John Grant is a handsome young teacher from Sydney whose comfortable middle-class existence has taken a bit of an unexpected turn. The financial bond he signed with the government in exchange for his teaching degree has forced him to accept a post in a tiny outback school and life is just…well, a bit shit.
Stuck in the godforsaken non-town of Tiboonda (it’s really just a hotel/shed, a school and a train platform) there’s not much for John to do apart from counting the minutes until the school holidays. So when the bell rings for the final time of the semester he really doesn’t waste any time. A quick schooner of beer with the hotel owner/bartender and off he goes. Next stop: Sydney, where his surfer sweetheart is waiting patiently for him.
The train takes him to the town of Bundanyabba (The Yabba for short), where he’s planning to spend a night before catching his flight to the big city. Then it all starts to go wrong, horribly wrong. The people of The Yabba aren’t exactly hostile, but they do like their drink. In fact, the only thing you can do to properly piss anyone off in The Yabba is decline an offer of a beer. When he moans about the town and his life in general, the local Sheriff offers him a drink and tells him how it is: “Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. You gotta live here, you might as well like it.”
Before he knows it, John has been drunk as a skunk for days, has gambled away all his flight money and has killed a kangaroo with his bare hands. He eventually wakes up in a drunken, self-loathing haze staring at the barrel of a shotgun. There appears to be no way out of The Yabba and he knows his options are limited. There’s the gun, he can try to sort his shit out…or just have another beer.
Wow. Just wow. This was quite an experience. I’m a sucker for Ozploitation in general and the outback setting never fails to excite me, but Wake In Fright certainly shoots straight into my top-10 of fucked-up Aussie awesomeness. It’s brutal, depressing, disgusting, yet oddly beautiful, exciting and completely mesmerising.
The kangaroo hunt is pretty difficult to watch, especially when you read the production notes stating that “The hunting scenes depicted in this film were taken during an actual kangaroo hunt by professional licensed hunters”. Well, professional or not, it’s a truly fucked-up and upsetting scene.
The film was believed to be lost for decades and has just recently been rediscovered. In the UK, Eureka is giving it their Masters Of Cinema treatment and the film will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of March. Director Ted Kotcheff never really became a household name, despite going on to make other classics like First Blood (1982) and Weekend At Bernie’s (1989). Three kick-ass films is more than most directors make in a lifetime, so the man definitely deserves some more recognition.
Big names like Martin Scorsese and Nick Cave have been raving about Wake In Fright, with Cave calling it “The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”. I wouldn’t say the man is completely wrong, but personally I would stick “one of the…” at the start of that sentence instead being so definite. After all, Australia has produced a lot of incredible and over-looked films. Fair Game (1986) and Long Weekend (1978) are classics that immediately springs to mind, but the list of awesome Australian 70s/80s films is pretty long. Night Of Fear (1972), Patrick (1978), Dead End Drive-In (1986), Road Games (1981) and Razorback (1984) are all worth checking out if you’re in need of an Aussie fix.
For you Londoners, The ICA is showing Wake In Fright until 20th March. You really should go.