Once considered a ‘lost film’, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) had only one known print of insufficient quality for a home release until 2004 when the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, found the negatives in a shipping container labelled ‘For Destruction’. It is now considered one of the greatest films of the Australian New Wave and is one of the nastiest movies you’ll ever likely see.
Wake in Fright is an atavistic odyssey of the same school of filmmaking as Deliverance or anything made by Sam Peckinpah but with added alcohol and actual kangaroo hunting (the latter definitely not for the faint of heart).
It follows bored English schoolteacher, John Grant, who before heading to Sydney for a Christmas break to see his girlfriend, stops off in the rough outback mining town of Bundanyabba. He meets the locals, drinks their beer, gambles, drinks more of their beer, loses all his money and the one night sojourn turns into a week long plunge into outback hedonism as he indulges in the company of some new friends whom he soon becomes entirely reliant on.
A notable tip of the hat must go to Donald Pleasence playing Tydon: a doctor of medicine who is a (in his own words) ‘tramp by temperament,’ and a strident alcoholic. His addiction hinders his profession in Sydney but he finds himself perfectly at home in Bundanyabba. He acts as the main catalyst for John Grant’s mental and physical capitulation as well as providing an effective foil to Gary Bond’s uneven performance as the main character (the acting in general isn’t up to much).
Wake in Fright is the epitome of psychological horror and Doc Tydon is an interesting encapsulation of that. How terrifying a place is Bundanyabba that perhaps the most unhinged resident is the town’s local doctor?
It perhaps isn’t the sort of film experience you could ever really claim to enjoy or even like, but Wake in Fright sears its grubby, humid images of the outback permanently into your memory. It’s car crash filmmaking in many ways – it’s deeply unsettling, but oddly difficult to turn away from.
Scenes like the aforementioned kangaroo hunting will leave filmgoers wondering if the container found in Pittsburgh seven-years ago shouldn’t have had a stronger lock on the door. Or if it in fact should be compulsory viewing for every young teenager about the dangers of alcohol abuse (it has certainly put me off drinking for a while). Regardless, Wake in Fright is ballsy enough to certainly warrant at least a single viewing. Unless you love kangaroos. (6)