On the face of it – if you look at the artwork, the general imagery or a brief synopsis – then Wake in Fright would seem to be an Australian Straw Dogs or Deliverance. And perhaps the film does exist in the same universe as those two films from the same time period, even though it takes its protagonist on a very different journey. Like those two films, this is a raw and unflattering view of rural communities, shot with the sense of anthropological fascination that only a foreigner – an outsider – can bring. In this case, it’s Canadian director Ted Kotcheff looking at the overly macho lives of men in a remote (and nowhere does ‘remote’ quite like Australia) mining town.
The film opens with isolation – and impressive 360 degree shot that reveals just two buildings and a railroad in a vast swathe of desert. One of these is the school where middle class teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is serving out an unwanted posting – part of the deal with the financial bond he has signed with the government, which in exchange for his education has the right to post him anywhere, even to a nowhere place in the outback. It’s Christmas, and so he is leaving the hotel where he lives – the other building, a bizarre outpost that presumably doesn’t see many guests – to head home to Sydney, back to civilisation and his girlfriend. However, the train journey involves an overnight stop in the mining town of Bundayabba – known to the locals as ‘the Yabba’ and the source of entirely undeserved pride amongst the inhabitants.
When John goes out for a drink, he sneers at the ignorant locals, but is taken under the wing of local policeman Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who insists on buying him beers. Jock is not, perhaps, the friendly figure he seems to be – his sneering at “educated people” and his manipulation of John (or “Jack”, as he immediately calls him) suggests sinister intent, and anyone schooled in this sort of cinema can sit back and smugly predict what is to come. However, you’d be wrong.
When John is introduced to the backroom games of two-up – a slightly elaborate coin toss that seems to be the main source of entertainment in the town – he sees a chance to make enough money to buy himself out of his contract and leave the Outback forever. Instead, it’s what dooms him to be there forever. Predictably, he loses all his money, and finding himself with just one dollar – not enough to even get home – he is drawn into the strange world of the local men and their curious hospitality. This starts with Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) offering to buy him a drink in a way that sounds like (and indeed is) a threat – you don’t say no to someone asking if you want a beer in this place. Soon, he’s back a Tim’s house where an impromptu party kicks off with the arrival of Dick (Jack Thompson), Joe (Peter Whittle) and Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance) – the latter also a city man who now lives in the Yabba, having a penniless existence where he is entirely supported by others. After an unsuccessful drunken fumble with Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay), John finds himself back at Tydon’s shack, and is slowly drawn into the local world of kangaroo hunts, fighting and continual drinking…
By most standards, Wake in Fright is not a horror film – even in the wider application of the genre that takes in Deliverance and Straw Dogs. Unlike those two films, this is not so much a story of outsiders being attacked and violated by locals – it’ much more ambiguous. While the film implies that Jock takes satisfaction from John being brought ‘down to Earth’, having the veneer of civilisation stripped from him, in general this is less a malicious and murderous attack on the ‘civilised’ man as it is a desire to make him ‘one of them’ – and his willingness to become absorbed in the macho drinking culture of the Yabba. The film is essentially a ‘lost weekend’ movie in which a repressed, arrogant man has everything he believes himself to be stripped away – his middle class superiority, his education, his civilisation and possibly even his sexuality (there’s a scene where drunken fighting with Tydon becomes attempted rape – or possibly consensual sex. The film stays suitably ambiguous as to what actually happened) – leaving him broken and desperate. So in that sense, the film definitely follows a certain horror tradition. But if John is a victim, he’s a victim of himself as much as anything. His sneering at the simple pleasures that the men of the Yabba (and this is almost entirely dominated by men – there’s no place for women in this culture) demands that he is slapped down and made to see that he is not that different from them. And while he is corrupted, it’s almost entirely his own fault.
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.
The world of the Yabba is hard and brutal – a place where there is literally nothing to do but drink and fight. But unlike its main character, the film doesn’t pass judgement on this world. Instead, it suggests that this is a case of men making the best of a bad situation – because life in the mines is hard and dangerous – sometimes lethal – and who can blame anyone for wanting to take whatever pleasures are available to them in this place? Even John, while driven to the edge by his experiences, seems to eventually realise the curious pleasures of the place. Perhaps this really was the best holiday of his life…