As the terrifically fun and informative documentary “Not Quite Hollywood” notes, at around the same time that austere, gauzy Australian films were bewitching American art house crowds (dubbed the Australian New Wave by people who dub those sorts of things), another, equally powerful surge of Australian movies were capturing the hearts and minds of stateside grindhouse audiences. Colorfully characterized as “Ozploitation” films, these pictures were down and dirty and unlike anything anyone had seen. In the same year that Nicolas Roeg‘s poetic outback tale “Walkabout” debuted (a cornerstone of the Australian New Wave), so too did Ted Kotcheff‘s “Wake In Fright,” a much more bruising portrait of the Australian wilderness. While “Walkabout” was instantly considered a classic, “Wake In Fright” has largely languished as an unseen Ozploitation oddity. Until now. It’s been cleaned up and is ready for canonization.
For many years “Wake In Fright,” which premiered at Cannes in 1971 and was shown briefly in America under the title “Outback,” was considered gone completely. There were rumors that it had been whittled down to a single remaining print, badly damaged and poorly preserved, but after a ten-year search, the original negative elements were found in Pittsburgh and a print was painstakingly restored by the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia. In 2009 the film was named a “Cannes favorite” and screened again at the festival, this time under the supervision of guest curator Martin Scorsese, who had seen the film at the festival in 1971 and was, unsurprisingly, blown away.
“Wake in Fright” opens with a gorgeous pan across what, in any other context, would be described as a sun-blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland. A single train station (if that’s the right word – it’s basically a cheaply constructed wooden stand) stands alongside some reedy tracks, blips against a vast stretch of yellowy nothingness. It’s in these opening moments that you realize how different these movies were, with their earthy naturalism and, even in movies like “Wake In Fright,” a kind of existential vastness. In short order we’re introduced to John Grant (Gary Bond), a taxed British schoolteacher stationed in the wasteland-y Tiboona. Grant is about to leave for the Christmas holidays, eager to reunite with his lover in Sydney. But first he has to stop off for a night in the small mining town of Bundanyabba (“The Yabba,” as the locals call it). And that’s where everything goes horribly fucking wrong.
The night starts out at a rowdy pub, where Grant befriends Jock (Chips Rafferty), a rough-around-the-edges constable, who introduces him to an underground gambling parlor where the blokes are playing “two-up,” a game that is built around whether a pair of pennies will land heads or tails. (The simplicity of the game is both sad and sinister.) Grant finds himself on a winning streak, returning to his crummy hotel room with his pockets stuffed with cash. Then he gets greedy, goes back, and loses it all. Despondent, the next day he falls in with a bunch of local lowlifes, including Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), who invites him to his home for an endless marathon of drinking that climaxes (if that’s the right word) in an unsuccessful sexual liaison with Tim’s daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay, alluring in a shopworn way). But it’s Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance, less than a decade before his career was both rejuvenated and effectively shuttered with his turn in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”) who Grant makes the biggest connection with. An alcoholic who was banned from practicing medicine in Sydney, he lives in a rickety shack whose lone decorative touches are the spools of gummy flypaper hanging from the ceiling. We should pause here to note that this is maybe the best performance Pleasance has ever given, equal parts looseness and intensity, with every word containing some kind of homespun outback wisdom (his thoughts on Janette are shockingly progressive, too). You can’t help but be dazzled.
Doc encourages Grant to become part of their posse, which almost exclusively consists of drinking and fighting, and he serves as a cautionary reminder of what Grant could become if he isolates himself, geographically and spiritually, from civilization. In a genius move, costume designer Ron Williams dressed Bond in pale earth tones – pieces the color of eggshell and dust – so that as his descent continues you can see, physically, his color change, like some outback lizard. Grant becomes caked in filth, but it’s all from the earth; his outfit is now, truly, the blood and mud of Australia.
Infamously, the film climaxes in a kangaroo hunt that is vicious, upsetting, and 100% real. The gang goes out to the bush and finds kangaroos to kill, something that they were incapable of doing during the daytime because they were too drunk. Spotlights, one of the drunkards cheerfully explains, hypnotize the kangaroos. So as long as you shine a light on them, they’ll keep still and are easy to kill. The other, more unsettling way of killing them is by grabbing them by the tail and stabbing them to death, something that Grant takes part in (as he does, we see nearly subliminal, dreamlike flashes of the girl he left behind and the men whose company he’s decided to keep). It’s grim and grisly and a truly operatic way to hit bottom, and in keeping with the rest of the movie, is painfully Australian – he kills a creature that’s a national symbol of the country. Symbolism alert!
By the time Grant, bathed in kangaroo blood, dirt, his own vomit, and god knows what else, is sauntering down a desolate road with a rifle in his hand, the movie has also reached a level of dark comedy only hinted at earlier. It’s a beautiful, brilliant image, especially when accompanied by John Scott’s amazing score, and enough to make you wonder what else could go wrong. And then it does.
“Wake In Fright” is the quintessential Australian exploitation film, one in which a character is tested by the country’s harsh elements and comes out the other side transformed (often baptized, literally, in blood). The fact that it was directed by journeyman filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian at the time known for his British dramas (he would later direct everything from “North Dallas Forty” to “First Blood” to “Weekend at Bernie’s”), only adds to its eerie mystique and oddball universality. “Wake In Fright” is a harrowing journey, but one you’ll likely want to take again, very soon. [A]