Movie Talk

Indie Roundup: ‘Wake in Fright’ — Ted Kotcheff’s lost masterpiece

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Photo: Drafthouse Pictures

The 1971 Australian thriller "Wake in Fright" is a sunbaked fever dream that had long been considered lost before a negative was discovered in 2004 in a warehouse in Pittsburgh. The movie is now finally getting an American theatrical release. Forty-one years after it was made, the movie is still shocking and deeply unsettling.

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John Grant (Gary Bond) is a boyishly handsome schoolteacher who finds himself teaching in Tiboonda, less of a town than a wide spot in the road deep in the Outback. The film opens with a 360-degree shot of the burg, revealing nothing but a rail line, two buildings, and a vast expanse of nothing. We learn that Grant is there as a part of his deal to pay off his teaching degree, and he is less than pleased about the situation. Once Christmas break starts, he can hardly get out of town fast enough to see his girl in Sydney.

But during a layover in the mining town Bundanyabba, Grant finds himself buttonholed by Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), a local cop brimming with local pride for "the Yabba." Grant treats him with disdain. "I'm appalled with the aggressive hospitality," he rants later. "The arrogance of stupid people who insist that you be as stupid as they are." The receiver of that rant is Doc (Donald Pleasence), a failed physician turned world-class drunk, who responds, "Farming is death here. It's worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera, as well?"

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Wake In Fright

Photo: Drafthouse Pictures

When Grant gambles away all his money in one mad attempt to pay off his school debt, he finds himself penniless and at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. Fortunately, though the denizens of the Yabba are a sweaty, coarse lot, they are also overbearingly generous. Grant soon falls into the care of Doc, who lives in a shack with no indoor plumbing but plenty of beer, which he all but forces on Grant, which seems to be the custom. Later Doc cajoles him to join a hunting trip with his rough-and-ready mates. Grant's pretensions of culture and civility evaporate into a haze of alcohol, and their nighttime revelry turns into a descent into hell. In one of the most disturbing scenes I've seen in a while, the men gun down one kangaroo after another. Director Ted Kotcheff -- who later went on to film "Weekend at Bernie's" -- filmed an actual professional nighttime kangaroo hunt for this scene, which reminded me a bit of the famous hunting scene in Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, "The Rules of the Game." While the killing of quails and rabbits in that movie served as an ugly counterpoint to the refined banter of the French upper class, the massacre of kangaroos in this movie comes off as complete and utter savagery. Drunk and shorn of the trappings of civilization, Grant and company devolve into monsters.

[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Seven Psychopaths']

"Wake in Fright" can be seen as a particularly good example of a minigenre that sprang out during the '70s, including such films as "Deliverance" and "The Hills Have Eyes" -- horror stories about city slickers victimized by country folk. This movie offers all the queasy discomfort of the others, but the "Wake" locals never devolve into murdering crazies -- unless you count what happens to the kangaroos. Instead, Grant's spiral into the abyss is prodded as much by his own folly as by the hectoring generosity of the good people of the Yabba.

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See the trailer for 'Wake in Fright':
'Wake in Fright' Theatrical Trailer

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