Ted Kotcheff, 1971
Starring: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay
A school teacher, John Grant, hates his small-town job and is traveling across Australia during a holiday to visit his girlfriend in Sydney. He takes a train to a mining town known as the Yabba to catch a flight, but gets held up in Yabba when the locals encourage him to constantly drink himself into inebriation. At first, John has fun and appreciates the local hospitality. But soon he discovers gambling and though he nearly wins enough money to stop teaching, he loses it all, including everything he came with. He is trapped in the Yabba and must rely on the kindness of strangers, namely the local doctor, Tydon. Part of the hospitality includes forcing him to drink insane amounts of beer, encouraging him to have sex with a local woman (he vomits instead), and dragging him to the Outback in the middle of the night for a brutal, bloody kangaroo hunt that he is expected to participate in. John’s trip plunges into various forms of violent, rape, and a permanent hang over. Will he escape the Yabba, or will he have to kill himself?
While Wake in Fright is generally regarded as a horror film, it is not as much a straightforward genre flick as it is a disturbing descent into hell, the heart of darkness, psychological horror that feels horribly real. Amazingly, I first saw the film as a bootleg (actually shown to me by an Australian) just before its revival, which could not have come too soon. Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel Outback, Wake in Fright was considered lost for several decades before its 2009 resurgence, where a print was allegedly rescued minutes before being sent into an incinerator.
The film disappeared due to poor performance at the Australian box office, despite a great reception around the world and at Cannes. It was allowed to screen at Cannes again after its 2009 revival, and is allegedly only the second film to receive to two separate screenings at the legendary festival. I think part of the initial problem with Wake in Fright is that it straddles the link between art-house (like Walkabout) and Ozploitation/horror (such as the arguably great Long Weekend and Razorback). As with its main character, the film exists in an uncomfortable no man’s land. Though it has since become a cult classic and received rave reviews, there was simply no way to position it within ‘70s genre cinema or the types of films being made in Australia at that time.
Similar to films like Deliverance or Straw Dogs, but more brutal, more real, and more vulnerable, Wake in Fright comes highly recommended, but it is not the sort of film you should let catch you unaware. Be forewarned that there is extensive, very real animal violence, as part of the film follows John on a midnight kangaroo hunt. This was shot with professional kangaroo hunters and was allegedly so gory and disgusting that the film crew faked electrical problems in order to stop filming. But in addition to these brief moments of violence, it is incredibly bleak. The perfect date movie, in other words.
Wake in Fright benefits from solid acting all around, thanks to a number of Australian side actors and lead performances from the great Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond (Zulu, Anne of a Thousand Days), looking somewhat like Peter O’Toole here. Pleasence’s Tydon is both charismatic and repulsive – at heart he is a rational man, a doctor who made the conscious choice to move to the Yabba, because the local populace is willing to overlook his alcoholism. Though John becomes stuck in the Yabba due to a downward spiral of violence and alcoholism, he is first drawn there because of the decisions he makes – he drinks and gambles away all his money. It is his inherent politeness and civility that prevent him from refusing the local citizens when they take pity on him and show him some charity.
The women in the film are practically nonexistent – this is a man’s world and it is primarily concerned with depictions of masculinity, as with many of director Ted Kotcheff’s films. John’s girlfriend is little more than a faded photograph, a mirage, while Janette is passed around from man to man in Yabba and Tydon talks about her as an idealized sort of woman, rather than as a specific person.
Director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernie’s), does a phenomenal job and everything from the soundscape to the cinematography are near perfect. While this is regarded as one of the greatest Australian films of all time (by the likes of Nick Cave, no less), keep in mind that its director is Canadian, its two leads are British, and it was co-funded by the U.S. It is a brutal picture of humanity, regardless of its origins.
The restored film is available on Blu-ray in a special edition release that comes highly recommended. Brace yourself for some Australian punishment and check out one of the greatest Australian films, thankfully rescued from oblivion. If you want to learn more about the film, check out Twitch’s interview with Ted Kotcheff or this page from the Alama Drafthouse, who helped release Wake in Fright for its 40th anniversary.