Wake in Fright

UK Release Date 7th March 2014
Director Ted Kotcheff
Starring Gary Bond
Runtime 114 Minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 10th March 2014

We have a whole section dedicated to this sort of movie but as this one has been given a full on wash and brush up having been saved from the ignominy of accidental destruction and given a proper cinema release, we thought we’d snatch it from the mitts of our resident cult reviewer for a look ourselves. I’m not sure I want to invade his territory again but not because this isn’t a stunning piece of film making….

Probably better known for First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s, director Ted Kotcheff put Wake in Fright together eleven years prior to making Sly a star. It’s easy to forget how lacking in glorification First Blood actually was, given the horrible spiral of sequels that followed but if you can cast your mind back that far, it’s possible to imagine how Kotcheff started out with this one. Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, the title comes from a ‘curse’ mentioned in the foreword “may you dream of the devil and wake in fright”. It’s an aptly creepy introduction to the movie. Starring Gary Bond as outback teacher John Grant, we pick up the tale as Grant finishes term at his one room school in the absolute utter middle of nowhere. Locking the school (for no apparent reason), Grant packs and heads by train to the slightly less isolated but no less backwater town of Bundanyabba (the ‘Yabba’) for a one night stopover before catching a flight back to Sydney for Christmas and his dreams of his girl and the crashing waves of the West Coast.

Alarm bells ring quietly as a boisterous group on the train try to gift Grant a beer and continue to sing loudly for the entire journey. This form of ‘aggressive hospitality’ is an ongoing theme as on arrival, Grant accidentally makes friends with the local sheriff in a bar. The sheriff isn’t a man to take no for an answer, nor for that matter to savour his beer. Several rushed beers later and Grant is introduced, all be it tangentially to the local gambling game of ‘two-up’ (essentially a large group of yelling men betting on the toss of two coins). Booze gets the better of the teacher and before he knows it, he’s gambled away all his money and is forced to seek further hospitality from the locals. The locals are more than happy to give it, without any apparent payment beyond having a beer with them….mate...

Wake in Fright is a hot, sticky, hungover slap of a movie. I can honestly say that I’ve never wanted a beer less than when I was watching this. Everything Grant stumbles into in the Yabba is predicated on booze, it’s the cause, solution and continuation of all his problems and the locals just cannot get enough of it. Continually bullied by over friendly residents, Grant has no choice once he is stuck in the horrible red quicksand other than to knock back the next can and hope for the best. A grotesque menagerie of characters are thrown at him, all apparently friendly but none with his good health at heart. If I say that Donald Pleasence plays probably one of the more rounded characters, you’ll understand immediately how unhinged the remainder are. The issue we have as viewers is that nobody is obviously the villain. None of these guys are your standard cut out and keep stereotypes, they all seem to be going about their lives as they should. It’s just that that means smashing as many beers as you can down you and slaughtering the local wildlife.

Bond is perfectly cast as the intellectual teacher, completely at odds with the local population but treated no differently than anyone else. His desperation at the position he finds himself in, even before he loses his money (he is a bonded teacher and therefore stuck where he is until he has earned his way out of the bond he has put down) is nicely played, flashing back to the beach where he dreams of surfing. Bond’s square-jawed features and tanned looks put me in mind of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and you can see the increasing desperation creep into his eyes as well as his clothes.

Never has the word ‘mate’ had such catastrophic connotations. On the few occasions Grant manages to initially resist the friendly offers, a strong undercurrent of potential violence is never far away. Pleasence was and probably still is the king of the swivel-eyed loon and here is no different, except that maybe he blends in far more than normal. We even get to catch old Wally himself, John Meillon, reclining and looking after the one room that is for rent back in Tiboonda.

Wake in Fright is no easy watch and scenes of real kangaroo hunting are difficult to watch but nothing here glorifies any of the behaviour. Kotcheff conjurers up a horrific, red tinged, hallucinogenic feel to the movie and you’ll come out the other side with something akin to a hangover. The restoration work done on the rescued print is frankly amazing, pin sharp in both image and audio, the vivid reds and oranges of the outback are far better than they have any right to be after forty odd years on the shelf, this really is one of the best restorations I’ve ever seen. Woozy, tense, clammy and horrific this is a superbly uncomfortable piece of film making and one that deserves to be recognised as probably Kotcheff’s masterpiece. Seek it out on the big screen whilst it’s available if you can, failing that, it is also available from the 31st March 2014 as part of the incomparable Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray & DVD collection. Do not watch it whilst drinking. 

Check out the trailer here.

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