Wake in Fright (Dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1971)
“What happened?” – Waitress
“Well… I got involved.”- John Grant
Wake in Fright is a truly bizarre film. It’s a brutal, unflinching portrait of a rural culture steeped in alcohol, violence and sexual repression. The film is so affecting that Martin Scorsese, the same guy who routinely has his characters beaten to death, called it “deeply disturbing”. Wake in Fright tells the story of a schoolteacher, John Grant, who’s been stationed in the far flung reaches of Australia’s Outback. As Grant attempts to make his way back to Sydney for the Christmas vacation, and into the arms of his waiting girlfriend, he gets stranded, after a night of gambling, in the small town of “The Yabba”. He quickly finds himself immersed in a group of locals who’ s only purpose seems to be drinking and causing havoc.
The film begins at a deliberately slow pace. As we’re treated to long static shots of the empty outback, it’s striking how far removed an Australian could be in 1971. The opening sequence, introducing John Grant and the small town where he’s located, could easily be confused for the American West in 1871 rather than 1971. In fact it shares a lot of similarities to Sergio Leone’s opening of the film Once Upon A Time in The West. A lone train station, quiet, and blank sky for miles. This emptiness also serves to enforce the wild violence of the character’s later on in the film, their wrestling and gun play and sheer noise is multiplied ten fold.
Donald Pleasance co-stars in the film as “Doc” Tydon, an alcoholic ex-doctor who lives in a shanty that’s grimier than a Starbucks restroom. Pleasance is most well known for playing Michael Meyer’s doctor in the Halloween series. He’s one of those actors who doesn’t need to do much, because with his piercing eyes, fleshy skull and haunted expression he perfectly captures creeping menace just by standing still. His dialog is always secondary to his creepy fucking face. I was trying to think of a modern equivalent and the closest would probably be William Mapother (Ethan from Lost). I’d love to see a film made up entirely of creepy looking character actors. Something without an attractive protagonist. That’s why, despite it’s flaws, Boardwalk Empire is such a awesome show. The main character (Steve Bushemi) is ugly. He’s believable as a guy who’s only option in life was to become a gangster…or animal trainer. Boardwalk Empire is the total opposite of something like that damn show Revolution (which I’m told was well received?) in which the characters look like they just stepped out a catalogue advertising Macy’s new line of apocalypse inspired fashions, anyway…
One of the most discussed sequences in Wake in Fright is the night time kangaroo hunt. Grant, Doc, and two guys who looks like roided out members of the Beach Boys, after steadily drinking for most of the day, set out in beat up Ford Fairlane across the barren tundra wildly shooting down anything that moves. The sequence culminates with one of the muscle heads boxing an injured Kangaroo before finally slitting its’ throat. Later, when John Grant insists that he too wants to kill a kanagroo with his bare hands, the attack is so visceral that my stomach began to turn. Needless to say, it was much different than this Kangaroo Fight.
Wake in Fright is tonally similar to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The same sense of helpless dread saturates the film. And visually they’re both dirty, sweaty films where no one has painted a wall in fifty or more years. However, Wake in Fright accomplishes it’s horror without a chainsaw wielding killer. So maybe the more apt comparison would be Deliverance which came out a year later. Both deal with the sexual backwardness and animalistic urges of rural communities and their people. But even then, Wake in Fright is unique because Grant is a willing participant in this crazy night of violence. Grant isn’t being chased, he’s along for the ride, which makes it all the more unsettling.
After doing a little research (i.e. Wikipedia and the excerpts printed on the poster) I discovered that Wake in Fright is a key film in the Australian New Wave and furthermore it fits into the sub-genre of Ozploitation. Apparently Ozploitation, like Blaxploitation, takes colloquial culture, in this case Australian Outback culture, and exploits it to make violent, sexual schlock. Other films in the Ozploitation canon include the Mad Max series and Walkabout. That got me thinking that perhaps we’re currently in the middle of a Southploitation movement. Films like Winter’s Bone, Bad Lieutenant, Hustle & Flow, Killer Joe, the upcoming Killing them Softly, even the Val Kilmer/50 Cent classic Streets of Blood (speaking of bizarre), all seem to exploit the easy cultural associations of the South to tell stories of crime, drugs, and sex.
I highly recommend Wake in Fright. It’s the kind of film that seems less and less likely to be made again. A methodically paced film without much story, just a lot of weird atmosphere, and without an ounce of irony or homage. As a viewer you’re unsure if “The Yabba” is meant to represent all Australian small towns or one particular nightmare, either way, it’ll stick with you.
Grant has this recurring flashback of his girlfriend exiting the cool blue ocean in a red bikini. It’s an excellent contrast to the matted, dusty look of the rest of the film. Every time this scene appeared I literally felt refreshed, and trust me, I hate the word refreshed.
There’s so much drinking in this film. And the drinking is never romanticized, it’s as regular as breathing. Beers are chugged. Whiskey is hammered. One of the best scenes is when John Grant, in a plastered haze, stumbles back into town, gun in hand.
Film Forum is steadily working it’s way up my internal list of excellent small theaters. This list also includes The Byrd in Richmond, VA and Thailian Hall in Wilmington, NC.
The film is one of only two to screen twice at the Cannes Film Festival. Apparently only one busted up negative was known to exist until a print was discovered in a Pittsburgh warehouse. Which made me wonder just how much of our film history is completely lost?
Wake In Fright was directed by Ted Kotcheff, the same guy who directed such classics as First Blood and North Dallas Forty. Kotcheff belongs in a group of second or third tier directors who have made some great films but because they don’t have one perennial classic to their name, they’ve been largely forgotten. I also include Michael Ritchie on this list (Bad News Bears, Downhill Racer, The Candidate). Odd that they both made their names with 70’s counterculture type movies and moved on to broad comedy. Ritchie went on to direct Fletch. Kotcheff later directed Weekend at Bernie’s.