Wake In Fright Review
What’s It About? Wake In Fright (18) is the story of John Grant, a school teacher who embarks on a trip to Bundanyabba with the intention of staying there for one night before flying to Sydney the next day. When he ends up broke after a night out he falls under the mining town’s dark and depraved spell, drinking endlessly and encountering some of area’s more unsavoury characters.
Verdict: Rescued in recent years from a film canister marked ‘for destruction’, Wake In Fright comes with a chequered past. It had its world premiere at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival before getting a very limited theatrical release; it did poorly at the box office and until recently was forgotten completely. After a frame-by-frame restoration, the film was screened for a second time at Cannes in 2009 when it was picked by guest curator Martin Scorsese.
Its critique of life in the Australian outback and its incredibly brutal realism may have been what prevented it from making any box office impact in the early 1970s – these elements now, however, are the ones most celebrated. Adapted from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name, the film opens by observing the dusty desolate landscape in which John Grant (Gary Bond) works as a teacher. As the school holidays get underway, John takes the train to Bundanyabba (known as “the Yabba”) where he plans to stay overnight before moving on to Sydney where he can start his holiday.
His plans are thrown into turmoil when he spies an opportunity to make enough money to allow him to leave his teaching job. The opportunity takes the form of a crude gambling game in which the locals place money on two coins landing on heads or tails. John pushes his luck too far though and ends up penniless; the next day all he has is the $1 deposit on his hotel room key. It’s then that he begins to encounter some of the town’s oddballs; Tim Hynes pays for his drinks before taking him back to his home and introducing him to his daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay) and friends, Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle).
From then on, John’s descent into hell is a rapid one, and Doc’s entrance into the fray is a catalyst in this. Played magnificently by Donald Pleasence, Doc is apparently a well-educated man with a background in medicine (as his name would suggest). Not that he’s any less fond of drinking and brawling than everyone else in the Yabba. The day after a fumbled sexual encounter with Janette, John goes on a hellish kangaroo hunt with Doc, Dick and Joe.
The film’s kangaroo massacring scenes are some of its most disturbing; the most graphic of them – in which kangaroos are seen being killed – were shot as documentary footage. Director Ted Kotcheff and his crew went out and filmed the kangaroo hunts which occur nightly in Australia. The rest of the footage shot explicitly for the film was done in the presence of an Australian animal welfare representative and no kangaroos were hurt. But regardless of how the footage was shot, the hunt scenes convey the depraved depths to which John has, by then, sunk; drunk and stumbling he wrestles a kangaroo and stabs it to death in the hunt sequence’s climax.
It’s the way in which Wake In Fright slowly tracks John’s degradation through small details and monitors the hostility of the Yabba through the slightest vocal intonations that are most satisfying though. By focusing on and exaggerating the characteristics of outback Australia it becomes completely natural that John – an educated and well-mannered school teacher – should become as wanton and nefarious as that which surrounds him. There’s something very base and primal about his transformation though, and maybe ‘become’ is the wrong word; instead the Yabba awakens a sleeping side to John.
Final Words: Kotcheff’s nightmarish portrayal of the Australian outback is both intensely realistic and scarier, in its very precise and often understated way, than many a horror film. It’s well acted and beautifully shot and is fully deserving of its recent reappraisal.
Wake In Fright (18) is out in UK cinemas on 7 March 2014.