How fortunate we are to have Wake in Fright. And how strange that may seem to say about a film that follows a civilized school teacher’s drunk, desperate descent into something feral amid the sweaty Australian desert; is notorious for a brutal hunting sequence (animals were harmed in the making of this film); does no favors for Tourism Australia in its depiction of the Outback and its denizens; and features a jarring post-hangover flashback montage (the Wolfpack has nothing on John Grant).
Yet this blunt, beautifully crafted film was essentially abandoned soon after its birth, its survival left to fate, and for years has been more talked about than seen.
Wake in Fright was well-received by critics but ignored by paying moviegoers upon its initial release, then thought lost. Wake in Fright suffered the fate of many box office failures in an era before home video and the internet gave them a second chance: It was alternately shelved and shuffled as it faded from public consciousness and its ownership changed hands, although poor prints occasionally screened and the film certainly did not fade from the memories of those who saw it.
Nearly a decade of globe-spanning persistence by Wake in Fright editor Anthony Buckley beginning in 1996 led to the discovery of a functional negative and audio track for the film in a Pittsburgh warehouse. The reels were marked “for destruction.”
Following a painstaking restoration sponsored in part by the Australia National Film & Sound Archive, Wake in Fright was a 2009 Classics selection at Cannes, where it played in official competition in 1971. It went on to enjoy a limited theatrical run in time for its 40th birthday (it retains its bracing power) and amid new acclaim; Wake in Fright is now available in a vibrant Blu-ray transfer with a thoughtful array of special features from Drafthouse Films.
The movie begins with one of cinema’s great opening shots: As if perched on a power line, the camera peers down on a ramshackle hotel that looks like it was dropped to its location from a great height and train tracks that stretch into an endless desert; the camera pans slowly, revealing a lonely wasteland, and eventually settles just short of a full circle on a one-room schoolhouse across the tracks from the hotel. Economical and informative, and not lacking in wry humor, this shot establishes the environment through which the protagonist—and viewers—are about to embark on a harrowing journey, sets the tone for the film and ties neatly into the conclusion.
Preparing to leave the middle-of-nowhere that is Tiboonda for Christmas in Sydney is the aforementioned John Grant (Gary Bond), a sophisticated young man who loathes his bonded teaching service in this dusty, fly-infested void and is mockingly dismissive of the Outback’s inhabitants in general. In order to reach the city, Grant must first survive one night in the slightly less desolate town of Bundanyabba, affectionately referred to by the aggressively friendly locals as “The Yabba.”
Grant ventures out of his oven-hot hotel room for a beer, which he sips deliberately, and meets the gregarious sheriff Jock Crawford (famed Australian character actor Chips Rafferty in his last film role), who soon has Grant chugging pint after pint. Beer drinking is one of the primary pastimes in The Yabba. Another is gambling, and if nothing else Wake in Fright is a chilling cautionary tale about the hazards of combining these vices.
Accompanied by Crawford, Grant is introduced to a backroom parlor where dozens of men are engaged in the excited exchange of wagers over a simplistic coin-flipping game. Grant exploits the game for some quick cash, then decides to risk his winnings and his savings for a chance to pay off his teaching bond and escape the Outback for a more citified lifestyle. You can guess which way that coin-toss falls.
Stranded and broke, Grant falls in with a group of hard-drinking locals, including the mysterious “Doc” Tydon (an intense and unnerving Donald Pleasance), whom an increasingly beer-soaked Grant accompanies on a nightmarish series of misadventures. The movie is often illusory; dreams and shards of memories figure prominently into the film’s story as well as inform its visual style.
Early in the film as Grant rides the train to The Yabba, he dreams of being with his girlfriend on the beach—the images are in slow motion, the colors vivid. Grant’s reality re-entry is visualized with a whip-pan and fragmented cut.
The “reality” of the film has a heightened feel as well, marked by bold compositions and bursts of color that lend Wake in Fright a pulpy, fever-dream quality. And as Grant (d)evolves, director Ted Kotcheff—whose varied cinematic career includes North Dallas Forty, First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s—elevates the emotional pitch and accelerates the pace with deft editing (it is sometimes said that one should not notice an editor’s hand in a film, but in the right hands editing can be exploited, as it is here, to great sensory effect).
Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West also create a world that is nearly palpable. There are two brief but memorable scenes involving a hotel desk clerk who combats the heat by sitting as still as possible before a fan; she wastes few words in speech, and she occasionally dips her fingertips in a glass jar of water then allows the cool liquid to trickle down her neck and chest. And when Grant wakes up at Tydon’s filthy domicile, the implied stench is sobering.
Wake in Fright is occasionally compared to Deliverance, which followed a year later. There are elemental similarities (though Wake in Fright is a bit more subtle in its squeal-like-a-pig moment), but what makes the emergence of man’s primal nature so unsettling here is that it is largely unprovoked; the antagonists, though base, rough-hewn, and lacking in manners and humane hobbies, are accepting of Grant and treat him as a friend, sharing their seemingly endless supply of beer.
Privately contemptuous at first, Grant eventually and consensually participates with Tydon and other men in a savage hunt, which employs real-life footage to disturbing ends. And Grant has not reached bottom yet.
When he finally has a climactic waking moment later, Grant finds his situation so dire that suicide may be his only escape. (The book on which the film is based contains the line, “May you dream of the devil and wake in fright,” attributed to an old curse.) Although viewers are allowed to exhale in the end, we are left to wonder about the effects of Grant’s journey as he fully wakes from his horror … or transitions into another nightmare.