After a little time (and a second viewing) I think I was a perhaps a bit too dismissive of Greg McLean's Wolf Creek. I still don't think it's all that excellent a horror film, but my original assessment seemed a bit harsh -- so I made myself a mental promise to watch the guy's second movie with special attention.
If only I knew how difficult that assignment was going to be.
I'll spare you all the boring details, but it feels like Rogue has been sitting on a shelf at Weinsteins for about two years. They gave it a cursory theatrical release a few months back, which means that the horror fans have really been salivating for this particular title. (So maybe there is a method to Harvey's madness after all...) But the wait is now over and the feast can begin.
Confession time: I'll watch just about any movie in which people (plural) are eaten by wild animals. I'm not sure why I'm so enamored with this specific sub-genre -- it may be because I enjoy seeing stuff in movies that I would never want to see in real life -- but I think it has a lot to do with a little movie called Alligator. If you're of my approximate age, then you probably remember numerous schoolyard conversations about this movie and its infamous "swimming pool" sequence. If you're not, that's cool. Alligator is available on DVD. Go watch it. It must be my affection for the Killer Critters flicks that led me to spend 90 minutes apiece with recent reptile flicks like Lake Placid 2 (lame), Croc (even worse), Primeval (eh), and Black Water (pretty solid) -- but those flicks were all just preparation for Rogue. And while it's certainly no re-invention of the Hungry Animal wheel, it's important to judge a Killer Croc flick on its own Killer Croc scale -- and on that scale I'd call Rogue quite a success indeed.
First off, it must be said, Rogue surely looks like a million bucks. McLean and cinematographer Will Gibson capture a stunning side of the Australian outback, a landscape that's both seriously beautiful and powerfully uninviting at the same time. (Gibson died in early 2007, unfortunately.) Our set-up is a familiar enough affair: A leisurely tour through the Australian outback becomes a horror show once the travelers' boat is attacked by a massive crocodile. Even in the movie's quieter moments, McLean is content to set the scene with basic character drama and some really exotic visuals. The director sometimes gets a little creative with his shots, but his style doesn't come off as showy or overdone. And there's one simple shot of the boat floating past a rainbow that's really quite beautiful. Plus I always like it when a horror director knows how (and WHEN!) to use a good musical score; McLean does both here.
But here's an ironic little annoyance: The things that make Rogue worth watching -- are NOT the things you'd be expecting from the marketing materials. Take the DVD cover, for example. By itself, it's one of the coolest horror covers I've ever seen, but it definitely implies that Rogue is a non-stop chop-fest with a large body count and tons of free-flowing gore. Take this information for whatever you think it's worth, but Rogue is neither a gore-fest not a body buffet. Some of its most chilling moments take place ... completely off-screen! Since much of Acts II and III take place on a tiny island (that's quickly vanishing beneath the tide), the movie actually reminds me more of a thriller (or even a sparsely-populated adventure / disaster movie) than an outright horror show -- but that's not a knock. While some might yearn for more carnage, I enjoyed McLean's frequent attempts to keep the tension high. Some might say the flick needed to show MORE of the killer croc, but to that I say this: We all know what a crocodile looks like, and if the director wants to imply more than he shows, then it's up to me to decide if I like that approach. I say less is sometimes more, especially if "more" just means "more CGI." I might have enjoyed Rogue a little bit more with just a dash more gore, but the lack of it certainly doesn't mar this tight little reptile chiller.
Low-key leads Michael Vartan and Radha Mitchell do a solid enough job of creating "normal schmo" heroes who are worth rooting for, despite their mild character flaws (and some really bone-headed decisions), and the background is populated by a bunch of adequately colorful folks: The stuffy dad, the dying mom, the plucky kid, the wise-ass, the sweet fat girl, etc. -- and McLean (the screenwriter this time) earns a few points for not slaughtering his supporting cast in a predictably typical fashion. Essentially, it's a Raging Reptile tale that you've seen and heard before (that's for sure), but there's always something to be said for a flick that takes the very conventional stuff and still turns out worth watching. Nothing in this sub-genre has ever eclipsed the 1980 Alligator movie, but it's good to know that some filmmakers are still willing to give it a try. If you're confused by all these new alligator / crocodile flicks, here's an easy answer: Black Water and Rogue are the two you want. The rest are barely worthy of a rental fee.
Oh, and as far as the "unrated" moniker is concerned, that seems like a downright bait & switch this time out. I could be wrong (and please correct me if that's the case), but I think the only difference between this DVD and the theatrical cut is a few extra F-bombs. See, that's how they can call it "unrated." The version that played in (a few) theaters was rated R, but all you have to do is ADR a few F-bombs (or maybe just use some alternate takes that are laced with profanity), and then viola: You have a "new version" of the movie that the MPAA has NOT officially given a rating. Again, this is not a knock on the movie, just a simple case of basic marketing technique. There might be a few extra frames of gristle here and there, but nothing that would warrant an "unrated for graphic violence" label.
And the DVD isn't half bad, either. In addition to the aforementioned DVD cover, which is a treat all by itself, the fans can pick through a solo commentary track with writer / director Greg McLean and a surprisingly meaty 46-minute making-of featurette. Both are quite good, although (as usual) the solo track might have been helped by the inclusion of a producer, an actor or a DP, just to help keep things flowing. Also included are four mini-documentaries entitled The Effects (17:26), The Music (14:39), Northern Territory (14:44), and The Real Rogue (2:30). Aside from the last one (which is really a promo piece) these are surprisingly extensive and thorough perspectives on the film. The theatrical trailer is tossed in as icing on the cake.
So it's been delayed for way too long, it's been mis-marketed, and I'm pretty sure "the studio" monkeyed with Act III, but none of that really matters because Rogue is the best flick of its kind since Lewis Teague's Alligator, and it's an unexpectedly effective bundle of nervous tension, capped off with one really excellent sequence in "the lair."