Wake In Fright


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Wake In Fright
"This is a shocking, visceral work. There are moments of humour, here and there, but it is the gallows laughing."

There are many films that have disappeared. They are released, they flicker before audiences for a week, a month, and then... Not for them Mad Hatter-like arguments about how soon is too soon for DVD, instead in that pre-internet age they became 'lost'. A line in Halliwell's, a half-reel in a distributor's warehouse, a four-line review in a copy of Time Out trapped under the floor panel of a bus.

There is a film called Outback, though now it's underneath its original title, that of the novel upon which it is based, Wake In Fright. It's a masterwork.

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There is a place called Tiboonda. It is nowhere. There is an opening shot that is dazzling, blinding, a slow circle around the horizon. That shot alone is enough to recommend the film. It's as measured, as powerful, as the opening of Silent Light. It is hypnotic, terrifying. There is nothing. Your eye tracks from the sand at the bottom of the screen past nothing, up, to the empty horizon, then up into the featureless blue sky. It rolls past the railway line that stretches to vanishing, and then again 180 degrees later, and that steel ribbon, tending to invisible, is the only suggestion that there is an anywhere else. It is vast, staggering, dizzying - then there is a schoolhouse.

Inside the clock ticks and ticks, and there is the same oppressive nothing in the faces of the children, the slow turning of pages in the teacher's hands, and then: no bell; it is time to go. They shuffle out, and we realise they are passing a dead tree shrouded in tinsel. Christmas.

The rest? Nick Cave calls it: "The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence". It is hard to disagree. Gary Bond, who had only a few film roles (near enough only this, and a part in Zulu) is the teacher, John Grant. Held hostage by a bond from the Teacher's Union he is kept in Tiboonda. To get to Sydney, to his girlfriend, to see the sea, he must go to Bundanyabba, and catch a flight. He doesn't manage it.

That's it. That's enough.

'The Yabba' is every small town made worse, a boomtown past pathology to the point of horror. The law in The Yabba is played by Chips Rafferty, in his last role. He is avuncular, jovial, terrifying. Law and order are far away. They are things of civilisation. This is the frontier. There is beer. There is more beer. There is gambling and desperation and madness. There is genuine disquiet, sexual abandon, sexual assault, and in one extended sequence, a kangaroo hunt. This will likely be the only film you see where the credits tell you that animals [em]were[/em] harmed during the making of it. It's footage of a genuine hunt, shown after consultation with animal protection groups in both Australia and the UK.

Kenneth Cook's debut novel was adapted by Evan Jones, who also adapted Len Deighton's Funeral In Berlin and apparently was involved in writing Escape To Victory. Director Ted Kotcheff would go on to helm First Blood and Weekend At Bernie's. This might be his best film, though he also did some remarkable television work. It doesn't really matter. Forty years in the wilderness, and Wake In Fright emerges - age has not softened it. This is a shocking, visceral work. There are moments of humour, here and there, but it is the gallows laughing.

Now that audiences can see it, they should, must - Wake In Fright is genuinely, existentially, terrifying - horrifying, perhaps, rather than horror, and the continuing power of its revelation is such that it is the filmic equivalent of a cold sweat, a racing heart, a sensation of falling and eyes wide, less 'where...' than 'who am I?"

Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2010
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A young teacher gets more than he bargained for in a violent outback town, in a film that reportedly even gives Nick Cave nightmares...
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Director: Ted Kotcheff

Writer: Evan Jones, based on the book by Kenneth Cook.

Starring: Donald Pleasance, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty

Year: 1971

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, US

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