Retro Review: Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright poster

Contrary to popular belief, most Australians don’t reside in the outback. As a largely urban society, we tend to view our rurality as a foreign, desolate place that many of us actively avoid. Over the years, many releases have played upon our fears of the bush, yet none have done so better than this film does.

It is the beginning of the Australian summer, bringing with it the end of another school year. Teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who works in the remote community of Tiboonda, is hoping to make the most of his reprieve by holidaying at Bondi Beach. But before he can do so, Grant must travel to the nearby populace of Bundanyabba, where he is to await the next available transport to Sydney.

Whilst staying in “The Yabba”, as the locals refer to it, Grant decides to investigate the town’s nightlife – or what little there is of it. At one of its local pubs, he takes part in the Australian pastime of two-up where, in his enthusiastic haste, he loses all his savings. Now broke, Grant has no funds left to travel to Sydney, leaving him with no choice but to rely on the hospitality of the townsfolk for shelter.

Along his journey in and around Bandanyabba, Grant meets with several affable, clandestine individuals who guide him through the town’s many quirks. Among those individuals are local policeman Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), hedonistic maverick Dick (Jack Thompson) and The Yabba’s drunken medical practitioner, Doc Tydon (Donald “Blofeld” Pleasence). While Grant’s newfound friends seem happy to be in his company, one cannot help but feel they hide a sinister side.

Upon first screening in 1971, Australian audiences didn’t quite know what to make of Wake in Fright. Some believed that the picture was making a mockery of antipodean culture, while others still were taken aback by the disturbing imagery – more on that below. For these reasons, the movie escaped the public eye and was presumed lost, until the chance discovery of a film reel in an overseas warehouse. What followed was years of painstaking digital restoration, culminating in an international re-release in 2009.

Wake in Fright - Pleasance
An example of Wake in Fright‘s trippier scenes, here featuring Donald Pleasence as Doc Tydon.

Wake in Fright is quite a surreal experience, being simultaneously dehumanising and fascinating. The more Grant prolongs his stay in Bundanyabba, the more insane he becomes – by the time the third act arrives, it’s almost as though the audience is watching a heatstroke-induced fever dream. Some of these later scenes are quite shocking, with the most confronting of all involving Grant and his mates participating in a kangaroo cull, one of the many reasons why it was shunned by audiences all those years ago.

In addition to these fits of insanity, Wake in Fright fantastically conveys both the geographic and emotional loneliness of the outback. In terms of the former, the scene which best demonstrates this sense is the opening credits, perfectly illustrating how isolated the film’s setting is. Grant’s willingness to bond with Bundanyabba’s locals is also indicative of this – despite his apprehensions about their behaviour, he sees it as the only way of connecting with humanity.

As for the rest of the picture, everything is just about perfect. The performances are excellent, with every actor providing their characters with complexity and nuance; the soundtrack is haunting, aiding the film’s quasi-horror atmosphere; and the technical aspects of the movie – that being the editing, cinematography and sound mixing – match those of any Hollywood production released during that same period.

Wake in Fright is Australian cinema at its most gripping, personifying one of this country’s greatest fears – the unknown of the outback. With interesting characters, powerful images and a disturbing-yet-extraordinary story, it’s no wonder the film is so revered not just here, but overseas as well.


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