John Grant (Gary Bond) is a bonded school teacher working in Tiboonda, a tiny cluster of shacks by the railway line somewhere in the Australian outback. He considers himself a slave to the system and is grateful for a Christmas break that will take him back to Sydney and his girlfriend, but a would-be one-night stopover in the small mining town of Bundanyabba screws with his plans and turns into a five-day alcoholic spiral of increasing madness. He finds himself unable to leave a town where everybody is willing to buy him a drink, but nobody wants to help him. He winds up in the company of wrecked medic ‘Doc’ ( Donald Pleasance) and a surrounding cast of grinning, punchy, trigger-happy ockers, larrikins and ‘mates’ in a swift fall from grace that will leave him on the verge of utter destruction…
A welcome restoration of a neglected Australian classic, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film emerges from obscurity as an extraordinary thing, a circular nightmare movie that shares elements with other films but has a sunburnt, hungover atmosphere all of its own. It’s like Scorcese’s After Hours in a different register, with a civilised man finding himself endlessly at cross purposes with a society, which, although geographically not far away from his own, is governed by strange and unfamiliar rules. It’s like a backwoods horror film in places, but here the palpable sense of menace is never resolved into a clear, tangible threat. Wake in Fright locates a weird sense of tyranny within hospitality, from the first scene in Bundanyabba where local cop Jock (Chips Rafferty) buys Grant a beer then stares pointedly at the full glass in his hand until he realises that he is expected to gulp it down and return the favour. From here on in, invitations to share a beer or three seem more and more like threats, and while Grant’s problems are largely self-inflicted, his descent is mostly a case of following the path of least resistance, of trying to fit in, endlessly cajoled into taking drink after drink and following where the booze leads him, which is ultimately to the grotesque extended carnage of a night-time kangaroo hunt where all pretences at civilisation are stripped away in an orgy of whiskey-fuelled depravity.
The world of Bundanyabba is vividly evoked through accumulated detail and keen observation; the hotel receptionist’s ritualistic movements to the cool air from the desk fan, the ‘spinners night’ in the back room of a greasy spoon where desperate men gamble a month’s wages on the flip of a couple of coins, the necklaces made of beer can ring pulls. It all adds up to a picture of a very specific place, a place of heat and dust and unspoken laws, where you are expected to agree that the ‘Yabba is the best bloody place on Earth’, and dissenting voices are few and far between: ‘All the little devils are proud of Hell,’ as Doc puts it. But still, worrying notes begin to emerge from the boozy bonhomie. Jock, while detailing the town’s low crime rate, casually lets slip ‘’course, we do have a few suicides…’ More disturbingly, there is the discrepancy between Doc’s description of Janette Hynes (Sylvia Kay) as some kind of swinging outback libertine, and our picture of her from the previous night where she displayed all the symptoms of a woman used to abuse, trapped in a leery and crude man’s world. Kotcheff brilliantly stages the boozy revelries so that we find ourselves later trying to work out what exactly we saw, much like a drunk after a raucous night trying to piece together where he received certain injuries. Did we witness a crime? What the hell just happened?
Kotcheff went on to give us First Blood and Weekend at Bernies and nothing this strange and vivid ever again. Evan Jones’s screenplay, (from Kenneth Cook’s novel) is sharp, funny and quotable. The photography, from the opening 360-degree pan, is inventive but unobtrusive, and throughout we feel like we are watching a real world, with the extensive use of real locations and real outback dwellers, where none of the professional actors breaks the spell. This realism extends to the kangaroo hunt where actual documentary footage of shootings is used, though as Kotcheff insists, no kangaroos were injured or killed for the film. It all adds up to a bloody magnificent piece of work, one with a very singular sense of dread, often just a key change shy of comedy. It’s a film that will rattle around in your mind long after viewing, wholly satisfying yet somehow dark and unresolved. The original tag line read: ‘Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have a taste of dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.’ Spot on.
Watch the trailer: