by Byron Bixler
From the April 2015 IssueIt all started with a drink.
John Grant (Gary Bond) is a disgruntled schoolteacher on holiday. He wanders into a crowded bar in the middle of a small Outback town one night and stands off to the side of the room. A police officer spots him and offers to get a couple beers for the two of them. John agrees. The drinks go down, the conversation bumbles along and the lawman offers another pair of pints. The drinks go down. We learn a little more about the town. John is polite enough, but he snickers privately over the locals’ behavior. He fancies himself as being different from these rowdy folks. He’s from the big city and that’s where he’s headed. The stop in town is just meant for one night.
“How about another drink?” the officer asks. John’s hesitant, but the policeman convinces him. What’s just one more? They drink at length and the officer decides to show John to the local hotspot- a restaurant/bar doubling as a gambling site. Dozens of men circle an open space where two coins are tossed in the air. The side they land on determines the winners. Shouting. Laughing. Sweat. Bills everywhere. Stacked on the ground. Swept up hungrily when the coins fall. More laughter. John watches from afar. A spectator. Removed. He gets closer. Another round is played. He gets closer. “100 on heads!” He’s in. Coins up. Coins down. He wins. A smile. Another round. Another win. Great luck. More money. He’s thrilled. He runs…back to the hotel. Lays out the bills. It’s beautiful. Not enough. Stuffs the money in his pockets. Returns to the game. “400 on heads.” All he has. Bad luck. All gone.
Everything just described takes place within the first 40 minutes or so of Wake in Fright. By this point, the insanity has barely begun. More drinking. Savage acts. Debauchery. Peculiar sexual encounters. Moral decay. Hallucinations? Flashbacks.
The film opened to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, but disappointed at the Australian box office, presumably due to a mixture of the picture’s harsh content and the distributors failure to effectively market it. Canadian filmmaker, Ted Kotcheff made Wake in Fright as his fourth project. In a career filled with big and small scale productions, Kotcheff rarely found huge success with audiences, the high points being the 80’s action staple, First Blood, 90’s cult classic Weekend at Bernie’s and the 1974 Golden Bear winner at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. From those three titles alone, it’s easy to tell that the man has an eclectic filmography and it is Wake in Fright that stands as the most singularly bizarre and disturbing work of the bunch.As disjointed as my earlier summary may appear, I write like this because it is probably the best way to capture the energy of the film. It’s a piece of work that is immediate and raw in its approach. The atmosphere is hauntingly real and yet mysterious and otherworldly at the same time. The characters’ ugliness and the chaos they invoke takes on a visceral quality that is both repellent and compulsively watchable. However, the question is: Why these people? Why this place? Why this awful predicament?
On its face, Wake in Fright is about the deranged and the unkempt- the nastier side of humanity. An odyssey into madness and self-denial not unlike the journey into the “heart of darkness” we see in Apocalypse Now. This view might be a tad too simplistic, though. What the film is more closely discussing is the accumulation of small things that can cause a person to become tied to a place. It’s an exaggeration of the futility involved in trying to kick a habit, leave an unfulfilling job or escape the repetitive drudgery of a small town existence. Indications of such a theme make themselves noticeable at different times throughout the film. The first shot of the movie is a high angle of the two-shack outpost where John teaches. The camera holds on the desolate setting for a moment before rotating 360 degrees and stopping on the same image. When speaking with the policeman, John describes himself as being a slave to the education system and every time he rises from his seat to announce that he should leave, the people around him always find a way to talk him into staying. Their aggressive persuasiveness rules, as John winds up spending a few days instead of just one night in the hospitably hostile little town called “The Yabba”.
The film is very nearly a masterpiece. It loses something toward the end and contains a few scenes that are more needlessly inexplicable than interesting, but Wake in Fright has such a grippingly horrific effect that some of the more uncomfortably eccentric sequences don’t make an enormous dent in the overall experience. It roots its horror in people rather than creepy spirits or silly slashers and it’s all the more terrifying because of it.
This is by no means a film for everyone and I realize that. It is oppressively nasty and aesthetically coarse. Much of it is bound to repulse and offend (with one scene involving kangaroos toward the middle being the true test of whether or not you will like the film), but personally, I love its wild demeanor, kangaroo sequence aside. For those who enjoy their horror gritty, bleak and with a distinctly human edge, Wake in Fright is not one to be missed.