Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cult Club: 'Wake in Fright' (1971)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll. 

Wake in Fright is a horror movie without the things that define a horror movie. There are no ghosts, though it is terribly haunting. There are no serial killers, unless you count the drunken hunters who wantonly slaughter kangaroos in perhaps the most disturbing scene I’ve ever had the displeasure to watch. There are no monsters, unless a town can be a monster. That town is Bundanyabba, or “The Yabba” as the locals call it. They are the demons who do the monster’s bidding. They stupefy its victims with beer. They drain its victims’ resources with sub-moronic gambling events. Then they go in for the kill with a methodical but swift dehumanization process.

The victim is John Grant (Gary Bond). He is a teacher forced to do his work in the Australian outback due to a system he describes as “slavery.” The government has placed him far from anything this posh city boy would consider civilization and required him to put down a deposit of $1,000 that will only be returned to him after he has completed his service. On his way back to Sydney to see his girlfriend over the Christmas holiday, he stops in The Yabba for a night. There visits a bar where he meets a local sheriff (Chips Raffery) who insists John join him in a beer, chugged according to local custom. Then another. And another. Well crocked, John wanders into a hellish gambling hall where men place bets on coin tosses, laying their antes on the floor and picking them up according to the honor system. This is the only honor to be found in The Yabba. Grant, thinking he’s smarter than The Yabba’s yobbos, gets in on the betting, quits while he’s $600 ahead, returns to his shoddy hotel room, and then starts thinking. Just another $400 and he’s made back his deposit. He can return to his old way of life in Sydney. The immorality of The Yabba is in his system. He returns to the game, loses everything, and is stranded.

From here, Wake in Fright moves from dire situation to dire situation. John takes up with a small band of local drunks and hunters led by the affable Tim Hynes (Al Thomas). The man who leads John is the one educated man in the group, the Mephistophelean Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence). John finds himself sucked into a world of nonstop drunken oblivion, of fighting, gunplay, slaughter, and suicide. The centerpiece of this harrowing down slope is an interminable scene in which the revelers take him on a kangaroo hunt. They go out at night when they can take advantage of the spotlight atop their truck. The light mesmerizes the kangaroos in the dark, keeping them still, making them easy targets. The slaughter is not accomplished with stuffed animals. These are real kangaroos actually being killed, and it is not the clean killing of clear-headed hunters. The film crew supposedly went out with actual, licensed outback hunters, but the men got drunker and drunker as the night went on. They shot sloppily. Animals were left gored and suffering. The film crew was sickened by the experience, ultimately faking a power outage to put out the lamp illuminating the hunt. Hollow cries of offense notwithstanding, director Ted Kotcheff held back nothing when choosing footage to include in his film. The culmination is a shot of a heap of kangaroos halved at the torso. If I could scrub one image in a film from my memory, I’d choose this one.

 The presence of horror mainstay Donald Pleasence seems to underline the horrific nature of Wake in Fright, particularly in a surreal dream sequence that casts him as a sort of string-pulling devil.

Wake in Fright is not a movie to be enjoyed. It is not something to rate as good or bad, even though it is regularly rated as one of the best films to come out of Australia, critic Rex Reed and rocker Nick Cave being among these voices (my vote, incidentally goes to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock). The Australian consensus is that Wake in Fright is a film best forgotten (and it had been unseeable for decades, neither issued on VHS or DVD and too brutal to ever show on TV). It’s not hard to see why. The outback dwellers are portrayed as beasts that suck the souls of outsiders, perpetually wasted, absent of humanity, idiotic when uneducated, downright evil when educated. Crocodile Dundee these men are not. Even the victim is unlikable. John Grant is a sneering snob. We’re meant to believe he deserves his comeuppance. Maybe he would if it wasn’t so harsh and horrible to watch. That the filmmakers are not Australians—Kotcheff is a Canadian who’d achieve greater fame for making the faux brutal First Blood, screenwriter Evan Jones is Jamaican, Gary Bond and cinematographer Brian West are English—makes this portrayal of another culture questionable. Yet it is based on the novel of Australian Kenneth Cooke. The hunt is real. Supposedly, when an outraged audience member during a showing in Australia stood up and shouted, “That’s not us!” at the screen, Australian actor Jack Thompson (Dick in the film) replied, “Sit down, mate. It is us.”

Is Wake in Fright a product of bigotry? Is it an immoral document of extreme animal cruelty? Is Doc’s implied seduction of John a homophobic implication that sex between men is yet another immoral happening in The Yabba? Is the film a work of art above such matters? I don’t know. All I know is how the movie made me feel. Just as The Yabba did to John Grant, it sucked me in. It riveted me. It disgusted me. Few films have affected me as Wake in Fright has, and above anything else, I want a film to affect me. Too many wander in and out. Too few make me feel something, whether it’s something I want to feel or something I don’t. When that happens, I must at least give it credit for that. Wake in Fright scooped out a little patch of my brain and took up residence in the hole. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.
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