Cinema Review: Wake in Fright

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DIR: Ted Kotcheff • WRI: Evan Jones • PRO: Steven M. Rales, Scott Rudin, Jeremy George Willoughby • DOP: Brian West • ED: Anthony Buckley • MUS: John Scott • DES: Adam Stockhausen • CAST:  Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, John Grant

Long considered one of the great lost films (due to it’s very limited availability), this restored rerelease of Wake in Fright coincides with the fairly recent release of the ’70s classic on DVD and Blu-Ray. Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, the film tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a very well-to-do school-teacher financially shackled to a teaching post in the isolated Australian Outback. On his way to Sydney for his holidays he has to make a stopover in Bundanyabba, a small, isolated town whose insular inhabitants act as if they’re the last bastion of civilisation left on Earth. Or to put it another way, they come across as not being particularly far removed from the inhabitants of Summerisle from The Wicker Man. Grant seems on some level aware of this but greed, and his own arrogance, get the better of him when he decides to kill a few hours and comes across a deceptively simple-looking game and the local gambling ring. Broke and trapped in Bundanyabba, he is befriended by some of the natives, notably Doc who is immediately flagged as bad news due to being played by Donald Pleasence. What follows is an examination of the dark heart of Australia and one man’s moral decline upon being exposed to it.       

Unsurprisingly the main draw of the film is Donald Pleasence and deservedly so. What starts off as a slightly quirky performance quickly spirals into Pleasence at his scenery-chewing best. He is occasionally restrained as the laid-back alcoholic who has embraced the lifestyle of the ‘The Yabba’ but in a moment can become a psychotically unhinged and truly terrifying onscreen presence when he transforms into the booze-fuelled, gloriously deranged wild man of the Outback.

The centrepiece of the film is undoubtedly the infamous kangaroo hunt. A cackling orgy of alcohol-fuelled slaughter as the lead character descends into the barbarism embodied by the locals who’ve taken him in. Kotcheff’s direction, which has been intentionally rough and disorientating up until this point, reaches a crescendo of discomfort here. The scene drags on for far longer than is comfortable and is made up of harsh crash-zooms and jump-cuts between quick shots of the animals being brutally killed and the hunters getting increasingly intoxicated while laughing and revelling in their bloodlust. Difficult as the scene is to watch as it happens; a producer’s note at the end informs us that it was indeed a real hunt, with real hunters. As a visual depiction of the moral degradation which the film wants to demonstrate is at the heart of the Outback-worn Australian psyche, it’s undeniably effective but that doesn’t make it any less troubling to experience.

Mention should obviously be given to the restoration work on the print. The visuals are crisp and I can only imagine how good the desolate shots of the unending Outback look on Blu-Ray. The sound, sadly, hasn’t been quite as well restored. It’s not a persistent problem but especially during Grant’s early scenes in Bundanyabba, some dialogue, notably Pleasence’s, can be quite hard to make out. John Scott’s superb score is thankfully unaffected by any such audio issues. Initially reminiscent of the Spaghetti Western scores it morphs into a disquieting and thoroughly alien soundscape as Grant falls further into the abyss. Even by modern standards it’s a bold score with a strong and unique personality. Surprisingly catchy too, the piece that ends the film will be comfortably stuck in your head afterwards.

If this film truly was close to joining the list of lost films, it would have been a shame had it happened. This restored print looks fantastic and the film itself is still as affecting and relentless as when it was originally released. The great Donald Pleasence is at the peak of his brilliant craziness and Bond is the perfect upstanding citizen who is brought down physically and morally in this modern equivalent of Satan’s temptation in the desert. It’s rarely a pleasant film and at times is an almost unwatchable one but it deserves the status it’s acquired over the decades and remains an intense, effective and occasionally funny demonstration of the dark heart of man.

Richard Drumm

109  mins

Wake in Fright is released on 7th March 2014

 

 

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