Cult Cinema: Wake In Fright

Andrew reviews the cult film, Wake In Fright.

"I think there's something
wrong with this water!"
Alcohol is a curious spirit. It can either bring great joy to a splendid social occasion or spell doom for those who don't know where the party ends and hell begins. The saying “Too much of a good thing can be dangerous when abused” is hardly new or revelatory. While the subject of alcoholism is one which has been investigated by comedies and dramas throughout the century of film, the stance on its nature is usually seen in purely black and white terms, either all good or bad.  If you mention drinking movies to people, most will refer to The Big Lebowski, Beerfest, Barfly, or most recently, The World's End.  Few, however, will recall this nearly forever-lost Australian horror show about a well-to-do's lost weekend in the depths of beer and dust, Wake in Fright.

Recently restored from almost certain death by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young schoolteacher bonded to the barren desert landscape of Tiboonda. The film takes place during Christmas, with nothing but the heat of eternal summer to exacerbate the metaphor of the outback as hell. In transition and tired of the trappings of his locale, he makes a pit stop in the small, roughneck town of Bundayabba, hoping to have a drink before his flight back to Sydney and the arms of his beautiful girlfriend.

Here he meets Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty in his final role), the town sheriff and gatekeeper of what will soon become the booze addled landscape where John Grant resides. Loaded with more beers than he can handle, Grant is turned loose upon the local gambling game, Two-Up. Within seconds, Grant has loses all his money. Trapped within “The Yabba,” he quickly descends deep into Hell as he mingles with hard drinkers and begins to lose his sense of self.
"Wait til they find out
Gwyneth Paltrow's head is
in this suitcase."
Unlike other downward spiral films that depict their protagonists sliding down the slippery slope of self destruction, Wake in Fright is genuinely shocking for its nonjudgmental look at Australian alcoholism and the hardened, crusty life of the barren outback. In one notorious sequence, Grant is amid a group of rednecks armed with rifles, led by the mercurial Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance in his wildest role yet), and the band goes kangaroo hunting. The film casually mixes footage of the actors with that of a real kangaroo hunt. Animal rights activists will no doubt be up in arms over these scenes of kangaroos being shot to death, and there's one particularly unsettling sequence featuring one of the rednecks wrestling with a real kangaroo before ending the fight gruesomely.

Adding to the controversy was Australia's rejection of Kotcheff's portrayal of society as a culture with alcohol flowing through its veins instead of blood. It's not without a sense of irony that in the years since, Australia has since gone to great lengths to preserve the film and regards it as the birth of Australian cinema. For all intents and purposes, Wake in Fright was the first outback film that showed you can make an interesting and lasting piece set in the dusty and gritty landscape.

"This is a road to nowhere....."
The film was released in some territories simply labeled Outback, and over the years was almost completely forgotten. When the  Australian National Film and Sound Archive realized that Wake in Fright was worth preserving, film restoration teams were horrified to find out the last watchable copy of the film was a damaged theatrical print scheduled for demolition. In the nick of time, Wake in Fright was rescued from almost certain death and painstakingly restored as close to the original color scheme as possible. Blu-ray owners will notice that Wake in Fright isn't the sharpest looking or sounding film in their collection, and the color scheme has a light yellow-green look, which probably wasn't inherent in the original masters. If you watch the restoration demonstration included on the Blu-ray and see firsthand just how deeply damaged the last remaining copy of the film was, you know the team did the best they could in bringing this nearly forgotten masterpiece back to life.

Wake in Fright can be interpreted as either an alcoholic's hellscape, or a notion that deep within the outback, the only key to survival in this barren terrain is alcohol. Near the end of his rope, Grant tries once more to reach his intended destination, and gets into an argument with a local who simply doesn't understand why he won't have a drink with him. Throughout the film, Grant regards locals with disgust and contempt, until he soon finds himself sharing rooms with them. In the deserted landscape of Wake in Fright, and the trappings within its wide open spaces, Grant soon learns you can either give up and die, or accept the bleak hopelessness of one's existence in the outback aided by alcohol. You'll think twice about why you swill down a beer after watching this one.

-Andrew Kotwicki