This review of the Masters of Cinema re-issue of Ted Kotcheff's remarkable Wake in Fright (1971) was originally published in Issue 5 of So Film magazine.
A scorched existential nightmare pickled in warm beer and sweat, Wake in Fright resurfaces after more than forty years in absentia to assert its position at the top table of the Australian New Wave. A box office flop upon its initial domestic release, this despite an enthusiastic reception at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival - where a young Martin Scorsese proved an early champion - the film remained out of circulation until an impassioned search for a salvageable print by its editor in 2004 turned up the original negative, marked 'For Destruction' in a Pittsburgh vault.
Digitally restored at 4K by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Wake in Fright receives a limited theatrical run followed by a typically stellar Dual-Format presentation by those doing the Lord's work for Eureka's Masters of Cinema imprint. An opportunity to experience it on the big screen prior to an inevitable purchase is one not to be passed up, something made immediately apparent by the opening 360 degree, Leone-riffing panorama of its Outback setting.
Much like Nic Roeg's Walkabout, released the same year, the sun-blasted landscape sets the stage for a series of awakenings. Yet where Roeg pitched his tale of burgeoning sexuality and colonialist anxieties in his default poetic register, Wake in Fright's eruption of unchecked masculine primality takes a darker path, deep into the realms of sozzled Conradian fever-dream.
John Grant (Gary Bond, a dead ringer for Lawrence-era Peter O'Toole) is a teacher in the one-room school of the no-horse town of Tiboonda. Bonded by the education authorities to the tune of $1,000 to work out his contract, his pretensions to urbanity hold little currency in what he perceives to be a cultural wasteland. Heading back to his girl in Sydney - a swimsuit clad figment of mental flashback - an overnight stay en route in the town of Bundanyabba (locally, The Yabba) sees his plans quickly head south when he loses all his money at a coin-toss game in a backroom gambling den.
At the mercy of the kindness of strangers, of which there's no shortage willing to extend him a beer or ten, Grant becomes forcibly embedded in The Yabba's hive of sociopathy, led down a road that sees his tenuous grip on civility stripped away at every turn. Yet there's a difference here in the conflict between mind and body, between intellect and carnality, to that which would similarly surface in Sam Peckinpah's contemporaneous Straw Dogs. For all the degradation suffered by Grant through Wake in Fright, the local yokels remain catalysts and enablers, the true antagonist in this case emerging from within rather than from without, a version of himself closer to the surface than he'd care to admit. As the local copper points out to him when explaining how the coin-toss betting system works, "Every man knows what's coming to him, he just goes out and gets it."
Like in the game of two-up in which Grant loses his way out of The Yabba, there are two sides to every coin. The head to his tails is manifested in Donald Pleasence's booze-saturated doctor, Tydon. Where Grant wrestles with his tenuous social values, Doc has little shame in abandonding them to the bottle and his baser instincts. This manic Mephistophelean nihilist, whilst hardly on the right side of sane, possesses a greater sense of self-awareness than the id-repressing Grant.
Canadian-born director Ted Kotcheff would reprise aspects of Wake in Fright's elemental survivalism and small-town hostility to far greater commercial appeal a decade later with First Blood, but nothing he would go on to make - nope, not even Weekend at Bernie's - would suggest the formal virility on display here. Static widescreen compositions registering space and isolation at the start give way to a stylistic delirium tremens and claustrophobic intensity in the film's latter stages, all shaded in greens, yellows and ochres - the colours of the Outback scrub, bronzed flesh and flat beer.
It comes as little surprise that editor Anthony Buckley worked so hard to ensure Wake in Fright's re-emergence, given how terrific his initial contribution proved. A late montage takes on a nightmarishly hallucinogenic power, all leering faces, sweaty bodies and glazed eyes, as homoerotically charged horseplay under a swinging lightbulb takes a sinister turn.
Yet the film's apex of both horror and form comes with a sensationally mounted, booze-fuelled kangaroo hunt. By no means easy to watch - the sequence prompted a dozen walkouts at its initial Cannes premiere - what begins as a thrillingly dynamic daylight chase through the bush, descends into a brutal display of cruelty and violence. Buckley spliced footage from an actual hunt into that with the actors, and no punches are pulled in its depiction. A disclaimer at the end of the film states the filmmakers intent to draw attention to such activity, but it remains a difficult sequence to stomach.
There's a Twilight Zone vibe to the surreal final stages as Grant determines to escape the purgatorial Yabba (echoed in John Scott's otherworldly scoring), before Wake in Fright finally comes full circle, much like its opening shot. Its distribution history may have it pegged as just another Ozpoitation flick, but it's as deserving of its place in the Masters of Cinema series as any other, a startling re-discovery of one the great Australian films.