Blu-ray Review: 'Wake in Fright'

Wrenched out of the earth and roundly dusted off for an overdue theatrical and dual format rerelease, Ted Kotcheff's nightmarish Antipodean anomaly Wake in Fright (1971) offers no apologies and takes no prisoners. Its rank, at times skin-crawling depiction of the bestial depths of humanity and sickening substance abuse in the darkest recesses of the outback may not have made a star of its leading man, Gary Bond, but should now attain the fully-fledged cult status it so evidently deserves. A key text in the undervalued Ozploitation genre, Kotcheff chases the evil that lurks behind small-town banality with the blackest of humour.

Bored out of his skull during a teaching residency in a a remote Australian outpost, English expat John Grant (Bond) has already planned his escape route - a trip to Sydney. Unfortunately, on the way he finds himself fatefully stranded in 'The Yabba' (short for 'Bundanyabba'), a two-bit mining town in the middle of nowhere seemingly full to capacity with some of the strangest characters the outback has to offer. Befriended by a local policeman (legendary Australian actor Chips Rafferty) and later tormented by unhinged medical practitioner Doc Tydon (a quite unmissable Donald Pleasance), Grant soon finds himself drawn into a nocturnal world of alcoholism, gambling and kangaroo hunting - before he too becomes the quarry.

A clear forbear to the near-future dystopias of George Miller (Mad Max), Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot) and even the 'based on true events' horror of Greg McLean's Wolf Creek (2005), Wake in Fright shrouds its most terrifying moments in an intoxicating haze of tepid beer and noxious cigarette fumes. Initially repulsed by the Yabba and its slack-jawed inhabitants, Grant's irresponsibility with money and a desperate desire to escape his ramshackle confines sees him initiated into a group of the town's most unsavoury residents - with Pleasance's Tydon the lunatic in charge of this particular asylum. A doctor by trade before his love for the bottle took priority, this cockroach-like survivor is at once father, lover, friend and captor, a sweat-encrusted pied piper luring Bond's shellshocked drunk to ruin.

The infamous kangaroo hunt, arguably the film's most memorable scene, is every bit as harrowing now as it was back then. Shot during an organised (and, we're told, humane) cull of the swelling marsupial population, there's little denying its raw, gunfire-punctuated brutality. Bringing to mind the subtext-laden game hunt of the great Jean Renoir's La R├Ęgle du Jeu (1939), nature appears utterly defenceless against man's callous barbarism - all hooting and hollering as the petrified creatures stare down the barrel of their own imminent demise. Later, however, it's Grant who experiences this sensation all too well as an all-night bender turns into a raging battle for both his sanity and his soul. A jolting cinematic experience, Wake in Fright bites like a dingo and kicks like a mule.

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Daniel Green


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