WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)

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Over the weekend I was lucky enough to catch a late night 35mm screening of this mesmerising and brutal Australian film by Ted Kotcheff, director of the equally amazing (but somehow not quite as brutal) First Blood and Weekend At Bernie’s (which was also brutal, but for entirely different reasons…).

Wake In Fright is a movie full of contradictions – it’s a classic that very few people have ever heard of. It lived up to the hype but it wasn’t what I expected it to be. It was psychologically intense and haunting but also charming and funny. It was disturbingly graphic but beautifully shot. The fierceness of the film is right in your face, but the setting is a constant reminder that it takes place on the other side of the world. It’s slowly paced but brimming with action. The story has a nice rambling-ness to it, but the script is tight and polished. It’s hard to say what this movie is, but it’s very easy to see that it’s brilliant.

The event was held at Rio Cinema as part of their Late Shows screening, and was hosted by Cigarette Burns Cinema and featured a guest introduction by Sylvia Kay, who co-starred as Janette (and was at the time married to the director). The story about how this cult classic came to be screened in England for the first time after 40+ years in relative obscurity is absolutely fascinating. Check out this video for more details:

Now, onto the movie (and be warned: there are spoilers):

Gary Bond plays John Grant, an Englishman stuck working as a bonded teacher at a tiny school in the middle of nowhere, a tiny speck of a place called Tiboonda. When school season ends, he collects his paycheque and boards the first train out of town – if two sheds and a train platform can be called a town.

Intending to spend a quiet night in the small mining city of Bundanyabba before catching a flight to Sydney the next day to meet with his beloved girlfriend Alice (Nancy Knudsen), John is instead befriended by the local Sheriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who, after getting off on the wrong foot, soon has the beer pouring freely.

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After the pub closes, Jock takes John for a steak (and several more beers) at a secret club where John gets interested in the rowdy crowd gambling on a “simple-minded” coin-flip game. He meets Doc Tydon (a wicked Donald Pleasence), who keeps the books for the game. In what is a big hint that things operate differently in the ‘Yabba than they do where John is from, John is offended when Doc eats the discarded scraps from John’s meal.

Intrigued by the game, John throws down £50 and comes out with a big win. The euphoria of the crowd, coupled with his aching desire to raise enough money to buy his way out of his so-called slave-labor job, leads to an escalating series of highs. John makes just enough money to *almost* change his life for the better, but then…

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Well, you can guess what happens. But it happens with gusto and suspense, thanks to amazing camerawork by cinematographer Brian West. The shots are beautifully crafted, and John’s defeat is crushing on a number of levels. He’s left with only £1 to his name — not enough money to buy a drink, let alone call Robyn to let her know he won’t be on that plane in the morning.

Things quickly go from bad to worse for John. Unable to afford to stay in the hotel, he hits the street looking for work but instead he finds himself back at the bar where he insults another local — a nice and well-off chap named Tim Hynes — by refusing to drink with him on the grounds that he can’t afford to buy a round in return. Tim berates John, saying he’s offered to buy John a beer, he’s not demanding John buy him one. Later, when John is caught sneaking a handful of cigarettes from Tim’s case, you get the feeling Tim would’ve been delighted to hand them over if it meant they’d have a chance to smoke them together over a laugh and a pint. And that’s the way things work in the ‘Yabba — hang around, be one of the guys, drink a beer when one is offered to you and buy a round if you can afford it. If you’re not going to eat that egg on your plate, then I will. If you’re not going to sleep in that bed, then don’t mind if I do.

John stays at Tim’s place while he tries to sort himself out, and here he is introduced to Tim’s daughter Janette (Hays), and Tim’s rowdy buddies, including Doc Tydon who lives in a nearby shed and eats scrambled kangaroo and pops pills. Tydon isn’t a very good doctor but the townsfolk don’t care and in exchange for his help they keep him stocked with drink. It’s a nice balance for everyone. The contradictions continue — he’s well-educated but not above anything we experience here; he’s a drunk, but he refuses to touch anything but beer. Pleasence’s performance — which was nothing short of amazing — reminded me of a sort of beta-version of Tyler Durden but without the urge to blow anything up, he’s satisfied with his own slow, downward trajectory.

At Tim’s house, as the friends drink they take notice of John’s “odd” behaviour:

Dick: What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?

Tim: Schoolteacher.

Dick: Oh.

Later, as John has another random encounter with a seemingly friendly local, he has this to say about the ‘Yabba:

John: What’s the matter with you people? You can burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child. But if I don’t have don’t have a drink with you – if I don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you – that’s a criminal offence! That’s the end of the bloody world!

So it goes in the ‘Yabba.

John’s next big step in the wrong direction is when he lets his lust take over. Presumably he hasn’t been with a woman throughout the school season, so one can begin to understand why he’d allow himself to justify a supposed one-night-stand with a beautiful stranger in this ugly strange land. But for his troubles, he ends up with a shirt full of vomit and probably a life time of remorse.

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This should act as a wakeup call but doesn’t, as over the course of the next several nights John’s life goes from troubled to thoroughly fucked as he descends further into the hell that is classified as typical life in this shit-hole. Once he realises the bind he’s in, John doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight, instead he chooses to go along with the group madness. John partakes in a kangaroo hunt (a scene which you’ve probably already heard of – it’s not for the feint of heart), and drinks until the madness takes over.

Each beer is another cold, refreshing step away from Robyn, but it also serves to take his mind that much further from the bondage of his job. It’s not hard to see which of these two forces has a stronger pull on him: John’s descent from well-groomed outsider to blood-soaked, gun-toting madman happens without much of a fight. (And, by the way, it says quite a lot about this town that only the former raised any eyebrows as he walked around.)

John’s absolute betrayal of Robyn isn’t complete until, after 4 or 5 nights of raging self-indulgence, he gives into a drunken whim and spends the night having a sweaty Outbackian sex romp with the Doc. Realizing the absolute depths to which he has plunged, he tries to escape only to find his plans thwarted at every turn. It’s horrible, and John is a likeable guy, but he brought this all upon himself. More crazy stuff happens which I don’t want to spoil, and the film ends with a resolution that is both heartbreaking and well-deserved.

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It is one of those few movies that I’d gladly watch again, and in doing so I imagine I’ll pick up all sorts of neat little details that I missed the first go around. Amazingly acted,  and it absorbs you from the opening scene and it leaves you feeling awful and empty inside when it’s over. So I suppose, in many ways, it’s a precursor to each film Michael Haneke film ever made. It’s not as stomach-turning as, say, Salo or as mad as, I don’t know, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover maybe, but you will cringe and you will feel bad. And yes, it is a violent film, but not in the same way that today’s horror films try to out-gore one another. It’s hard to watch, but only because it demonstrates the realistic results of human nature when there isn’t someone checking in on us from time to time to make sure we’re doing alright.

Posted by Alex Cassun. You can follow us @indieground on Twitter

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