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WAKE IN FRIGHT (review)

 

Produced by George Willoughby
Written by Evan Jones
Based on novel by Kenneth Cook
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, John Meillon, Jack Thompson

An oddball film, originally released in 1971, Wake in Fright has been resurrected from obscurity and given a digital overhaul, much to the delight of champions of the long-lost film, such as Martin Scorsese. (Though other critics either have terrific memories or caught a screening of the film over the years, as Leonard Maltin has featured a three-star review of the film – under the alternate title Outback – in his perennial guide for quite some time now).

The re-release poster has gushing appraisals as well: “It left me speechless” and the like. Having seen the film for the first time, I honestly don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s an interesting, worthwhile movie, to be sure, but it hardly knocked my socks off.

Wake follows a mild-mannered if snobbish schoolteacher in a tiny town in the Australian Outback as he tries to make his way to see his girlfriend in Sydney for the holidays. He ends up stranded and broke in Bundanyabba – affectionately referred to by the locals as The Yabba – and begins to lose his moral grip.

Boredom and curiosity help guide him down the dubious path – that and the initially unwanted intervention of several of the locals.  Oh, and beer. An unbelievable amount of beer. I’ve seen a great many movies over the years that featured copious amounts of beer consumption, but never anything like this. And it’s not as if these guys are sipping the stuff: they’re constantly CHUGGING it. All day long. Granted, it looked delicious – but as I was fighting a bad head cold while watching, I didn’t join my Aussie brethren.

Oz Cinema, Ozploitation, Ted Kotcheff  Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, John Meillon, Jack Thompson

Anyway, our hero gets into several misadventures with some of the townspeople (among them Jack Thompson and Donald Pleasence) and begins to unravel. Drunken brawls, vandalism, gambling, etc. Frankly, it mostly  just seemed like a bad weekend from my twenties. Expectations certainly shape one’s opinion of a film – if I’d gone into the film cold, it might have had more of an impact on me. But with one exception – which I’ll get to – most of the “shameful” acts the teacher commits are rather tame, thus severely dulling the film’s edge.

There is however – yes, SPOILER ALERT – one very ugly, sickening sequence: a drunken (of course) kangaroo hunt. The worst part is that we’re watching actual kangaroos being shot, stabbed, run over and made to suffer.  It’s a hugely unpleasant scene, one with a supposed point spelled out in a Producer’s Note during the end credits. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  Director Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to do First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s) probably thought this statement was worth the real-life carnage, but fuck him. And I know other filmmakers in the past have killed animals onscreen – Herzog for Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Cimino (through negligence more than intent) for Heaven’s Gate, Ruggero Deodato for Cannibal Holocaust – and fuck them, too.

Now, on to the good qualities. The cinematography and sense of place are spot-on – The Yabba feels like a real place, and one we’d wish to avoid. The acting is uniformly good (Pleasence, while playing an eccentric, actually gives a fairly straightforward, solid performance). The editing is fun – at times evoking Nicolas Roeg (who made Walkabout in the Outback that same year).

Oz Cinema, Ozploitation, Ted Kotcheff  Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, John Meillon, Jack Thompson

While on the whole Wake in Fright wasn’t the intense, shocking experience I was expecting, it’s never dull and the good outweighs the bad. And on a pseudo-nostalgic note, I felt at times I was viewing a late-night find during my teenage years. When I was in high school, we had The Movie Channel, an excellent pay-cable station that – duh – only played movies.  While during primetime it was mostly mainstream Hollywood fare, they did have to find material to fill all 24 hours every day. So, during the summers I would stay up most of the night to catch oddball films – usually British and Australian – that I would have never seen otherwise. Quirky but entertaining, throwaway  films like Attack Force Z with Mel Gibson, Loophole with Martin Sheen and Albert Finney, and Harlequin with David Hemmings.

Wake in Fright did remind me of those days – a weird, dreamlike late-at-night movie experience. The at-times (incongruously) jaunty score only added to that impression, and the oppressive heat and rabid alcohol consumption sealed it.

Oz Cinema, Ozploitation, Ted Kotcheff  Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, John Meillon, Jack Thompson

Again, if you’re expectations aren’t sky-high and you can handle actual, onscreen violence towards animals, you may find quite a bit to enjoy in Wake in Fright. And if you like watching people drink beer, man, are you in luck!!

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