Reporting Jonathon Sharp
If your weekend checklist includes a drunken misadventure, you can fit one in vicariously (and avoid the hangover) with Wake in Fright – a newly restored 1971 Australian “lost” movie with scenes so grizzly they could make Crocodile Dundee cry.
The film, directed by Ted Kotcheff, follows a young, handsome and pretentious schoolteacher named John Grant (Gary Bond) on a harrowing and self-destructive Christmas vacation.
The schoolteacher hates his job and the isolated, dessert town he calls home. So as to escape, he hops on a train, hoping to catch a flight for Sydney, where his girlfriend (seen only in dreams wearing a red bikini) is allegedly waiting. John, however, never makes it to the city, or even his flight.
Bundanyabba, the town John is scheduled to fly out of, swallows him whole. It’s a Gomorrah of beer, gambling and guns. The protagonist, who can’t help but talk up his intelligence, is a spineless, insufferable chump. He basically jumps headlong into a hell of his own making – one so awful that the cliché “downward spiral” doesn’t even apply.
On his first night in “The Yabba,” John loses all of his money in a fit of gambling. Local hospitality offers him infinite alcohol, to which he first acquiesces and then eventually needs. For fun and food, he and a handful of mates go hunting for Kangaroo. Their technique is that of a drive-by shooting. Laughing all the way, the boys run down their prey, spray them with bullets and slit their throats before butchering the carcasses into a pile of parts. In a word: it’s unsettling.
(Beware: The footage of roos being shot is real. That is, the animals are actually suffering gunshot wounds. But don’t worry: A producer’s note at the end says that “licensed professional hunters” did the shooting.)
As a film: The experience is like watching a meteor slam into the earth. You don’t care at all about the feelings of the meteor, but its fall is fascinating. It’s a spectacle of errors that almost plays out like a heavy-handed morality tale backing the virtues of abstinence. What saves the movie from that fate is its direction and photography.
The images contrast the emptiness of the landscape with the frantic mess of its depicted debauchery. Likewise, the direction swings from quotidian, sober train rides to manic, hallucinatory daydreams that push the protagonist to the brink of suicide. If you have a taste for schadenfreude, Wake in Fright might as well be a feast.
Wake in Fright also stars Donald Pleasence and Chips Rafferty. It’s playing at the Edina Cinema.