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Review: Wake in the Fright (1971)

Wake in the Fright (1971)

Directed by: Ted Kotcheff | 109 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas, John Meillon, John Armstrong, Slim DeGrey, Maggie Dence, Norman Erskine, Owen Moase, John Dleen, Buster Fiddess, Tex Foote, Colin Hughes, Jacko Jackson, Nancy Knudsen, Dawn Lake, Harry Lawrence, Robert McDarra, Carlo Manchini, Liam Reynolds

‘Wake in Fright’ is the film adaptation of the book of the same name by Australian author Kenneth Cook. The film is set in the endless red sands of the outback and follows the adventures of the young school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond). John teaches a small group of children at an otherwise extinct school in the desert, and when the Christmas break arrives, he decides to go back to his girlfriend in Sydney. Along the way, however, he makes a stop in the mining village of Bundanyabba (called “The Yabba” by the locals). That evening, he is introduced to local cop Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) and the pastime of gambling with which the village’s permanently inebriated and sexually frustrated men pass their time. John also decides to gamble, but loses all his money. After this he becomes dependent on the charity of the people in the town. In the beginning John is still having a good time in Bundanyabba, but soon the village appears to harbor more and more dark sides.

Director Ted Kotcheff made ‘Wake in Fright’ in the winter of 1970. The film was highly regarded at the Cannes Film Festival, but did not exactly catch on with the cinema audience. The film was not well received, especially in Australia. Kotcheff is said to have portrayed a negative image of the rural population and many of the scenes are said to be too graphic in nature. In the 1990s, however, the film gained cult status. The film had gone missing for years at that point, until someone rescued a negative from a dumpster. Since then, ‘Wake in Fright’ has been on the radar of many a movie buff. This revaluation is completely justified. ‘Wake in Fright’ is a disturbing, yet very intriguing film.

‘Wake in Fright’ has been repeatedly labeled a horror film over the years. It’s not that hard to see why: the movie is deeply frightening. ‘Wake in Fright’ is a film about masculinity and alcohol addiction. The film shows quite straightforwardly how quickly and easily a person can fall into barbarism, and how ‘close-knit’ communities sometimes hide the darkest secrets. Perhaps what makes Bundanyabba the most horrifying is that its population is completely sober towards the most indecent and sad parts of the village. Outsiders with different views or behaviors are highly distrusted. Women flee the community. Carrying a firearm is the most normal thing in the world. And to make matters worse, there are quite a few suicides every year, a tipsy Jock Crawford tells John. “They think it’s because of the heat,” the officer says with a straight face. Crawford will be tough, he likes the heat.

As our protagonist, however, John isn’t much better than the inhabitants of Bundanyabba. In the beginning of the film, he looks down on the population and their simple moments of happiness. The fact that everyone glorifies this place as a kind of Garden of Eden, where everyone knows each other and people start drinking beer early in the morning, is a thorn in his side. But when he eventually becomes dependent on these people, he is gradually withdrawn into the community. And it turns out that he actually likes it in the village. John, thinking he was on a higher level, tries against his better judgment to leave his role as an intellectual. He drinks beer to the point of turmoil, is invited home to complete strangers, accepts the advances of one of the few women in the community, and has fun with the eccentric Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence).

Doc is the only other person in the community who recognizes the absurdity of the whole thing. He is educated and astute, just like John. Yet he decided long ago never to turn his back on Bundanyabba. The people of the village know who he is, and he never has to worry about booze, as he is invariably rewarded with crates of beer for his services. Doc is the one who takes John in tow for most of the film. The dynamic between the two men is very intriguing. At times the two seem to get along very well, but at other times there is nothing but blind hatred between them. There is also something sensual lurking between Doc and John. This is never explicitly discussed, but it is there.

The most famous scene of ‘Wake in Fright’ is when Doc and his buddies take John on a kangaroo hunt. It’s late at night, and the men are driving a jeep through the outback way too hard and drunk. Then they start shooting at kangaroos like savage. They don’t kill the animals for their flesh or skin, but purely because they get pleasure out of it. John is also given the task of killing a kangaroo. He has to cut the animal’s throat with a machete. However, he fails completely, and the attempt ends up much bloodier than planned. The brutality of this scene is not easy to forget. Moviegoers denounced this scene in 1971, but animal rights organizations in Australia couldn’t believe their luck. Finally, there was a movie that had the audacity to show the senseless slaughter of kangaroos plainly on screen.

‘Wake in Fright’ is a very atmospheric, oppressive and disturbing film. The clever combination of the unfeigned violence, the savage landscape, the peculiar characters and a convincing sense of unease, make for an unforgettable film and make you look back with sadness to the gray but deeply intriguing world of Ted Kotcheff. You don’t come across films like ‘Wake in Fright’ easily.

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