Waking Up Again, Still in Fright

Wake in Fright (Australia/US-1971; dir. Ted Kotcheff)

Reviewed by Robert Hood

A movie that is generally considered by film historians to be a classic of Australian cinema, but which has only existed in poor-quality later-generation prints for many decades and was thought lost otherwise, has just been released by Madman Entertainment, looking better than ever.

Wake in Fright (directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff) is a grim, relentless descent into an antipodean hell, made in 1971 just as the Australian film industry was on the brink of a major revival. An intense piece of cinema, it gives a dusty, sweaty, rather confronting picture of small-town outback life that explores the violent and repressive nature of this isolated wasteland culture — a culture that displays antagonism toward the “outsider” (that is, anyone who isn’t “a good bloke” and willing to conform to its norms), sexual segregation and domination, bizarre mateship rituals (including the infamous bloody, shocking and almost surreal kangaroo hunt), and an oppressive air of violence and debilitation.

Bonded school teacher John Grant (played by English actor Gary Bond) — who looks and sounds a bit like a young Peter O’Toole — leaves his one-room school in Tiboonda for the end-of-year holidays, demoralized and looking with longing toward Sydney and the coast. He doesn’t get there. Instead, a stop-over in a country town known to the locals as “The Yabba” results in his initiation and absorption into a rough, oppressively matey and ultimately brutalizing male society. Fueled by alcohol, the dominance rituals and violence drag him into nightmare — and even his end-game attempts at redemption may come too late.

Is it a horror movie? Well, though naturalistic in approach, it replicates a classic horror trope: a civilised man who finds himself exposed to a brutal alien environment infested with monsters and demons that inexorably drag him into their maw, chew him up and spit him out — morally broken and mortally wounded by an awareness of his own essential monstrosity. It’s Lovecraft without literal tentacles, and Wake in Fright is still, after all these years, a shocking experience for its sense of awful authenticity.

Is it an accurate depiction of Australian society? Audiences at the time didn’t think so, but now, rescued from oblivion by the fortuitous discovery of original elements and a magnificent restoration effort on the part of the National Film and Sound Archive and AtLab Deluxe, it is startling how relevent an “outsider’s” reflection on a major aspect of Australian culture it seems, with themes that have universal applicability.

From the opening panoramic 360° sweep over a flat, outback landscape — the only sign of humanity a railway line and two small buildings — to focus on a small railway station in the middle of nowhere, designated TIBOONDA, and a clock with no hands, to its end shot of the same locale, as the camera pans back on a scene that hasn’t changed, it looks stunning, with a visual clarity it probably never had before this. At the premiere showing of the restored version at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival, the director commented that he’d never seen the film looking so good — ever. A brief extra comparing scenes from the original negative with those on the digital restoration clearly illustrates this.

Wake in Fright is a powerful and significant Australian film that deserves to be better known, featuring excellent and surprisingly subtle performances from the likes of Chips Rafferty (his last), Jack Thompson (his first), Donald Pleasance and John Meillon. Back in the 1970s, Wake in Fright was released overseas under the title Outback, to some critical success — though it didn’t do well in Australia. Now it’s back. If you haven’t seen it, do so. If you saw it back then, take another look — it might surprise you.

The high-definition Blu-ray image is superb, bright (when appropriate) and clear while retaining enough filmic grain and over-exposure to accurately capture its dusty, often sun-bleached character. Though it doesn’t have the startling colours and universally clear lines of modern HD digital cinematography, it is exactly what it should be for the film and incredible for its age. The package includes an interview with Ted Kotcheff, an audio commentary from Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley and other features examining the film and its re-discovery. It comes with an excellent full-colour 32-page booklet about the film and its history.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Madman Entertainment.

This review was originally published on Horrorscope.

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