Crocodiles! I’ve always found them to be rather bad movie monsters. Same thing with snakes, you know the big, fat Anaconda-franchise-kinda snake. I know crocodiles and snakes are prehistoric super-killers with millions of years of evolution in their favour and in real life are as scary as waking up with your mouth full of spiders, but unlike sharks for instance, I’ve always thought crocodiles lacked on-screen character. They are too thin, too clumsy looking, too lifeless, simply not intimidating to look at. No matter how many times some scientist with a secret agenda or wildlife guy has tried to build momentum by telling us just how daaaaaangerous and ferocious these giant, lumpy lizards are, I’ve never really been scared once they got on screen and started eating people.
Leave it to Greg McLean to change my perspective. Here’s a croc that’s scary! Here’s a croc that has motivation! Here’s a filmmaker who knows his shit! He winked at it in Wolf Creek, using characterisation and a slow start to make the horror and violence hit that much harder, but in Rogue McLean steps up and takes seat as a full fledged master of suspense. It’s wonderful to see a monster movie that knows exactly what it is and exactly what it wants. There’s no unnecessary filler, no distracting love story, nothing but a slow building ride that ends up more thrilling than the ones that start at 100mph.
Again making good use of the Australian outback, McLean dumps his protagonists, the tourist freight of a croc-cruise, literally in the middle of nowhere, stranded on a teeny-wheeny island with a man-eating croc in the water and no chance of being seen or heard by anyone. To make matters worse the island is slowly being devoured by the incoming tide and sundown is only hours away. The tools are well-known, the story not particularly original, but gosh-blimey is it effective! After seeing this I have the feeling that this guy could make a garden-hose scary, or make me jump at something as stupid as a cat-scare. McLean proves that it’s not what you work with, but how you put it together and how you tweak the details that make a thrilling movie. He has that Hitchcockian sensibility and sense of suspense that puts him in total control of his audience, and that’s rare these days, almost non-existent in English-language horror. A detail like the fact that the deserted group of people are only about a hundred feet from the mainland, but damn near certain to get eaten if they go in the water, is genius. A way out is always visible, lurking in the background of the frame, but it’s unreachable, making panic and frustration that much more palpable.
Same thing goes for McLean’s approach to his monster. There are no mad scientists at work, no government experimentation, no abnormal, environmental reason for this croc to be aggressive, just the very real fact that crocodiles are territorial animals and these people are stranded on the monster’s turf. For every minute the animal gets more agitated, but unlike most monster movies you get a very believable reason why, adding to the tension even more.
I wasn’t one of those who praised Wolf Creek, but I saw lots of potential that I think has evolved here and I definitely find Rogue to be the better of the two. Almost everything works like a charm in this little film. The cast is above par, with Radha Mitchell sporting a charming aussie accent and TV-actor Michael Vartan putting in the punch to carry a leading role. The scares are scary, the humour is funny and subtle, never undermining the threatening mood. Even the CG is pretty good. Most of all, though, Rogue is carried by the expertly crafted curve of suspense, the small seeds planted throughout that grow into full-fledged panic and horror, without ever letting the film succumb to comedy.
Second-time filmmaker McLean has put veterans Steve Miner and Tobe Hooper to shame by making a film that towers way above semi-comedies like Lake Placid and Crocodile. Blissfully relieved from scientists and explorers saying “That’s a giant croc!” or explaining why, the film wins by simply doing what it does and doing that well. Hugely entertaining, smart enough not to be condescending and thankfully not too long, Rogue deserves all the audience it can muster. As genre-filmmaking goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.