OHMC 2013 – Wake In Fright (1971) [spoilers]

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As previously mentioned, I’ll be blogging my views for the October Horror Movie Challenge both here, and over at Dreams In The Bitch House. Here is where I’ll be doing lengthier articles on films that deserve more than a paragraph write-up, and DitBH is where I’ll post bite-sized reviews. The first film I sat down with, very late last night, was the 1971 Australian Outback thriller, Wake In Fright.

WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)
director: Ted Kotcheff
stars: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty
country: Australia

Wake In Fright TITLE

Wake In Fright opens with a slow 360-degree shot of Tiboonda, a remote area in the Australian Outback, starting with and ending on a pair of tiny buildings on either side of a railroad track. As the camera pans around, we see a road, power lines, and nothing else but a seemingly never-ending expanse of arid land, dotted with dry grasses and small shrubs. From the start of the film, there’s an amazing sense of loneliness and alienation. We are far from anything that might be called “civilization.”

The film’s protagonist, John Grant (Bond), is a bonded schoolteacher – he’s under a $1000 government contract to teach wherever they send him, and right away we get the sense that he’d rather be anywhere but the Outback. As it’s Christmas, Grant plans to take the week-long vacation to see his girlfriend Robyn (Nancy Knudsen). He takes the train to a larger mining town – Bundanyabba (“the Yabba,” as the locals call it) – to catch a flight to Sydney, but there is where he nearly loses everything, including his life.

Wake In Fright is less of a horror film involving ghosts and ghouls, and more of one that explores the underside of humanity. I’d rank it somewhere alongside something like Cannibal Holocaust, but without the cruel streak. That’s doing this film a huge disservice, however; Cannibal Holocaust is a straight-up Italian gore shocker, while Wake In Fright is a little more subtle in it’s brutality. Both films, it should be noted, do have actual animal cruelty, so be warned of that.

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Grant is our Everyman here. He’s educated, smartly-dressed, kind. When he arrives in the Yabba, he’s almost immediately taken under the wing of a local policeman, Jock Crawford (Rafferty, in his final role), who swiftly introduces him to the hard-drinking lifestyle of the townspeople. There’s an almost absurdist quality to the level of drinking these people do, and it’s a personal affront if you refuse to let them buy you a drink. Drinking isn’t just a hobby to these folks – it’s a way of life. Beer flows like water, and soon Grant and Jock are out carousing the town like a couple of frat boys. When they stop for food, Grant discovers a large group of men (the Yabba seems to only have three or four women living there) in a back room at the restaurant, gambling on a game called “two-up,” which involves betting on the outcome of a two-coin toss. He is intrigued but steps out to eat his dinner, sitting at a table with Doc Tydon (Pleasence), who takes the scraps of Grant’s meal without really asking and also seems to be keeping track of the winning coin tosses.

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There’s something…off…about Doc. We can sense it early on with Pleasence’s cagey performance. He seems nice enough, giving Grant some insight into life in the Yabba, but he’s also odd. We find out later that he’s a former medical professional, an alcoholic, and very into sexual experimentation. Not in a casual sense, but in a dominating and almost abusive way. Doc becomes the film’s Satan in a sense, the counterpart to Grant’s Everyman. The Yabba is a sort of hell – remote, ungodly hot, filled with violence and and a never-ending flow of liquid sin – and Doc is there at every step, guiding Grant along his journey.

Near the end of the film, the slow, creeping tension that’s been building throughout Wake In Fright reaches a breaking point when Doc, Grant, and Doc’s friends Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) go out for a kangaroo hunt. The scene is almost unbearable in its cruelty, and it seems to go on forever. After the hunt, the men brawl and destroy a small pub, extending the previous scene’s excruciating brutality even further. That evening, Grant ends up in Doc’s shanty, and the implication is that Doc takes sexual advantage of Grant in their violent, drunken state. It’s difficult to describe this implied scene – we never see the act itself – as anything other than rape, the ultimate combination of sex and violence and power. It’s a disturbing culmination to a completely wrenching sequence.

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The following morning, Grant hitchhikes to leave the Yabba, only to find himself on a truck that’s headed…back to the Yabba. Carrying only his clothes, a rifle from the hunt with a single bullet inside, and one dollar bill (having lost all his money early in the film when gambling), Grant is a broken man. He decides to kill Doc, but ends up turning the gun on himself. His attempt at suicide fails, and at the end of the film, Doc takes him to the train station to go back to Tiboonda.

As a horror film, which it’s billed as, Wake In Fright contains no stingers and no a-ha! or gotcha! moments. It takes its time, slowly breaking its lead character down, whittling his emotion and his humanity away, piece by piece, until he becomes desperate and feral. He is stripped raw, left bare, and comes out alive on the other side. It’s easy to apply several metaphors to Wake In Fright – is it an exploration of the terrors of alcoholism? Does it send its hero into the heart of darkness as a kind of moral test? What does he learn? What do WE learn? It’s hard to know where to start, but it does make you take a harder look at that friendly chap at the end of the bar who offers to buy you a drink.

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