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Roadside assistance

Few horrors are as universal as being stalked by a psycho in the middle of nowhere, and few places on Earth have as much "nowhere" as Down Under. Like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Australia's taut, textured horror film Wolf Creek conveys the same skin-crawling feeling of going off the map and leaving behind the laws of human society.

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Writer-director Greg McLean begins with disarming calm as we get to know young English tourists Liz and Kristy (Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi) and their Australian pal Bazza (Andy McPhee) as they sunbathe, party and drive to camping sites along the Outback. Wolf Creek doesn't foist cute character quirks or meaningful backstory upon us, so the trio feel like real people instead of Hollywood lambs to the slaughter.

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The vibe of casual sensuality gives way to high tension when their car dies after a visit to a giant meteorite crater that, shot from above, disturbingly resembles an unblinking eye. Anyone in the audience will identify with that sinking feeling of automotive failure and the subsequent risks in relying on the kindness of strangers. The stranger in this case is Mick (John Jarratt), an amiable hunter and good Samaritan with a wicked gleam in his eyes.

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McLean shows enormous confidence in his cautionary tale, building to fine levels of tension without resorting to cheap, sudden jolts. Wolf Creek includes unsettling, grisly scenes of violence and torment, but it doesn't lose its sympathy for the characters, so for once the director doesn't seem like the sadist. Its vivid photography gives the film a tactile quality, from the glow of its characters' skin in the early scenes to the shadows of the filthy junkyard where they face unspeakable horrors.

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The last act plays out with a sense of grim inevitability, and the film doesn't culminate with the kind of punch to make it a modern classic. But Wolf Creek remains a remarkably atmospheric thriller that'll amp up your anxieties about driving on remote country roads, and you'll never hear the phrase "No worries" the same way again. Opens Dec. 25. HHHII