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MOVIE REVIEW

Slasher flick 'Wolf Creek' is harrowing but only skin deep

Three friends on an outback adventure, desolate vistas, creepy music, a squirrelly truck driver . . . yes, ''Wolf Creek" is an Aussie slasher movie. Isn't that what you asked for this Christmas?

Anyway, that's what you're getting from writer-director Greg McLean, whose first feature film is at least as unnerving as it is gratuitously sadistic, skin deep, and full of plot holes the size of Ayers Rock.

Taking broad liberties with the already meaningless ''based on true events" label, ''Wolf Creek" riffs off of some of the most notorious serial-killer cases in Australia, including the grisly ''Backpacker Murders" attributed to Ivan Milat, and the scary random crimes of just-convicted mechanic Bradley John Murdoch. In those real-life episodes, unsuspecting tourists wandered into the clutches of deranged men who killed them for sport. In McLean's movie, that's really just the beginning of the indignities people endure.

To open, viewers are advised that 30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year; 90 percent are found within a month, but some are never seen again. This text message is followed by an uneventful prelude that introduces a pair of British vacationers, Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Liz (Cassandra Magrath), who are embarking on a 1999 road trip with a Sydney-based friend named Ben (Nathan Phillips). Their Broome-to-Cairns itinerary includes a giant meteorite crater in an area known as Wolf Creek, and if you've seen the trailers you already know something of the boogeyman that awaits there. If not, consider this a spoiler alert to stop reading in the event that you'd rather be surprised.

When our three adventurers return from a hike to find their car has died, the guy who comes to their rescue is trucker Mick (veteran talent John Jarratt), a kind of bushy-haired Crocodile Dundee on speed. He's plenty odd enough to send up a red flag or two, but ultimately the stranded friends accept a tow to his remote repair place, and the evening ends with jokes around a campfire that mostly come at Mick's expense.

Big mistake.

Liz wakes up alone in a storage room, bound and gagged, with no idea what's happened to her mates. She escapes and goes looking, which leads to a world of stomach-turning horrors inspired less by fact than by ''The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and ''The Silence of the Lambs." ''Wolf Creek" isn't nearly as gory or over-the-top as many splatter films, but it's potentially more disturbing because it's so mean and menacing and common-man-size. Even toward the end, when the action gets implausible enough to seem like parody, it's still pretty harrowing to watch.

McLean's script is most notable for refraining from overdone one-liners, and his tight direction deserves credit for keeping tension and dread ever-present. But there's nothing particularly original going on in this film, and if its brutality has roots or consequences, they're certainly not on the screen.

''Wolf Creek" is ultimately all about the torture and the trauma. Happy holidays.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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