Wake in Fright – aka Outback – is a 1971 Australian/American thriller film directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence (Halloween; The Mutations; Death Line) and Chips Rafferty. The screenplay was written by Evan Jones, based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name.
For many years, Wake in Fright enjoyed an unfortunate reputation as Australia’s great “lost film” because of its unavailability on VHS or DVD, as well as its absence from television broadcasts.
In mid-2009, however, a thoroughly restored digital re-release was shown in Australian theatres to considerable acclaim. Later that same year it was issued commercially on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Wake in Fright is now recognised as a seminal film of the Australian New Wave.
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Musician and screenwriter Nick Cave called Wake in Fright “The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence.”
John Grant is a middle-class teacher from the big city. He feels disgruntled because of the onerous terms of a financial bond which he signed with the government in return for receiving a tertiary education. The bond has forced him to accept a post to the tiny school at Tiboonda, a remote township in the arid Australian Outback. It is the start of the Christmas school holidays and Grant plans on going to Sydney to visit his girlfriend but first, however, he must travel by train to the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba (known as “The Yabba”) in order to catch a Sydney-bound flight.
At “The Yabba”, Grant encounters several disconcerting residents including a policeman, Jock Crawford, who encourages Grant to drink repeated glasses of beer before introducing him to the local obsession with the gambling game of two-up. Hoping to win enough money to pay off his bond and escape his “slavery” as an outback teacher, Grant at first has a winning streak playing two-up but then loses all his cash. Unable now to leave “The Yabba”, Grant finds himself dependent on the charity of bullying strangers while being drawn into the crude and hard-drinking lifestyle of the town’s residents.
Grant reluctantly goes drinking with a resident named Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) and goes to Tim’s house. Here he meets Tim’s daughter, Janette. While he and Janette talk, several men who have gathered at the house for a drinking session question Grant’s masculinity, asking: “What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink beer.” Janette then tries to initiate an awkward sexual episode with Grant, who vomits. Grant finds refuge of a sort, staying at the shack of an alcoholic medical practitioner known as “Doc” Tydon. Doc tells him that he and many others have had sex with Janette. He also gives Grant pills from his medical kit, ostensibly to cure Grant’s hangover.
Later, a drunk Grant participates in a barbaric kangaroo hunt with Doc and Doc’s friends Dick and Joe. The hunt culminates in Grant clumsily stabbing a wounded kangaroo to death, followed by a pointless drunken brawl between Dick and Joe and the vandalizing of a bush pub. At night’s end, Grant returns to Doc’s shack, where Doc apparently initiates a homosexual encounter between the two. A repulsed Grant leaves the next morning and walks across the desert. He tries to hitch-hike to Sydney, but accidentally boards a truck that takes him straight back to The Yabba”…
Wake in Fright is a grim hangover of a film. Relentlessly sweaty and hot, it presents its violent, overly macho world with claustrophobic relentlessness, making it one of the most unforgivingly grim films you’ll ever see.
This is cinema at its most challenging – the relentlessness of the story feels like a weird drunken nightmare, while the infamous kangaroo hunt scenes are as shocking and upsetting as anything you’ll see in Cannibal Holocaust.
Rarely has a film so perfectly captured a sense of heat, desperation and booze-induced madness as this. You’ll probably want to shower after you’ve seen it.
David Flint, MOV!ES and MAN!A
“Wake in Fright was originally released around the same time as The Last Picture Show, which used startlingly similar camerawork to capture the hero’s desolate surroundings, and Straw Dogs, which took a similarly nihilistic approach to backwoods mayhem […] Several decades later, it still chills.” The Seattle Times
‘ …as a strictly psychological portrait of destructive masculinity it’s a gut-sock, vividly photographed, thrillingly edited and marked by performances (Donald Pleasence and Jack Thompson, most notably) that heave with strange complexity and dark camaraderie. Wake in Fright is true horror.’ Los Angeles Times
‘It’s a vision of several terrors: not just the bloodshed but also the brutality of men unmoored from restriction, and the culture of “mates” whose delight rises with each dark act. Wake In Fright burrows deeply under the skin. Like Deliverance, or Straw Dogs, it’s an adventure movie that turns into horror: the horror of human nature.’ Canada.com
“The subtlest touch is that the folk who ruin Grant’s life all seem genuinely matey as they drag him down. Director Ted Kotcheff brilliantly conveys the sweaty, beery heat, and Donald Pleasence is great as a loon.” Empire
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