Written and Directed by: Greg McLean
Starring: Michael Vartan, Radha Mitchell, and Sam Worthington
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Do you have many attacks on people?"
My yearly Shark Week exploits usually provide ample reminders that this little cinematic corner is, to put it gently, a little run-down. Recent years especially have not been kind to connoisseurs of nature-run-amok movies: not only have sharks suffered, but so too has just about any critter that SyFy or The Asylum wrangles into one of their exercises in post-ironic badness. I could continue down this path and bitch about it for the umpteenth time since there’s plenty of this fodder out there, but it seems excessively redundant since of those movies are bad in the exact same ways. Besides, it seems much more productive to go back and shed light on one of the more recent efforts that truly got it right in Rogue, Greg McLean’s gnarly Outback killer-croc feature.
As is often the case with Ozploitation, the general thesis is that Australia is always out to fuck you up. Between Wolf Creek and this follow-up, McClean seems to make it clear: if the rural psychopaths don’t end you, then nature will eventually do the job itself. Couched from the perspective of an American journalist Pete McKell (Michael Vartan) who would rather be anywhere but such a shithole, Rogue paints an immediately ominous portrait of Australia: battling poor cell phone reception, McKell drops into a seedy, sweltering little dive whose walls are papered with grisly tales of crocodile attacks. It’s exactly the opposite of what he wants to see since he’s been assigned to do research aboard a boat that takes tourists right into the heart a nation park teeming with dangerous wildlife, including one very territorial, pissed-off crocodile that rams the boat, leaving the passengers stranded with no recourse.
Like the killer shark genre, the killer alligator/crocodile genre’s small number of great films tend to cast a long shadow over all of the also-rans. In this case, it’s Alligator and Lake Placid, then everything else, though Rogue definitely deserves to be mentioned in such company, especially since it’s the only one of the three that’s attempting to be a genuinely horrifying or suspenseful. Don’t get me wrong—I love those other two, but they’re more schlock and comedy-oriented, whereas Rogue is more grounded in its characters and their harrowing plight. McClean is patient in building atmosphere and slowly escalating the situation; he’s clearly much more preoccupied with exploiting tension and character dynamics than he is with simply, well, exploiting (at least until it’s time to get down to grisly business).
McClean shows tremendous restraint early on when he allows the audience to settle into this sweaty, almost desolate milieu. Flies swarm about as the various characters mingle, many of them revealing their own internal conflicts: one man (John Jarratt, virtually unrecognizable) has come to scatter the ashes of his wife, while a woman with an terminal illness (Heather Mitchell) is enjoying what is likely to be one of her last outings with her husband (Geoff Morrell) and daughter (Mia Wasikowska). The film is subtle about allowing the various characters to reveal the personalities that will eventually define the dynamics that will eventually come into play when everyone is attempting to survive, and, generally speaking, you care about every one of them—including a local, boorish knucklehead (Sam Worthington).
It's almost a cliché at this point, but Rogue is the sort of monster movie where the monster is the least of anyone’s worries, at least initially. In one of the script’s sharper turns, the characters take refuge on a small river island that will soon disappear once the tide comes in, a revelation that only compounds the tension and suspense as the characters have to cooperate to devise a plan of escape. One of the more memorable sequences is something of a high-wire act: desperately seeking to cross the river, the group ties a rope between a couple of trees in a vain attempt to ferry everyone across. A palpable sense of danger and panic sets in once everyone realizes they’re literally dangling like bait a stealthy predator lying in wait, ready to strike without warning.
It’s a scene that’s emblematic of Rogue, a film that thrives on these types of character moments and suspense without leaning too heavily on its creature. Instead, the crocodile’s menace is felt more than it’s seen for about half of the film: the tour guide (Radha Mitchell) describes the creatures’ typical behavior, while McClean only offers the occasional glimpse. Otherwise, the creature is kept underwater or confined to shadows, creating the unsettling sensation that a predator is actually lurking about. For much of the film, the killer croc acts as a stealthy ghost, striking from the shadows and eerily carrying its victims off to an even more ghastly fate.
From a practical standpoint, this approach results in a more intense, unnerving film—monsters are almost always scarier when you can’t see them, and I can only imagine how fucking terrifying this sort of situation must be. Luckily, Rogue is the closest I should ever come to knowing for sure. Of course, crocodiles are also quite skin-crawling even in broad daylight, so when McClean finally reveals the creature, the film hardly deflates thanks to some fantastically convincing effects work. Both practical and digital effects bring the crocodile alive, though Rogue actually relies more on the latter. Surprisingly, it’s quite effective: a few obvious shots distract, but, for the most part, the film creates the impression that a very real, very threatening crocodile lurks in the den onto which McKell stumbles during the climax, a riveting little set-piece that exploits claustrophobia, bone-crunching gore, and thrilling survival instincts.
If I’m being honest, the sequence could only likely be improved had it featured Mitchell fending off the beast rather than Vartan: not only does it make more thematic sense, but Mitchell is much more compelling than her male co-star, whose blandness is the film’s weak link. Hell, he’s so nondescript that even Sam Worthington would have fared as a more charismatic lead. That quibble aside, however, the climax really kills: this dank, blood-soaked, unholy den is a marvel of creep production design, and the showdown between man and beast is absolutely visceral. Nearly every exchange between the two demands some pound of flesh, though McClean keeps it grounded just enough so it doesn’t lapse into absurdity. It feels about as authentic as a battle between a 180-lb man and a 25-foot, 2-ton crocodile can possibly be on screen.
Since it arrived on the heels of the seminal Wolf Creek, Rogue was probably destined to be somewhat overlooked upon release. In the near-decade since, I’m not even sure I’ve properly acknowledged it as one of the more solid horror films of the past decade. It’s one of those perfectly entertaining programmers, a far cry from Wolf Creek’s nihilism but just as effective nonetheless. As a creature feature, it largely succeeds on every front: tethered by an absorbing atmosphere, gorgeous photography, and strong character work, it plays out like something of a thrill-ride, one that delivers the requisite amount of gory effects work along the way.
If just half of the creature features released nowadays were as effective as Rogue, I wouldn’t….well, I wouldn’t have to go back and pluck a nearly-decade old movie out and point to it as a shining example. Not that I actually mind, of course, because I’m happy to report that we can file Rogue under the “still awesome” category. In fact, it’s arguably McClean’s best film.
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