lift when I’m walking to the library at Grand Army Plaza. It really feels like a sanctuary where I can create a world of my own.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/15/14 12:06pm

Deleted Scenes from David Lynchs Twin Peaks movie prequel Fire Walk with Me


For years, fans of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s short-lived ABC series Twin Peaks have pined for a peek at deleted scenes from Lynch’s prequel film, Fire Walk With Me. Websites would ruefully inform you of their existence, but resignedly admit there was nothing you could do to see them except sign a petition, send an email, beg and plead and promise to spend money. But, hey, that pressure finally came to something: on July 29, CBS and Paramount will release a new box-set, Twin Peaks: The Complete Mystery, Entertainment Weekly reports; it will not only unite the series and the film in the same set for the first time but also feature 90 minutes of excised footage—the same deleted scenes that once seemed as though they’d be as impossible ever to see as Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.


This is the third Peaks DVD set being sold to fans: the first and second seasons were initially released separately—without the pilot, because of rights issues—and later combined along with the first episode in a definitive gold box edition. (The series also received several VHS releases of varying frustrations, or existed on your own DIY collection of Maxells in SLP mode with Bravo corner bugs and commercials edited out in-VCR.) The new Bluray set’s transfers were personally overseen by Lynch. “During the last days in the life of Laura Palmer many things happened, which have never been seen before,” he said in a statement, according to Entertainment Weekly. “They’re here now alongside the new transfer of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Twin Peaks, the television series.”

No price has been announced, and there’s not even an Amazon listing yet. But there’s a trailer!

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/14/14 12:11pm

When we spoke to Rooftop’s program director a year ago, he told us, “I am really curious to see what happens out in Sunset Park—Industry City could turn into a very weird place filled with thousands of interesting businesses. There will be some crazy stuff happening in the Navy Yard, too, and someday people will start to notice.” Well, this year’s lineup, as usual featuring sneak-previews of forthcoming indies and other features still seeking distribution, will include screenings in the Navy Yard and in Industry City—in fact, “Industry City is Rooftop’s 2014 Presenting Sponsor, as well as the primary venue for their 2014 Summer Series,” according to a press release. A third of Rooftop’s 45 movies will screen at Industry City, including Friday’s kickoff, a program of short films. It highlights the series’ commitment to our borough: though Rooftop began in Manhattan, and still shows movies in the Financial District, Kips Bay and elsewhere, it made its name atop the McKibbin Lofts and is now headquartered in Gowanus. Through August, Rooftop will screen 25 films and shorts programs at various locations throughout Brooklyn. These are the highlights, both of films and venues.


Rooftop Films screening at Greenpoint High School for Engineering and Automotive Technology

Greenpoint High School for Engineering and Automotive Technology
Rooftop will screen movies on the lawn of this McCarren-adjacent school on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border, including a July 31 sneak preview of Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, which she described to us as “heavily influenced by the fact that it takes place in Brooklyn.”

Rooftop Films screening at Trilok Fusion Center for the Arts

Trilok Fusion Center for the Arts
On the roof of this Clinton Hill organization’s headquarters, Rooftop will screen a May 22 sneak preview of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, which one L Mag freelancer told me is “so good!”; another said she “just loved it.” BAM built a whole rep series about Punk Rock Girls around it.

Brooklyn Grange in the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Brooklyn Grange
Twelve stories above the East River at this 65,000-square-foot Navy Yard rooftop farm, Rooftop will show agriculturally appropriate cinema including a May 29 program of Rural Short Films and the June 19 New York premiere of The Last Season, a documentary about Oregon mushroom hunters.

Rooftop Films screening at Downtown Brooklyns Metrotech Commons

Metrotech Commons
Rooftop will host three free screenings in this Downtown Brooklyn open space, including, on June 6, a selection of shorts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Rooftop FIlms screening at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn

Old American Can Factory
Rooftop calls the roof of this Gowanus arts and manufacturing complex “perhaps our most peaceful and spacious rooftop venue.” It’ll show five movies here this summer, including the May 23 New York premiere of Infinite Man, which sounds like an amazing Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime-esque time-travel romance, and a May 30 sneak preview of Ping Pong Summer, the new feature from Hammer to Nail contributor and Ditmas Park resident Michael Tully.

Industry City
As far as the screenings here, we’re most looking forward to the July 3 world premiere of Thanksgiving, a relationship drama about a Brooklyn couple. But as far as a venue, we’re most psyched about this weekend’s events (including a screening of Brooklynite Gillian Robespierre’s buzzy Obvious Child) in the “secret party cove” on 39th Street and First Avenue, described as “a spectacular and undiscovered space, tucked away amongst Industry City’s massive complex along the Sunset Park Waterfront.”

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/09/14 12:08pm

7 trains have been redesigned to resemble the coffee shop from Seinfeld

A few months ago, my girlfriend and I went splitsies on the complete Seinfeld on DVD, all 180 episodes of nine seasons on 32 discs. It’s a great show with an astounding number of iconic episodes; you can have a blast blowing through a disc after work. The saddest part always comes when the episode is over, and you see the copyright date under the Castle Rock Productions logo. My god, did this episode really premiere 21 years ago? Am I really so old?


But the culture seems to have no such shame; there’s something almost sick with the way it worships the show, especially here in New York. Also a few months ago, I was disturbed by billboards in the subway—entire billboards in the stations—advertising the show’s syndication schedule on WPIX, a show that’s decades old. (It had been on at midnight, but “popular demand” got it pushed back up to 11pm.) A story on Gothamist yesterday explained a lawsuit between the real Kramer and a guy who was on the show once, because anything that happens related to a 20-year-old show is news. And the Daily News broke the story yesterday that, starting next week, 7 trains will be redesigned to resemble the interior of the coffee shop where the Seinfeld characters frequently ate (right down to the authentic Seinfeld advertising and larger-than-life character decals), timed to coincide with a subway series. “Nothing is more New York than Seinfeld, the subway, the Mets-Yankees rivalry and PIX11,” the president and general manager of WPIX told the tabloid, even though Seinfeld was filmed in Los Angeles.

I mean, look, Seinfeld was a great show. But we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves with it, fill our papers with the happenings of its bit players, watch it everyday before we go to bed, advertise the fuck out of it, reconfigure our subway trains to celebrate it. We risk becoming fixated, developing a pathological obsession. You get in too deep and you start thinking the characters are your friends, start telling stories to your friends that begin “one time George and Elaine came over…” There are other shows to watch. Like, how come they don’t show The Simpsons on WNYW anymore?

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/08/14 4:06pm
Kate Lyn Sheil in Intimate Semaphores, a movie by TJ Misny premiering at the Brooklyn Film Festival

A local festival like BAMcinemaFest culls from indie showcases like Sundance and South by Southwest, finding (like the New York Film Festival does with Toronto and Cannes) the most essential titles for New York audiences. By comparison, the Brooklyn Film Festival (whose 17th annual iteration will run May 30-June 8 at Williamsburg’s IndieScreen and its next-door neighbor Windmill Studios) is smaller, focusing on films a bit more off-the-radar, and thus it’s harder to predict what’ll be worth your time and money. And yet, thanks to familiar names and compelling descriptions, we can tell you these five movies look like pretty safe bets. Don’t believe us? Make a bet of your own: many great films—like Gabi on the Roof in July, My Brooklyn and Brooklyn Castle—played at this festival before we ever heard of them.


Intimate Semaphores
The world premiere of the festival’s co-opening night film grabs our eyes for a few reasons, most of them the leading actors. The omnibus’ three shorts, all directed by TJ Misny, feature noted indie actors like Kate Lyn Sheil (about whom just this week we joked “might literally be in every movie ever made by an indie director since 2009”), Brooklyn funny people like the stars of Broad City and recent SNL addition Sasheer Zamata, and more. For their milieu, that’s a bunch of high-profile people!

I Believe in Unicorns
The other opening night film, getting its New York premiere, features a supporting performance from Amy Seimetz. After being impressed by her acting in movies like Upstream Color and A Horrible Way to Die, as well as her directorial debut Sun Don’t Shine, we’re willing to bet on anything she’s attached to.

Who Took Johnny?
Directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky (here teamed up with David Beilinson) are local celebrities for their last film, Battle for Brooklyn, which chronicled the fight against the Atlantic Yards project and played at a previous iteration of this festival, at outdoor rallies, on television, and elsewhere. Their latest documentary tells the story of an Iowa paperboy who disappeared and became the first child to appear on a milk carton.

Movement and Location
Brooklyn-based director Alexis Boling directed this feature about a woman who travels 400 years back in time to “live out an easier life in [our present-day] Brooklyn,” carving out a life with a roommate, job and love interest that’s thrown into disarray when she meets a teenager also from the future. A local setting + a compelling sci-fi backstory is enough for us. Also, it’s the first film that used the crowdfunding website Seed and Spark to premiere at a festival.

Born to Fly
This is the New York premiere of Catherine Gund’s documentary, which will have a theatrical release at Film Forum in September, about choreographer Elizabeth Streb, a one-time MacArthur Fellow who went on to found her Extreme Action Company as well as Williamsburg’s Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, or SLAM, a performance and rehearsal space (that once claimed as an instructor Phillippe Petit, the Man on Wire subject who once famously walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers!).

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

05/07/14 4:00am

Devil’s Knot
Directed by Atom Egoyan

The mysterious murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993—their bodies hidden in a muddy creek, stripped, hogtied with their own shoelaces, one boy’s genitals mutilated—is the sort of lurid true crime that Hollywood producers usually jump at. So why did it take 20 years to cast Reese Witherspoon as one of the grieving mothers? Not that cinema’s lacking for stories about the three teenagers quickly arrested, tried and convicted for the crime, known now as the West Memphis Three: over the course of 15 years, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s directed three Paradise Lost documentaries, following the poor policework, circumstantial cases and outrageous prosection against the supposed perpetrators.

At the end of their third film, the defendants, wrongfully convicted in the opinions of most, are finally released in 2011 thanks to a unique deal with the state. In general, Hollywood doesn’t like its true stories to have loose ends, and the original murders remain unsolved. But because the official response to the crime became a crime in itself, here’s the flood of new movies to deal with that story: the year after Paradise Lost 3, the Peter Jackson-produced documentary West of Memphis hit theaters, and by the end of this year we should see the non-documentary version Monte Hellman’s working on, starring Chloe Sevigny. But first, something a bit statelier and Golden Globes-worthy, perhaps to get some attention from the types who don’t watch documentaries—even though this telling is so dense it can’t even get up to the point when the boys (now men) are released from jail; it barely puts them behind bars within its 120 minutes.

There are a lot of different aspects of the troubled and troubling case that a film adaptation could focus on: the victims and their grieving and suspicious families; the supposed criminals; the perhaps real killers; the cops and lawyers and private investigators. The script for Devil’s Knot, by Scott Derrickson (the horror-movie hack behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and his creative partner Paul Harris Boardman, chooses to focus on all of them, creating a dense narrative packed with too many characters, charting a complex investigation that director Atom Egoyan miraculously keeps coherent. (A Berlinger-Sinofsky composite even appears.) The filmmakers’ main way into the story, based on Mara Leveritt’s book, is through Colin Firth as Ron Lax, a skeptical and liberal-minded private investigator who doesn’t buy the devil-worship hysteria that turns the town against the troubled teens. He’s that lovable archetype: the dogged and heroically obsessive investigator (a cliche subverted so smartly by Zodiac).

Still, he’s not so much the star as one point in a cinematic constellation, which also includes the brightly shining Witherspoon, Amy Ryan, Dane DeHaan, Egoyan regulars like Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood—the only one missing is Arsinee Khanjian—and others. (Firth’s off interviewing witnesses for the defense while the film also observes the emotional fallout on the survivors as well as the legal morass, the swift railroading of the kids as the case’s almost laughable holes open up.) Since the 90s, when he graduated from the Canadian art-house to the American indie-plex, Egoyan has made ponderous films that increasingly fall just shy of artsy; though this one feels more for-hire (or, “collaborative”) than usual—where are all the means of mediated experience?—he still employs some of his favorite devices: clean visuals, deglamorized stars, and a fragmented narrative structure.

What emerges is a story about scapegoating, how a town struggling to comprehend such brutality could assign simple answers to help them fathom the unfathomable. (For once, Southern injustice isn’t about race; instead, it’s about religious prejudices against heavy metal music and paganism.) The movie is too often schmaltzy, too on the nose in its dialogue and characterizations, but it does get across the pain that comes from realizing that the world is a complicated, unknowable, incomprehensible place with only two real states of being: the blissful comfort of ignorance and the painful uncertainty of knowing that you don’t, and can’t ever, know.

Opens May 9

05/07/14 4:00am

Wolf Creek 2
Directed by Greg McLean

It’s been 10 years since the original Wolf Creek premiered, during which time it’s become known as one of the best horror movies of the decade. Director Greg McLean has made only one other movie: Rogue, a killer crocodile picture from 2007 that’s not much more than a well-steered creature feature; it’s also off most people’s radars, at least those who don’t keep up with Dimension Extreme’s new releases, which enhances McLean’s one-masterpiece mystique. Though hopes don’t usually run high for sequels, especially horror sequels—which have a bad rap thanks to the likes of Jason X and Halloween 6—McLean himself wrote and directed this one, so fans of the genre could be forgiven their excitement about his returning to the setting and characters he exploited so effectively once before.

Set half a decade before its 1999 release and vaguely inspired by Australia’s Backpacker Murders from a decade before that (as well as the contemporaneous Peter Falconio disappearance), the original film teased audiences for 35 minutes with various red herrings—archetypal toothless creeps and supernatural elements like stopped watches and a mysteriously dead car battery—as its heroes made their way to the title’s remote meteorite crater. Its charming indie romance unfolded along the road trip and subsequent hike, McLean’s camera sometimes hanging back like the characters were being stalked, reminding you that this was, in fact, a horror movie. By the time Wolf Creek introduced its villain, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), a serial killer who arrives in the night, you could figure him as just more misdirection, especially with all his charm and good humor.

It’s another 15 minutes before you’re quite convinced to the contrary—in a brilliant sequence that slowly reveals a torture chamber from an outsider’s POV—and by then you’re so attached to the sympathetically ordinary characters, and thus so concerned for their safety, that the brutality that ensues is all the more harrowing, particularly because the movie’s emotional and narrative sincerity make all the usual horror cliches seem irrelevant: you never feel convinced that at least one of them’s going to make it out of there. And even if they did, where would they go? Into the vast expanse of Western Australia, vulnerable to the elements, wild animals, or some forgotten family of crazies? The final survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could at least run right out into the road to stop a car for help. Not so when you’re hours south of Wolfe Creek in the Australian boonies.

In contrast to those depopulated roads, this new movie is crowded with other victims, the kind at which the first film only hinted. They’re brought center stage, but the real star is Taylor, who gets the film’s first 10 minutes to be harassed by highway patrolmen-with-class-prejudices and then wreak over-the-top vengeance via rifle, knife and gas can. If the original Mick toyed with our expectations of both horror villains and Australians, the new one multiplies them by two and then outdoes the product. During one of the movie’s many car chases, Taylor drives a big rig (an homage to Duel?), squashing half-a-dozen road-crossing CGI kangaroos with its wheels (an homage to The Ring 2’s deer?); these rubber-burning pursuits conclude with explosions of escalating intensity, Taylor emerging like a Looney Tunes baddie with an endless supply of vehicles, lives, whatever—a sadistic Wile E. Coyote hunting humans with far more success than he ever had running down roadrunners.

Tonally, it’s reminiscent of when Leatherface shows up at the beginning of the first Texas Chainsaw sequel dancing atop a moving truck—the boogeyman having learned to boogie. As the first Creek provoked comparisons to Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 grindhouser, so too will its sequel draw comparisons to Chainsaw’s followup, which is now a cult classic but was very poorly received upon its 1986 release. (Both sequels also include journeys through horrific tunnels; the similarities are intentional.) “‘Part 2’ has a smirk on its face, and would rather giggle than scream,” Roger Ebert wrote of TCM2. “It doesn’t have the terror of the original, the desire to be taken seriously.” You could imagine critics writing the same words today about WC2—just wait till they’ve seen the dank dungeon “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” duet, in which a Pommy tries to prove his Aussie cred to the psychotic Taylor.

Mick’s first victims after the bad-attitude cops are German hitchhikers, in contrast to the original’s English tourists and Sydney native. (All three nationalities accounted for the known victims of Backpacker Murderer Ivan Milat.) Taylor will later accuse the tourists of literally “shitting in our backyard,” just one of the many xenophobic sentiments he expresses throughout. But first, those travelers will visit (or for us, revisit) the Wolfe Creek crater much more quickly than the victims who came before them; they’ll be much more quickly dealt with, too, one of them decapitated with a knife, his large penis soon after sliced off and admired. The fleet, pre-gore character development—the luxuriating in an edenic Bush—feels scrambled for, just a quick digression from the inevitable horror to come (especially after that opening). Which, it is: the killer is the hero, not the catalyst of action; Mick’s quarries pass off characterhood and victimhood as though they were attached batons, entry into a relay race for survival. Anyone fool enough to stop their car or open their door becomes a player in this drama, which means they become another casualty. (Those who callously blow past remain anonymous—and thus safe. As Mick later explains, the first rule of the Outback is “you never, ever stop.”)

To be generous, Wolf Creek 2 often feels like the work of hack-y producers who didn’t understand the first movie’s virtuosic craftsmanship, just its long-term critical success and the potential for a quick cash-in—that is, like it was made by moneymen who wanted more blood and snappier wisecracks: the Freddy Kruger of Dream Child rather than the original Nightmare. Then again, maybe 10 years just made McLean a dimmer artist, more interested in tasteless cartoons than artful genre work? Or maybe he wanted to take his original formula so far over the top (as when he sits a whip-wielding Mick atop a black horse and has him ride into the sunset in search of a victim) in order to mock such producers—or even the fans th
emselves, unfairly demanding more of the same just better.

Opens May 16