“After a bad gambling bet, a schoolteacher is marooned in a town full of crazy, drunk, violent men who threaten to make him just as crazy, drunk, and violent.” — IMDb
Wake in Fright — one of only two films in history to screen twice at Cannes Film Festival — is not for the faint of heart. The director, Ted Kotcheff, said about the creation of it: “I wanted people to watch the film and be unconsciously sweating.” He was referring more specifically to capturing the heat and grit he experienced while shooting in Australia, but I think he managed to get his audience sweating for more reasons than just that: this film is uncomfortable on such a cellular level, hard to look at straight on but impossible to look away from.
It follows young, well-educated schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) as he leaves for winter break. He makes a stop in the fictitious city of Bundanyabba (“The Yabba” for short), intending to fly home to Sydney in the morning… but what is meant to be a brief overnight stay, a stepping stone back to normal life, turns into a mind-altering descent into brutal chaos.
** SPOILERS! **
This movie, overall, more firmly fits in the category of maybe a psychological drama… though it does have horror elements, and many of them made much more terrifying by the fact that it reflects on the horror of humanity itself.
I was uncomfortable right off the bat, from the very first 360-degree shot meant to show just how very isolated the town that John teaches in — and, in turn, The Yabba — is. He’s got this desperation about him, the kind that will make you do just about anything to change your circumstances.
You feel initially like The Yabba is almost some kind of terrible cult that he’s walked into. Less, even, of a cult than maybe a frat with members that are unflinchingly loyal, not out deserved reverence but relinquished hope. You want to think that the members of this community truly don’t know any better, don’t know how depraved they’ve become… but you get glimpses of how much they do. The aggressive hospitality they show John — the insistent pats on the back, the constant stream of beer (and the side eye when he doesn’t immediately chug it down in one gulp) — is less a malicious induction and more of them wanting company on their own ride through hell. As Doc Tydon says, “discontent is a luxury of the well-to-do.”.
John Grant: Sounds like an easy life.
Jock Crawford: Yeah, not bad. ‘Course, we do have a few suicides.
John Grant: Yeah?
Jock Crawford: Yeah. Yeah, they reckon it’s the heat. Me? Ha, ha… I like the heat!
Donald Pleasence’s character, Doc Tydon, was probably the most disturbing for me. His obvious intelligence made his presence there that much more confusing (until he mentions to John that he once practiced medicine in Sydney until his alcoholism forced him out). His disease, and the vast space that has imprisoned them, has him now living penniless — literally. As he says, “It’s possible to live forever in The Yabba without money.”.
The most disturbing set of scenes is, obviously, the kangaroo hunt. By this point it has already been established that these men hunt for nothing but their own entertainment — after John successfully shoots a fox and goes off running to grab it, they stop him with “it’s no good skinning ’em mate, they’re all mangy out here”. So the sheer violence shown during the hunt, the complete lack of regard for animal life, is all the more violating knowing there is absolutely nothing to justify it. Honestly, I had hoped against hope that — despite it being very obviously real — they had somehow managed to produce a convincing fake even back in 1971 with a low budget. But no… the crew tagged along for a real kangaroo hunt (during which the producer apparently fainted, and I don’t blame him). It is… intense, to say the least. The whole thing is just pure chaos, bright lights in the desert, kangaroos in literal choke holds, and all ending with the brutes yelling “you’re one of us now!”. It was about as literal and graphic as you can get with a classic “loss of innocence” type of scenario.
Ultimately, this movie impressed me both by its contrasts between almost comical exaggerations and subtlety, but also by the fact that you can’t see it as John being swallowed up, unwillingly, by the town — he’s a willing, though bumbling, participant. As much as he may think and feel that he is superior to the town and its members, he fits right in rather quickly, and that’s where much of the fear lies.
It’s all a sweaty, dusty, beer-soaked, fly-infested, belligerent fever dream. I honestly don’t know if I would have preferred it just ended with him awaking in the hospital with the single tear rolling down his cheek, or if it was almost more horrifying to have him return to his teaching post in Tiboonda…
Rating: 7/10 | Director: Ted Kotcheff | Writer: Kenneth Cook (novel), Evan Jones (screenplay) | Music: John Scott | Cinematography: Brian West | Starring: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas