Wake in Fright March 4, 2022
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
ake in Fright (1971) for a long time existed in the universe not that differently from a bad dream: it rattled you for a night, then promptly vanished. If you didn’t write anything about it down, you couldn’t be sure it ever existed at all: not long after its premiere, its master negative went missing. It was considered a lost film until the late-aughts, when it was discovered
happenstantially in Pittsburgh a week away from a scheduled incineration. I think of the movie’s salvaging the way I think of a cursed totem unwelcomely dug up years after its burial. Wake in Fright, directed by Ted Kotcheff, is the kind of disturbing movie that can in moments (that seem to show up in quicker intervals as it goes on) push you to consider whether you can endure a certain scene or if you might have to fast-forward and read about what happened in it later.
It takes a while to get to that place, though. Wake in Fright begins unremarkably. We meet a British teacher, John (Gary Bond), who at the start of the film finishes up the school year (he’s unhappily taken a post in Australia) and then heads to the tiny mining town of Bundanyabba. He plans only to stay for a night; then he’ll fly out to Sydney to meet up with his girlfriend, seen only to the viewer in fantasies where she’s emerging all Bo Derek-like from the sea in a red swimsuit. John needs a change of scenery so badly it’s practically giving him a rash.
Then he makes the mistake of getting caught up in a game of two-up with some locals. Almost as soon as an unexpected winning streak gets him all cocky, his unforeseen luck disintegrates, leaving him penniless with no other way to get to Sydney. In Wake in Fright, dread keeps quadrupling from there, especially after John ingratiates himself with a group of local men essentially led by a perpetually sloshed physician who calls himself Doc (Donald Pleasence). The drinking, egged on by a façade of hospitality, doesn’t stop as the subsequent days and nights start feeling more and more like one large shape. Increasing macho posturing, only inflamed by the Australian outback’s oppressive heat, eventually gives way for violence, most infamously in an upsetting kangaroo hunt shown in graphic detail I concede to having to skip through after a certain point. (Wake in Fright epitomizes the days when animal cruelty in movies went nastily unregulated.)
This isn’t a movie to enjoy. But its unblinking look at toxic masculinity at its worst, possibly latent homosexuality ready to burst from dormancy, and despair over a future given nothing else to do besides suppurate, is horrific in a way few horror movies achieve or even try to. It’s a horror film mining its terrors purely from the plausible; Bond’s performance unnerves in how fluently he translates his character’s ever-expanding rage. Its final nightmare avoids simple catharsis, an escape from the rampant madness, for something more unsettling: the protagonist’s new understanding of the darkness within him and how capable he is of unleashing it. A part of his soul has gone missing and he can’t be sure when he’ll see it next. B+