John Grant (the late British actor Gary Boyd) is an urbane British teacher who, for financial reasons, has been forced to work in an arid, dusty backwater village in the outback. Eager to get back to the city for the Christmas break, he arrives in the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba (“The Yabba”) with plans to catch the first Sydney-bound flight out. To say things don’t go according to plan would be a gross understatement as Grant, under the influence of a rapidly escalating beer-guzzling habit, finds himself falling under the spell of the town’s male-dominated, machismo-gone-wild community.
Losing his hard-earned cash in a bizarre, almost-ritualistic betting game (which is ostensibly heads and tails) the teacher falls in with a gang of hard-drinking yobs, fronted by a hopelessly alcoholic ‘retired’ GP named Doc Tydon (a wonderfully deranged turn from the great Donald Pleasence). Using Tydon’s sweaty, horribly ramshackle home (the kind of putrid domicile that even the family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre would turn their noses up at) as a base for the weekend, Grant slips further into a debauched, frenzied state which becomes increasingly difficult for him to escape from.
The title may suggest otherwise, but Wake in Fright is neither a thriller nor horror. Instead, it exists as an odd and thoroughly disturbing chasm between the two. It’s a film of class tension and one man’s path from civility to savagery, but it’s a less sensational and more intriguing offering than perhaps its closest comparison, Straw Dogs. This is mainly down to the expert grasp Kotcheff has on the material, and amongst Grant’s descent into hell, there’s also some wonderfully judged moments of awkward comedy, particularly as the outsider is first introduced to the blokey subculture – a place in which he very easily assimilates into.
From the impressive opening 360 degree shot of the protagonist’s rickety, sand-swept teaching post on the edge of nowhere, the director does an expert job in drawing the viewer into the parched, sun-baked landscape. It’s the kind of film where it can almost feel the heat coming off the screen and will have you thinking about that next sip of the amber nectar, despite the unsavoury portrayal of the effects of alcohol on screen (it’s certainly clear where that hard-drinking Aussie stereotype originated from).
A stinging indictment of the darker side of Australian culture (it’s hard to differentiate between the fictitious world of The Yabba and the real-life town the film is set against) Wake in Fright is an absolute must-see for fans of cult, off-kilter cinema. Never has a seemingly innocuous night on the tiles presented such an unsettling and sobering outcome.