WAKE IN FRIGHT (1) tvln 110109

The first in the AFI fest‘s restored prints strand, Ted Kotcheff’s Australian psychodrama Wake In Fright (1971) was almost a lost film. The director was present at the screening and told some of the story (no prints, lost negative); after two years’ searching and a frame-by-frame restoration it not only looks splendid but also reveals itself to be a film well worth saving.

It tells of school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) stopping overnight in a populous outback town on his way home to Sydney for the holidays. He’s initially contemptuous of the locals and their bluff beery ways, and rather piqued at finding himself the intelligent outsider. One has some sympathy with his reaction – even if the men of the town are presented as uniformly honest, friendly and hospitable, it’s still the sort of place you can rape a man’s mother but it’s a worse crime to refuse a drink with him. And this is the cause of Grant’s problems – a beer-fueled night and he’s out of cash and stranded, and things are only going to get worse.

His Virgil through this hellish three dark nights of the soul is alcoholic doctor Donald Pleasance, on fine form with quasi-philosophical ramblings and trademark eye-rolling. There’s a dead-faced temptress to leaven all the hyper-masculine rowdiness, but the inevitable drunken homo-eroticism is the last straw for Grant. The through-line of his insecure masculinity is kept low-key and it’s actually better for the film that he’s a rather unlikable prig.

Along with the oppressive physicality of the outback and its people – all dirt sweat and beer – the film has a striking quasi-ethnographic feel, particularly in the crowded backroom coin toss game which Grant initially dismisses as childish before being caught up in the excitement, a strange “lest we forget” interlude in a midnight bar and a horrible nighttime ‘roo hunt. There’s not much actual fright in it, though plenty that’s frightful, and it looks very ’70s and Australian nowadays, but remains not only a spot-on portrait of a spiraling Under The Volcano-type lost weekend that handles its serious themes with restraint, and casts an admirably nonjudgmental eye on a remote and semi-barbarous way of  life.

Kotcheff told the story of an Australian screening where one audience member stood up, pointed at the screen and protested “That’s not us”, to which another voice piped up “Sit down, mate, that is us”.

Rating: 7.36/10

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