Editor’s Note: This article discusses graphic true crime events not suitable for all readers.
Sometimes, all you need to change the coarse of your career is a good inspiration. Stephen King often shares that part of his inspiration for The Stand came from the Dugway Sheep Incident, in which a military base accidentally spilled some nerve gas that killed some odd 6,000 sheep – and would have taken out a small town if the wind had been blowing a different direction. Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson was spending a weekend house-sitting when he saw an episode of Turning Point about the Gainesville Ripper and finished his first draft of what was then called Scary Movie in less than three days. And first time writer/director Greg McLean discovered the story of Ivan Milat, perpetrator of the Backpacker Murders just outside of Sydney, Australia, in the early 1990s, and was able to take his mediocre script straight into horror movie history.
It may be hard to imagine now, but the original Wolf Creek (2005) script looked very different from the film we have come to know as full on franchise material now. Back in 1997, McLean wrote a beat-by-beat slasher, set in the Outback, but he was unhappy with his original incarnation of the story. He couldn’t grasp what was missing from his classic genre tale with an Aussie twist. Shouldn’t slashers just work? By the late ‘90s, there was something fundamental about the structure. But, as many aspiring artists know, getting it done and getting it done right are two very different things. He needed something to elevate his tired story to greatness – and he would soon come upon that with the closure of the Backpacker Murders trial.
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And so, Wolf Creek came out fifteen years ago with a bullet, almost tripling its budget on opening weekend with close to $3 million gross. Keep in mind, this released on December 25th – Christmas weekend. And this isn’t even close to a Christmas movie – not even in the way Die Hard is a Christmas movie. No twinkle lights hinting at holiday splendor behind the madness. No wayward Santas being murdered behind shopping malls on smoke breaks. It was just all out horror, and genre fans were all in.
Wolf Creek undermined our classic genre expectations, and leaned into the torture porn genre that was gaining traction with the likes of Saw (2003) without going full Hostel (though they came out the same year). It had slasher tropes: a death-by-numbers set up, a don’t-go-in-the-woods vibe set in the Outback, and an enigmatic killer in Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) that both charmed and horrified audiences. But it was subversive, destroying our would-be final girl with a knife through the back halfway through the film ala Psycho and letting the lone survivor be cast as male (yup, in Australia, the final girls are boys and the toilets flush backwards). It also kept a small on-screen body count, with only a hint of this killer’s proliferation creating tension instead of full-on torture.
But, as always, horror fans…the true story may very well be scarier than the celluloid.
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The Backpacker Murders
It’s 1989 in New South Wales, Australia, and you’ve decided to go backpacking with your lover. Your free-spirit, hippy lifestyle grants you such a luxury – so you hitch your thumb and wait to get picked up to head toward Wodonga. A hard-lived man in a four-wheel drive Nissan Patrol picks you both up and, at first, there’s nothing untoward about the ride. It’s actually quite fun. The guy reveals he’s the fifth child of a batch of fourteen – a huge family with many interesting stories to share. Maybe you’re so intrigued that you don’t notice when he departs the freeway and heads onto a suburban street. Maybe he even tells you he’ll feed you and give you a bed on which to sleep for the night, so you don’t get worried right away. But once inside his small home, close to a National forest in a suburban neighborhood, the tone changes. You don’t feel safe anymore.
And you shouldn’t…because this man subdues you both, ties you up, sexually assaults you, and severs both your spinal cords before finally killing you. He transports your bodies to Belanglo State Forest and buries you in a shallow grave. At least this torture is over. Except he keeps coming back. Burying more bodies and scattering the dirt with cigarette butts.
Such was the fate of Deborah Everist and James Gibson, whose bodies were discovered in 1993 by a local man traversing the forest. Gibson had been stabbed 8 times in the heart, lungs, and back. Evidence indicated Everist had been beaten, sexually abused, and also stabbed through the spinal column.
Between 1989 and 1993, another five people went missing under similar circumstances. A German backpacker, Simone “Simi” Schmidl, went missing in 1991 after announcing her intention to backpack from Sydney to Melbourne. Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied disappeared in late December the same year, hitchhiking from Sydney to Darwin. In 1992, British backpackers Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters left a Kings Cross hostel and never made it to their second destination.
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Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters were discovered six months later by two joggers in the Belanglo State Forest. Their bodies were adorned in a ritualistic fashion, with a pyramid of sticks and twigs atop the grave sites. Walters had suffered multiple stab wounds, four-to-five in the spinal region, with clear intent to paralyze her and leave her helpless. There were fourteen stabbings in all. Clarke was found with her arms tied above her head in red cloth, and had ten bullet holes in her skull. Investigators determined she had been used for “target practice” after being beaten and tortured.
Clarke and Walters were the first two bodies found, however they were a clear escalation from the bodies about to surface and carried the most evidence. Less than half-a-mile away, Everist and Gibson were about to tell their story as the first victims of a brutal serial killer. At first, the murders were not connected. Investigators were confused by the fact that Gibson’s backpack and camera had been located during the initial missing person’s investigation in 1989, nearly 75 miles away in Sydney. But the spinal stabbings and similarities in knife used forced them to officially declare these serial murders. From October through November of 1993, the bodies of Simone Schmidl, Gabor Neugebauer, and Anja Habschied were unearthed, all of which had multiple stab wounds from a Bowie knife and at least one at the base of the spine.
Through some good, old-fashioned police work including gun records, police profiling, link analysis, and, surprisingly, gym memberships – authorities narrowed the list of suspects down to 32 people. On that list was Ivan Milat, 49, who had a criminal record for the abduction of two women in 1971 in the Sydney area. But it wasn’t until Paul Onions phoned in from the UK that the suspicions turned exclusively to Milat.
Paul Onions was a seasoned backpacker, having transversed the Aussie Outback for several years prior to being picked up by a man known only as “Bill.” Heading towards Belanglo State Forest, Paul reported that Bill pulled over and attempted to tie Onions up. As Bill attempted to draw his firearm, Paul escaped the vehicle and ran. He was picked up by another motorist, Joanne Berry, and promptly left Australia, hoping to never look back. Onions’ statement was corroborated by Joanne Berry, and strengthened when the girlfriend of one of Milat’s coworkers pleaded with police to take a closer look at Ivan Milat.
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When they did, the evidence was overwhelming. After his arrest on May 22nd, 1994, a search of his home revealed a cache of weapons, including a .22 calibre rifle. A Bowie knife was found in his current car, having recently sold his Nissan Patrol. Investigators discovered clothing, camping equipment, and cameras that had belonged to the seven victims, many of which were stuffed into cavities in the walls. Leashes, gags, and homemade handcuffs were also found. Perhaps the most disturbing pieces of evidence were several photos, two of which were pictures of victim Caroline Clark wearing a Benetton shirt, and a picture of Milat’s girlfriend, Chalinder Hughes, wearing the same shirt gifted to her by Milat.
The highly publicized trial introduced 145 witnesses, including family and friends – not all of whom were convinced of Milat’s guilt in the face of overwhelming evidence. Milat himself presented evidence to exonerate himself. Throughout the 18-week trial, Milat maintained his complete innocence, as did a smattering of family members. He was convicted of seven murders and one kidnapping, giving him consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Milat’s case is his unyielding grasp to his innocence. Throughout his time in jail, Ivan Milat filed multiple appeals, claiming to have never met any of the victims. In 2009, he cut off one of his fingers with a plastic knife, wishing to mail it to the High Court of Australia and force an appeal. He gave multiple interviews, and even let his phone calls with family to be recorded to show his unwavering resolve to the lack of connection between himself and his victims. He died in his prison cell on October 27th, 2019, and even on his death bed – despite the coaxing of authorities to alleviate his guilt and confess – he refused to give closure to the families of his victims by finally copping to his horrendous crimes.
And thus, Mick Taylor was born in McLean’s mind. A dizzying combination of Crocodile Dundee and Ivan Milat – opening the mythology of the Outback and marrying it with a true crime terror – but McLean wasn’t done yet. In 2001, a single incident involving two cross country travelers would give McLean the finishing touches that would allow him to complete Mick Taylor’s mythology and cement Wolf Creek’s outstanding horror narrative.
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Bradley John Murdoch
You’re sitting in the passenger seat of a orange Volkswagen camper van, driving with your partner down Stuart Highway headed for Devils’ Marbles. It’s a dark night and, in the distant rear view, you catch a set of headlights gaining on your tail. These headlights have been following you since you left that roadhouse in Barrow Creek. It’s clear this vehicle is about to overtake you, so your partner slows to let them pass. To both of your surprise, the driver pulls alongside you and gestures frantically for you to pull over. Your partner does, and this older gent pulls in front of you. Your partner goes to talk to the man. Apparently there are sparks shooting from your exhaust. They’re going to check it out, so can you take the wheel and rev the engine while they take a look? You hop into the driver’s seat, watching in the sideview as they disappear behind the van and press the gas. As the engine revs, you also hear a loud BANG! Was that your engine? How are they going to make the trip with sparks coming–
But then the man from the other car shows up outside your window, tapping it slowly with a silver pistol. You open the door, scared, and he binds your hands. He pulls you from the car to bind your feet, but you struggle. He leaves you for just a moment, trying to move the body of your partner. It’s just the opportunity you need. You run, directly into the brush and find a hiding place deep enough so he cannot easily find you but you can still see the road. You wait…all night…watching as he scans with his headlights, driving by multiple times before finally giving up. You’re able to flag down a road train hours later…and they take you back to Barrow Creek – traumatized.
Thus is the story of Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees. Joanne was able to flee the scene and identify her assaulter as Bradley John Murdoch – a drug smuggler and white supremacist who had previous abuse charges levied against him. Details of the case came to light in 2003, and the trial bled right into 2005, which led to the delayed release of Wolf Creek at the behest of High Court of Australia – knowing at least some of the details of the film had been gleaned from Joanne Lees’ story.
And so, with just the right amounts of truth and legend, Wolf Creek was released 15 years ago to horrified audiences, transcending the borders of Australia and generating a sequel and TV series that showcase the dark side of the beautiful Australian landscape.
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