The Cult Class Collection

Wake in Fright (1971)

Starring: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasance, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson

Directed by: Ted Kotcheff

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Gary Bond as Doc in Wake in Fright

Wake In Fright, made in 1971 and now rediscovered and rereleased in the UK, tells the tense, stomach-churning tale of John (Gary Bond), a teacher tied to a remote outback school who dreams of better things. With a six week holiday to fill, he plans on visiting Sydney, but makes the fateful mistake of stopping for a night in a redneck outpost that seems to be almost exclusively inhabited by rough and ready, beer swilling men. Within a few hours, drunk and over-excited, John has gambled away all his money, and finds himself at the mercy of the town's inhabitants, whose seemingly open-handed hospitality is tinged with alcohol-fuelled menace.

So far so Hostel meets The Proposition. But in fact Wake In Fright is more like Lord of the Flies meets Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, offering a terrifying vision of how quickly a seemingly-civilised man can descend into bestial cruelty, dragged down to the base level of those around him, torn between self-disgust and drunken exultation.

Donald Pleasance as Doc in Wake in Fright

On encountering Donald Pleasance's Doc, an Aleister Crowley-esque figure in whom pragmatic self-awareness bridges hollow depths of nihilistic darkness, John finds himself adrift in a world of alcoholic excess, violent male camaraderie and flagrant disregard for any kind of social norm; a world that comes sharply into focus when his new companions take him (willingly!) on a kangaroo hunt – a real one, it transpires at the end of the film, and very distressing it is too.

Even without the hunt scene (and if you're upset by animal cruelty, I'd give this film a body swerve) Wake In Fright is a hard film to watch. It's slow, unsettling, uncomfortable, pervaded throughout by a headache-inducing atmosphere of grimy, sweaty unease. There are no sympathetic characters: John is the nominal ‘hero' yet it's hard to root for someone so weak, vain and easily led. He may, on several occasions, wake up, in true horror film fashion, drunk and disorientated in a strange, dirty, unpleasant environment, but nobody's forced him to be there; he isn't chained up, hobbled, or gagged. This isn't Wolf Creek – and if you thought that well-made Ozzie slasher offered a scary view of Australia, let's just say you ain't seen nothing yet…

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