Directed by Greg Mclean, starring Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips and John Jarratt.

The subject of much industry interest - with US company Dimension Films paying under $4m for the US distribution rights even before it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival - 'Wolf Creek' heralds the arrival of writer-director-producer Greg Mclean as a filmmaker of much promise and provides more chills than you might normally expect in a cinema.

In Broome, Western Australia British backpackers Liz (Magrath) and Kristy (Morassi) set out on a road trip with Sydney-born Ben (Phillips). The plan is to drive as far as Cairns, stopping at the Wolf Creek national park along the way. Humour, boredom and the mutual attraction between Liz and Ben all form part of the journey north - as does an awkward encounter with some local cavemen at a filling station. But the decision to stop at Wolf Creek seems to have been worth the effort when the trio descend a huge crater left by a meteor. The journey to the bottom, however, takes longer than they expect and when they return to the car it's near dark - and the battery is dead.

Fearfully resigning themselves to having to spend the night in the car, help arrives in the form of Mick (Jarratt), a good-natured outback dweller who tries to get the car started and then offers to tow it to the old mine facility where he lives to fix it properly. Uneasy but grateful, Liz, Kristy and Ben agree. And so begins their night of horror.

While most US shockers seem in a rush to get to either the next set piece or the ending, Mclean is in no hurry to unleash what awaits in 'Wolf Creek'. He skilfully builds up the tension and the growing unease of, as one of the hapless trio puts it, "travelling into something". And, like all good Australian directors, nature plays a huge part in his film, becoming a character in itself and sometimes acting as an accomplice to the terror lurking in its midst.

That terror owes far more to the muted, realistic violence of 'Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer' than regular stalk-and-slash fare. For the viewer, it seems as if Mclean flips a switch in the film, turning it from one type of story into another and transforming Mick from wise-cracking bushman into one of the more memorable unhinged villains of recent times.

But this is also a film which can, perhaps because of its gritty, hand-held cinematography, leave viewers wanting established horror conventions and then becoming frustrated when they appear. There's a key moment when one of the characters has a chance to definitively stop the evil which surrounds her, but the scene doesn't work because including it knocks the film's distinct rhythm and puts 'Wolf Creek' closer to Hollywood than hell. That's the biggest failing here, but maybe you'll be too scared to care.

While 'Wolf Creek' proclaims that it's inspired by true stories of outback killings and goes as far to include a 'real-life' epilogue, Mclean didn't need to resort to either. His film is strong and weighty enough to stand on its own: a downright nasty story that some joker might tell you around a campfire or at a party - and convince you never to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Harry Guerin