Playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of a double bill of forgotten cult oddities from Drafthouse Films, Wake in Fright is a strange little Australian nightmare that was almost lost to obscurity. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 where it was instantly adored by a young Martin Scorsese, but when the time came to open in Australia it was booed off the screen by offended locals claiming it in no way represents their life. In fairness, those viewers were right. They just missed the point. Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to make First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s…no joke) isn’t exactly going for realism. He presents that outback as an animalistic alcoholic nightmare, almost like hell with kangaroos. It’s not always an easy film to watch, particularly for animal lovers, but it is a dark, twisted, and unforgettable experience for those who have a taste for such things.
Gary Bond stars as John Grant, a British teacher working in an isolated school in Australia. The opening shot makes his one-room schoolhouse look like the only building in miles of baron desert while the ominous spaghetti western-like score suggests the surreal nightmares to come. Grant is about to go on a much-needed vacation to Sydney and stops off in the remote Bundanyabba (known as “The Yabba” to the locals) to catch a plane to the city. He plans on quietly passing the night before a local lawman Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) shows John around and introduces him to the favorite local pastime: drinking. One booze soaked night soon turns into five and as the long evenings wear on Grant and the film start to sneak out of reality. Things start to get particularly strange when Grant loses all his money gambling and is forced to stay on the sweaty mattress of Donald Pleasance’s part time doctor and full time alcoholic. Pleasance moves through the movie like a ghost, disappearing and reappearing without reason as a little bald Satan on Grant’s shoulder. The darkness peaks on a cruel late night kangaroo hunting session that’s become so notorious an explanation appears after the film in its current cut. After that Grant has dipped over fully into this outback hell and as a viewer you wonder if he’ll ever come back.
Wake in Fright is one of those Hearts Of Darkness-style tales that pulls an innocent man into the depths of rural depravity that he might never recover from. It’s the movie you might get if David Lynch or Werner Herzog were Australian and decided to make their version of The Lost Weekend. Ted Kotcheff does a remarkable job behind the camera working well above the level of his subsequent Hollywood hits. From the opening panoram’s of endless desert, Kotcheff establishes orange-stained ominous tone that only gets more intense and depraved as the film wears on. The movie is never outright surreal in terms of plot and characters (ie no backwards talking midgets), yet the way he shoots the film and the way the narrative becomes increasingly episodic creates a certain sense of nightmare logic. By the time Donald Pleasance pops up as a Satan stand in with an Australian accent, you’ll accept it without question. In fact, in you’re a fan of that eccentric actor, you haven’t lived until you’ve scene him as this self-destructive alcoholic.
The film dabbles in Straw Dogs themes of educated men easily succumbing to primal instincts. Like that Peckinpah classic, the masculine horror story straddles the line between high art and low trash. In this case, it’s the missing link between Australia’s art house friendly 70s new wave (led by Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Peter Weir’s early work) and the country’s drive-in friendly Ozsploitation market. More notorious than famous for years thanks to its graphic kangaroo hunting scene that Kotcheff spent decades defending, Wake in Fright is a fascinating dark odyssey that deserved it’s 2000s resurgence in interest and should be sampled by anyone with a taste for the bleakest of existential parables. That makes it sound pretentious, but don’t be scared off. Like a Peckinpah movie, Wake in Fright doubles as dirty, manly fun as well as a harsh critique on that subject for those willing to look.