Here’s a short bit of history as to why Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright has only now appeared on the must see list, instead of being there from the beginning, as it likely would have been. The film, years after its release, only existed in a heavily degraded form, deemed unsuitable for DVD or even VHS transfer, and thus was considered one of Australia’s great “lost films”. It was decades later, around 2004, that the negatives were located in a shipping container labeled “For Destruction” and rescued, and the fully restored film was re-released in 2009, for a whole new audience to appreciate and add to their various must see lists. A common theme with some of the new additions seems to be recent restorations that finally allow it to join other rarer preserved works on the list, but there’s a lot more to this one than just being hard to find at first. This is probably the most frightening and soulless film in perhaps the entire history of Australian cinema.
John Grant is a teacher in a remote town in the Australian outback, who couldn’t care less for his job, or in particular, where it is. Grant is basically an indentured servant; receiving a loan of a thousand dollars for education, Grant is now forced to teach in the remote town as a way to pay off the loan. Now on Christmas holiday, Grant heads to the mining town Bundanyabba to catch a connecting flight to Sydney, but while there, he loses all his money in a gambling game, and is thus stuck in “the Yabba” until he can gather enough money to make it back home. Thus, the film becomes an experience, if anything, in the culture of the Yabba, an often crude and merciless lifestyle of heavy drinking and gambling and cavorting, and even kangaroo hunting. It is the juxtaposition of these two cultures, the educated Grant and the basest bottom-feeding lifestyle of the Yabba, that serves as the marketing point for Wake in Fright, and for whatever phrase one could substitute in for the words “entertainment value”. This, this isn’t what one would call entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not riveting viewing. It is, to put it succinctly, the erosion and destruction of one man in the face of a world so supposedly beneath him. Grant starts out as a well-to-do chap, until he arrives in the Yabba and soon comes under its influence. The film itself is damn near perfectly done in order to accomplish this sense of dread and horror; a lot of the runtime is actually hard to watch, just seeing this self-destruction on so many levels. This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to being genuinely terrified while watching a film; just the concept that this could happen to an otherwise well-meaning and educated bloke is horrifying to me, and that the film itself revels in the destruction of this character makes experiencing it all the worse. However, it also makes for uncomfortably riveting cinema. Well, except for the kangaroo hunting scene, which in order to accurately show the plight of the kangaroos in Australia incorporates footage from a real and actual kangaroo hunt, so animal lovers of any kind should steer clear of this one.
Disquieting, disturbing, and in many ways nearly unwatchable, this was spellbinding in such a way as to elicit disgust; it was so real that you truly feel you are slowly being eaten away just like this man is. That’s how effective the film was. This is hard viewing, I will not argue that, but I would likely make the argument that it is essential viewing, or at the very least, that the film is a masterful film. For ages, this had garnered the reputation as Australia’s great lost film, and now that it’s been recovered and restored, it can live a new reputation as simply a great Australian film, one of the seminal works of the Aussie New Wave; as merciless as it is heartrending. I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy yourself or have a good time watching it, but neither should you avoid this film; this is Requiem-level stuff, to be seen at least once, if only once, in your life.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10