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Thoughts On

“New to The Yabba?”: Wake in Fright (1971)

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For a few years now I have heard murmurings among assorted film folk of the legend of Wake in Fright. More recently I missed out on a London screening of it, it seemed that this particular film was continuously eluding me. Thankfully patience won out and (at the time of writing this) I have now witnessed, nay experienced the twisted delights of this cult gem from the Outback. Like all who have seen it, I now feel compelled to inform those with even a passing interest in film to seek it out.

Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel of the same name and released in 1971 this little seen thriller of beer, dust and existentialism really is one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had with film. That’s not say its bad, far from it, rather as the narrative rolls on it becomes an amazingly well crafted piece of deeply unsettling and surreal cinema; one which demands repeat viewings to truly wrap your head around it.

The film follows middle-class schoolteacher John Grant, a man stuck in a government teaching post in the outback town of Tiboonda. As it’s the Christmas holidays he plans to travel back to Sydney to visit his girlfriend, but to do so he first has to pass through Bundanyabba (“The Yabba”) on his way to the airport. While waiting in The Yabba he finds a gambling game of two-up and finds he might be able to escape his teaching post if he wins enough money.

Losing all his money on a large wager, John finds himself unable to leave The Yabba and depends on the charity of several of the town’s residents. He is quickly drawn into the strangers debauched lifestyle of constant drinking, sexualised aggression and outback hunting.

It’s a film that as I progressed further into it, I found myself totally absorbed by its sense of dread and isolation, the kind you get when you are in an unfamiliar place and unsure of your surroundings. This is also helped by the fact its beautifully shot by cinematographer Brian West, who enhances the isolation of the Outback with his expertly framed wide-shots. Then there’s the stunningly haunting score by John Scott that sends chills down your spine with each of its deranged movements.

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The further Gary Bond’s John Grant gets into The Yabba resident’s lifestyle, the more uncomfortable you become. You sympathise with his plight as we have all been in a similar situation where we haven’t wanted to offend local customs. Director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) has crafted a deeply unsettling tale with rich and complex layers to, it the more you watch the more grubbiness gets to you.

Watching John get progressively drunk on stranger’s offers of beer (possibly the one film you shouldn’t do a drinking game to) it becomes more excruciating to watch with each long gulp. Donald Pleasance’s Doc is humorous and terrifying, his line about being an alcoholic is both sad and genuinely funny; a testament to Pleasance’s acting ability that he can convey that just through his tone and look.

But there’s also an element of uneasy surrounding Doc, his implied sexual encounter with John makes the viewer question everything that happened between the two men leading up to that point. The Kangaroo hunt that John also gets goaded into is possibly the films most difficult watch. A producers note at the end of the film makes a point of saying it was filmed during an actual hunt, and even though they are considered pests in the Outback, there’s still something disturbing about watching that unfold.

The end of the film leaves you as shaken as John is, emotionally bruised and battered but possibly with the feeling you’ve participated in something life changing. That might sound a tad overblown, but it’s almost guaranteed that after watching Wake in Fright you’ll wonder why you haven’t done it sooner. At the end of the day this is a film that should, no needs to be experienced as soon as possible – trust me, its a little rippa!

Eureka Entertainment is releasing the Dual-Format Blu-Ray on March 31st on their Masters of Cinema label and it’s worth the investment.

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