Opening this Friday, December 14, at the Edina Cinema is what was believed to be a lost Australian classic from 1971: Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright.
Probably best known for directing North Dallas Forty (1979) and First Blood (1982), Kotcheff premiered his film at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival; it was thought to be lost for years, as the negative film print could not be located anywhere. After a two-year search for the film, it was discovered in 2004 in a Pittsburgh warehouse (!) in a box marked “For Destruction”; it reappeared at the 2009 Cannes and Toronto International Film Festivals.
The negative was digitally restored and has been screening across the U.S., thanks to the fine folks at Drafthouse Films, who picked up the film. Wake in Fright (released originally under its international title, Outback) has been receiving accolades from film scholars, critics, and audiences since its “second” release of sorts.
Based on the novel by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright features magnificent cinematography from Brian West and terrific supporting turns from Donald Pleasence (perhaps best known as Dr. Sam Loomis in the Halloween saga) and Australian actor Jack Thompson—but the film really belongs to Gary Bond, who delivers an honest and terrifying performance as a man looking for a peaceful break in his daily routine and ends up discoveing the true nature of evil under his own skin.
From a picturesque opening in the Australian outback, the camera spins around in a circle, setting us up for the sideways story about to begin. We see children sitting in a rural classroom waiting patiently, and then we first get a glimpse of their schoolteacher John Grant (brilliantly played by UK stage actor Bond, looking like a cross between a young Peter O’Toole and present day Ryan Reynolds), who finally lets the children out of the classroom; this could be his last bit of silence. He is about to venture from his small community of Tiboondi to Sydney for a summer vacation, where he formerly taught and where he will possibly visit a former love. On the way he stops off in another small town—Bundanyabba, known to the residents as “the Yabba”—where he meets the locals at a bar; this slowly triggers the demise of Grant’s plans of traveling to Sydney.
The beers begin flowing—Grant is drinking with the county sheriff, no less—and Grant stumbles into a back room at a bar, where he discovers many of the locals involved in a coin flipping game known as “Two-Up.” Grant has success at the game, and continues to increase his bets. He wants out of his bonded teaching position, and figures that gambling with his winnings can free him from his job. What happens shortly after unleashes mayhem; Grant descends into madness and the demons begin showing themselves to him.
Left with nothing, Grant finds solace in local “Doc” Tydon (a creepy Pleasence), who lends Grant a hand, but not for the better, showing him around with his alcoholic buddies. At first Grant seems to be enjoying the detour, until it slowly starts destroying him and becomes his own living nightmare. From the constant beer drinking to the graphic hunting scenes involving kangaroos—or “roos,” as they are called—Grant might be along for the ride, but he cannot escape the “vacation” or his own mind.
Wake in Fright has been compared to other men-in-peril films such as 1971’s Straw Dogs and 1972’s Deliverance, but those films depicted men in closed areas, whereas Wake in Fright takes place mostly in the outback. Taking his time in exploring every character and setting, Kotcheff unspools his scenes with eerie precision and undeniable suspense. Grant could leave at any time; why chooses to stay is a mystery not only to the viewer but to Grant. That is when the real horror sets in.