Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Distributed by Drafthouse Films
Without a doubt, you know John Grant, the lead character in director Ted Kotcheff’s recently rediscovered 1971 film Wake in Fright. Oh, you don’t know Grant himself (he is, after all, a fictional character), but you certainly know his type: aloof, haughty, arrogant, always with an upturned nose and a wan smile, carrying an ever-present “big me, little you” disposition when forced to deal with fellow members of the human race. You surely have one such person like that in your life, whether it be a co-worker, family member, or an acquaintance that you’re occasionally forced to socialize with against your ultimately unspoken wishes.
Haven’t you ever wanted to slap someone like that? Give them a rap on the knuckles, or a sock on the jaw? Or if violence isn’t your bag (and it shouldn’t be, no matter how tempting), perhaps a verbal dressing down in front of a large crowd of people. Anything to ground them, to wipe the smugness from their face in one quick move.
A comeuppance of that sort is visited upon Grant (played marvelously by Gary Bond), albeit to a far worse degree than I would wish upon anyone, including those I count as enemies. As Wake opens, we are introduced to the unforgiving Australian landscape, via a hyperreal 360 degree shot that indifferently captures the land’s vast emptiness. Soon after we meet Grant, a local schoolteacher who has just closed up the school year and is off to board a train to meet with his lover at their chosen vacation spot in Sydney. Halfway through his trip, he is forced to stay the night in the small mining town of Bundanyabba (or “The ‘Yabba”, as the locals affectionately/reverently refer to it). There, Grant encounters a way of life he is entirely unfamiliar with, and hardly understands: rampant drinking, gambling, aggressive male camaraderie, predatory sexuality, and senseless violence – all under a blanket of brain-baking heat rained down by a blistering sun. It’s enough to drive any sane person mad, especially if your guides include a belligerently jovial lawman (Rafferty) and a possibly crazy local physician (an amazing Pleasence), who spends more time drinking, hunting, and fighting than practicing medicine.
Under these conditions, Grant’s pomposity is worn down over the course of his visit, until he finds within himself the type of brutality and wanton behavior that he has looked down upon since his arrival. Though his stay in the ‘Yabba is short, it makes an indelible impression upon the man, reshaping him into something different, and hopefully better. A final, friendly exchange on a returning train (which stands in contrast to one similar at the film’s beginning), along with the movie’s final line, certainly give us hope that we’ve witnessed a successful transformation.
Though I’d been entirely unaware of this film until catching glimpses of it in Mark Hartley’s excellent Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood, my interest in the film was ratcheted up considerably upon seeing the film’s re-release trailer. Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the famed Alamo Drafthouse chain of theatres, released a restored version of the film to theatres late last year, and now presents it on Blu-ray. They should be applauded for doing so, as Wake in Fright is a wonderful film, full of unrelenting dread with some genuinely frightening moments sprinkled throughout. Though the movie lacks many of the hallmarks we come to think of when it comes to our favorite genre, I’d be hard-pressed to deny its genre cred entirely. Either way, horror or not, it’s a beautifully made and deeply disturbing film that cries out to be discovered by cinephiles everywhere.
In presenting this “stranger in a strange land” tale, director Kotcheff captures the story with gorgeous photography, an unsettling musical score, and a collection of fine performances from his cast. As Grant, Brit Gary Bond walks a precarious tightrope, portraying his character with a cold disdain for those around him, all while making him just likeable enough to better allow audiences to follow him throughout the tale. And as disgraced ex-physician “Doc” Tydon, Donald Pleasence is a marvel, creating a character who is all contradictions: at times calmly sane, others batshit crazy; sometimes an educated, soft-spoken man, others a hard-drinking, rabble-rousing powderkeg. If you found Halloween’s otherwise heroic Sam Loomis occasionally alarming, Pleasence’s performance here will forever leave you unnerved at the sight of the man.
More disturbing than Pleasence, or the film’s subject matter, may be an extended sequence of kangaroo hunting, with real kangaroos being slaughtered on film. There is a notice at the end of the feature informing audiences that the animals were killed by professional hunters on a routine hunt, but that does little to comfort one who doesn’t wish to see real death in a fictional film. While this segment of the film is admittedly well-made and integral to the plot, it still left this reviewer with a foul taste in his mouth.
Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray features a fine image, mostly sharp with gorgeous colors and loads of detail. There are sequences that look a little soft, and the colors a bit faded or off, but this is likely due to the condition of the surviving materials that were worked with in order to present this film. There’s no doubt, though, that this is the best the film will ever look, and it looks mostly wonderful. The audio might disappoint those wanting a more detailed aural experience (we’re only provided with a DTS 2.0 track), but the music, effects and dialogue are crystal clear, though the occasionally impenetrable Aussie accents may have you switching the subtitles on from time to time.
The provided bonus features package is fairly extensive, as befitting a film of Wake’s standing. There is an audio commentary with Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley that will be a must-listen for fans of the film; To the ‘Yabba and Back, a thirteen-minute interview with Kotcheff culled from footage shot for Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood; a forty-five minute post-screening Q&A from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (a fascinating chat); six minutes of Wake related excerpts from Who Needs Art?, a documentary concerning Australian art and culture; a three-minute obituary/career retrospective on Wake actor Chips Rafferty; a six-minute TV spot on the rediscovery and restoration of Wake; and a collection of trailers for recent Drafthouse Films releases, including one for Wake. All in all, a damned decent package.
While the film may not be “horror” with a capital H, Wake in Fright is a damned fine, damned unsettling flick that just can’t wait to ruin your evening. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, be sure to give this recovered gem a look. I doubt you’ll regret it.
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5