Aussies can be a genially sinister bunch.  Don’t believe me?  You’ve obviously never been in a Walkabout bar after 2am on a Friday and overheard their chivalrous courtship rituals (“Fancy a root or what?” “Ah, go on then ya smooth-talking bastard.”).  It’s like a lesson in courtly love.   

Sure, they have very good PR; daytime soaps like Home And Away and Neighbours sell us the traditional image of an Edenic paradise populated by gorgeous, sun-kissed Sheilas and fair dinkum bonzer blokes.  We all love Kylie.  And every Aussie you’ve ever met, when they’re not whinging on and on about “whinging Poms”, will talk the hind legs of a deaf donkey about how wonderful Australia is and how it’s the best country in the world.  Of course, there’s a very good reason why they’re sitting in a bar in London telling you this and not a bar in Alice Springs and that reason is probably Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright, Australia’s infamous “lost film”, a classic of the ‘70s and ‘80s Ozploitation explosion and a cautionary tale for anyone planning to holiday Down Under. 

Hailed as “The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence” by no less a luminary than Nick Cave and restored and re-released after four decades, Wake In Fright is what passes in Australia for a Christmas film.  Resentful of his posting to a tiny, remote Outback town and desperate to escape back to the civilisation of the big city, middle class teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is heading home to spend Christmas (the hottest time of year in Australia) in Sydney with his girlfriend.   

Intending to catch the plane from the nearby desert mining town of Bundanyabba, known locally as the Yabba, Grant makes the mistake of staying the night, has a few too many beers and winds up losing all his money gambling with the aggressive, bullying, beer-swilling yokels.  Marooned and penniless, Grant is forced to rely on the genially sinister hospitality of the town’s residents, chief among them the wonderfully creepy Donald Pleasance’s sweaty, alcoholic town doctor, and finds his life spiraling out of control on a booze-fuelled bender that threatens his sanity. 

A sweaty journey into Hell, Wake In Fright is nothing less than a study of the alienation, violence and displaced sexuality inherent in the Australian masculine identity.  Often sold as a horror film, the nasty, harrowing night-time kangaroo hunt set-piece (featuring actual footage of kangaroos being slaughtered) aside, the film’s true horror lies in the brutal nature of Man, the savage beast hiding just beneath the veneer of civilisation.  What’s most unsettling however is that the film’s true villain is the protagonist’s own weakness; this isn’t some Deliverance or Straw Dogs-style battle between the intellectual city slicker and the ignorant country bumpkin, Grant’s dehumanising descent into savagery is self-inflicted.   

Sure the locals are unpleasant, rough and ready boozehounds with bad teeth whose idea of a good night out is getting pissed, getting in a fight and punching to death the wounded kangaroo they’ve just shot (that does sound fun) but their intentions are good.  They’re just being friendly, neighbourly, aggressively generous in their determination to look after the down on his luck outsider, buying him drinks (a LOT of drinks) to loosen him up and make him feel welcome.  No one forces the smug, superior, condescending Grant into gambling away all his money, his own greed and desperation do that, and it’s his need to be accepted as one of the boys by the Yabba’s bullying, macho male population that speeds his disintegration.  If he ends up a drunken, sunburned mess covered in kangaroo blood, being molested by Donald Pleasance and contemplating suicide, he really has no one to blame but himself. 

The performances are excellent with Gary Bond channeling the young Peter O’Toole as the aloof, arrogant outsider who’s every bit as unlikable in his pretentious snobbery as the brutish townspeople, Kotcheff’s then wife Sylvia Kay is a study in frustration as the town bike while Donald Pleasance is wonderful as the alcoholic Doc, a mournful, misanthropic man whose appetites have caused him to fall about as far as he can but who still may be the film’s most sympathetic and, in a twisted way, most fundamentally decent character.  Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West shoot the film with a searing precision, all sweaty faces, parched landscapes and blinding sun that lends the film a hallucinatory, nightmarish quality that heightens the darkness at its heart, making you feel as hungover as the protagonist, and the film cultivates an atmosphere of shocking brutality, not just in the hunting scenes but in the dialogue as well, with a constant undercurrent of violence and threat to even the most friendly conversational exchanges. 

A disturbing, existential dissection of the Australian frontier psyche and the appetite for darkness and degradation that lurks within all of us, Wake In Fright is a ferocious examination of the roots of male violence that’s ripe for reappraisal.  Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film though is the director went on to make Weekend At Bernie’s.  If that doesn’t make you want to punch a kangaroo, nothing will.

VERDICT: [rating=4]



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