Empty"Rogue," Greg Mclean's follow-up to the lo-fi torture-porn shocker "Wolf Creek," is the most expensive Australian-made horror film to date -- and it's easy to see what swallowed up the budget. The gigantic killer crocodile of the title is an outstanding feat of animatronics and CGI courtesy of Weta Workshop, the New Zealand special effects company that worked on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The rest of this self-serious entry in the creature-feature genre is, however, surprisingly toothless.
Financing from Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who distributed "Wolf Creek" in the U.S., has allowed Mclean to cast Hollywood actors Michael Vartan and Radha Mitchell and employ slick production values that will broaden "Rogue's" appeal beyond the cult status enjoyed by his envelope-pushing 2005 debut. But fans of the truly nasty "Wolf Creek" will be disappointed with a shiny production that delivers formulaic jolts rather than stomach-turning gore and depravity.
"Rogue" currently is testing the waters Down Under to qualify for the Australian Film Industry awards ahead of its U.S. release Oct. 12 and an official Australian release Nov. 8.
As in all the best monster movies, the threat here is all the more menacing for being rooted in reality. At 25 feet long, the rogue saltwater croc does not outrageously exceed the largest found in Australia. But calling this the "Jaws" of the outback is overstating the film's place in the genre.
Mclean says he was influenced by the more character-driven horror films of the 1970s, yet his roll call of characters get little more than a perfunctory introduction before most of them enter the Northern Territory food chain.
Pete McKell (a reliably bland Vartan) is an American travel writer venturing way outside his comfort zone of five-star hotels to board a river cruise in a secluded region of outback Australia. He's joined by a group of tourists, each easily defined by a single adjective: a jolly backpacker, a bickering couple, a nervous widower ("Wolf Creek's" John Jarratt in a glorified cameo), a geeky photographer for comic relief and the obligatory pooch managing to elicit more audience empathy than most of its human co-stars.
Mclean and cinematographer Will Gibson do a nice job building mood in these early scenes, with stunning aerial shots of the ancient landscape's sweeping escarpments and isolated billabongs. While they're developing this quasi-mystical relationship with the landscape, spunky tour guide Kate (the Australian-born Mitchell) is taking care of exposition with a fact-filled spiel about the man-eating crocs that are the area's biggest tourist attraction.
It's intended to give the day-trippers a frisson of fear-tinged excitement -- and the audience a heads-up about grave danger ahead. When the tour boat follows a distress flare farther upriver and is rammed from beneath by something big, we don't need to see much of the huge, primordial beast gliding semi-submerged through the water. And we don't for quite a long while.
The tourists abandon the sinking boat and end up stranded on a tiny mud island. As night falls and the tidal river starts to rise, concerns about missing their bus give way to the realization that they have been, as one character chillingly puts it, "tagged as a food supply."
The rest is a bit by-the-numbers as the tourists are picked off in uncommonly straight-faced fashion, with one even risking his life to retrieve some painkillers without a hint of irony. Although there are a couple of heart-in-mouth set pieces, the pace slackens until the well-executed croc-vs.-hero smackdown in the predator's lair.
This is the payoff, when the croc is revealed in its fearsome entirety from dagger-toothed jaw to powerful tail. The creature is incredibly realistic, moves convincingly and fills the screen with a commanding presence. If only the same could be said for Michael Vartan.
The Weinstein Co.
Dimension Films, Village Roadshow Pictures, Emu Creek Pictures
Screenwriter-director: Greg Mclean
Producers: Matt Hearn, David Lightfoot, Greg Mclean
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Joel Pearlman, Robert Kirby
Director of photography: Will Gibson
Production designer: Robert Webb
Music: Francois Tetaz
Costume designer: Nicola Dunn
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Pete: Michael Vartan
Kate: Radha Mitchell
Neil: Sam Worthington
Russell: John Jarratt
Simon: Stephen Curry
Mary Ellen: Caroline Brazier
Colin: Damien Richardson
Merv: Barry Otto
Sherry: Mia Wasikowska
Running time -- 93 minutes
MPAA rating: R