Skip to main content

All the little devils are proud of Hell.

Wake in Fright
(1971)

(SPOILERS) Ted Kotcheff’s sweltering outback drama is positioned at the very beginning of the Australian new wave. Like Walkabout, it finds a non-Antipodean filmmaker casting a perceptive eye over the country, its baked mores and behaviours. Yet while both films base themselves on the contrasts between disparate values, tonally they couldn’t be more different. Nicolas Roeg’s study sets his characters against greater forces of nature and the tentative meeting of disparate cultures. Kothceff’s film is narrower in focus but no less insightful. While Roeg’s picture is mostly elegiac in tone Wake in Fright is rough and ready, its content a reflection of the clash of educated and working classes.


To an extent, the picture structures itself as a “see how the other side lives” morality tale.; the protagonist takes a walk to the dark side, but is able to leave it all behind at the end. But there are many nuances within its obvious set-up. Usually we’d expect the innocent or inexperienced to be led astray by untoward forces. Instead, our nominal hero really isn’t such a nice guy. He’s a superior, belittling snob. Time and again he looks down on the over-friendly locals who only want to buy him a drink. Their lifestyle may be dangerously easy to slip into, but John Grant doesn’t invite our sympathy when he falls headlong into perpetual intemperance; he has it coming.


Based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake in Fright finds big city teacher John Grant (Gary Bond who, as others have noted, bears a resemblance to Peter O’Toole; the more so as his character spends the majority of the film inebriated) desperate to escape his nothing job in the tiny township of Tiboonda for Christmas break and reunite with his girlfriend in Sydney. En route, he must stop overnight in the mining town of Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba” as the locals call it) but, rather than having a quite night in, he inveigles himself with the locals. He proceeds to get very, very drunk and loses all his money in a backroom game of two-up. So begins John’s descent into a personal hell of alcohol-fuelled debauchery, violence and despair as his weakness for the liquor and desire to fit in with his peer group spirals out of control.


Wake in Fright is very much a study of the fragile male psyche, and the weakness for falling into pack mentality. It’s evident from the first that Grant thinks he’s better than those around him, making the pit he digs himself, and the state he ends up in (far more debased than those he takes up with), both ironic and fitting. It’s a lesson-learning experience; although it is accompanied by none of the twisted comic relief Scorsese would bring to the later walk on the wild side of After Hours. Still, John is able to return gratefully to his boring existence (just as Griffin Dunne’s character is relieved to end up right back where he started in the 1984 film).


When John arrives in the Yabba he’s informed that it’s “a friendly place”, and the subsequent 90 minutes proves it’s exactly that and then some; it’s just that the friendliness happens to be very bad for him. Everyone treats John well so long as he will drink with them, and yet there’s an unrelenting oppressiveness to the film. It’s there in the dust and the heat and the tangible hung-over exhaustion, but John himself is not put in danger (from others). Rather it’s what he brings upon himself; his undoing is of his own design. Perhaps that’s why he’s told, “If you’re a good bloke, you’re alright”; he isn’t a good bloke. He speaks in superior tones that confuse local plod Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), noting how he is “a bonded slave of the education system” and fails to disguise his contempt for his stopover (“Yes, that’s something to look forward to” he replies when Jock suggests he visits the town for a holiday). Yet he’s weak-minded enough to continue drinking with the policeman throughout the night.


When Jock is asked what players of two-up do with their winnings, he replies “Well, nothing”; there’s nothing to do in the town but drink and gamble. It’s this “nice, simple-minded game” that defeats John. He’s seduced by his early luck, and the dream that with just one more win he can give up his teaching lark. His hubris and contempt for “the arrogance of stupid people insisting you be as stupid as they are” comes back to haunt him. When he rushes back to the game, to chase that big win, the reaction to his gambling spree is derisive laughter from the attendees; he has taken the bait, hook, line and sinker (and their response is no worse than the superiority he has shown everyone he meets). Awaking in fright the next morning (well, that’s the most thundering literal interpretation of the title, which was renamed the decidedly less evocative Outback in the US), he has lost everything.


Broke, John becomes a reluctant then proficient sponger; anyone he will drink with, which is everyone, becomes a supporting shoulder; Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), real blokes Dick (Mark Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle), and drunken unlicensed Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Invited to Tim’s house, John is filching cigarettes immediately and his by-line is to refuse hospitality before accepting it. The only way he can relate to the townsfolk is to blot out his senses, since his natural inclination is soft and unmanly; “What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?” Dick asks Tim. Tim sagely replies that he’s a schoolteacher.


We might wonder why Tim doesn't do everything he can to extricate himself form this situation, but he is clearly beguiled by it as much as he knows it is harming him. It’s exciting, makes him feel alive, he can forget himself if he drinks enough. But it means betraying his better instincts. The kangaroo hunt is a highly distressing viewing experience (Kotcheff went out with actual hunters to get the footage) and finds John proving himself to his new mates by shooting the marsupials before engaging in a fight with one where he is taunted into slitting its throat.


This attempt to prove his masculinity to a group with no inner lives finds reflection in those he meets on the fringes. Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s one-time wife) has no interest in the drunken antics of her father and his friends; she finds her outlet through sex. But when she leads John off for a tumble in the bush he is unable to perform, another blow to his esteem. There’s a degree of self-loathing in Janette, clearly unhappy with her lot (“She’s a slag, the little mutt. She’ll try anything” she spits of the pregnant hound in the house), although this comes with self-awareness. As vouched by Doc, “We break the rules buy we know more about ourselves than most people”.


Doc: I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament and an alcoholic.

It’s Doc who shines the harshest light on John’s behaviour, and Pleasance’s performance, to those who most identify him hamming it up as Dr Loomis in the Halloween series, is astonishing (and very spry, given the dexterity displayed). A devoted, hearty alcoholic, he thrives on and revels in the gauzed existence booze offers. Doc too is an educated man, but he is accepted by those around him through taking the path of least resistance. He rejects John’s aloofness (“Discontent is the luxury of the well to do”) and displays a tendency to the aphorism that suggests the holy fool/seer. Doc lives life (barely) consciously, and doesn’t need to pretend. He admonishes John for lying about losing his money at gambling, and advises he is better off with him than “sponging off men like Tim Hynes”.


While their interactions and altercations have been regarded by some as marking out Doc as predatory, I’d argue Doc represents a force of tough enlightenment and revelation to John; Doc allows John to meet himself and so move on with new understanding. Yes, he’s grubby alcoholic, but everything Doc does, consciously or otherwise, seems designed to bring John to a point where he realises the life that beckons if he follows a similar path (and without the same cracked insight that fortifies Doc). 


Crucial to the persona of crazy sage, Doc is not interested in money and charges no fees. He understands his role within the group (he is accepted socially as “an educated man and character”) and has free lodging and food and (most importantly) drink for his services. We also see Doc is not without a value system of sorts even when intoxicated; he involves himself in the massacre but opts not to take part in the kangaroo cutting exercise, as if fully aware of the malign effect it will have on the perpetrator. He also attempts to intervene when Dick and Joe are fighting; the violence Doc perpetrates is on the bar wall.


Doc: Sex is just like eating. It’s a thing you do because you have to.

Doc pushes John’s buttons from the get-go, pricking the sore spot of wounded machismo. He tells John everyone has had an episode with Janette, including himself. We’ve seen John’s fantasies of his perfect, swim suited girlfriend (significantly, a beer bottle nuzzles her breasts) and Doc accuses him of being a puritan who thinks Janette is a slut (he also suggests that if she were a man she would be in jail for rape; again, this appears designed to rouse John, and to mark him as feminised and inadequate).


This brewing tension leads to a post-kangaroo, probable-sexual encounter between Doc and John. Doc gives him all he needs to push him to the brink. He first cajoles John by imitating the traumatising throat cutting (that John went through with anyway to impress the lads). Then mid-drunken wrestling on the floor, they exchange a meaningful look and the picture cuts to black. John awakes the next morning semi-clothed with Doc lying nearby. The implication is clear, but it’s never implied that Doc forced himself on John; the latter’s disgust and rage is all about the further desecration of his masculine ego. He can’t prove himself with the proper men, he can’t prove himself with the ladies, and now he’s made himself Doc’s bitch. It’s this that drives his desire to shoot Doc (he hallucinates Doc, the unlikely alpha male, seducing his girlfriend), and leads to his attempt to shoot himself.  


Awakened and bandaged (a white halo round his head; his battered and bloodied pale suit has also somehow been freshly laundered), John’s flirtation with excess is over (Doc too is spruced up for his brief return to the big city that spurned him).


We’ve seen the incestuous, destructive influences of the small town mentality elsewhere; the same year’s Straw Dogs has another educated man pitted against the ignorant locals (although there he encounters active contempt and then aggression). The most disturbing part of Wake in Fright is not the hard-drinking dead-end world of the Yabba; it’s how easy it is to become a part of it and relinquish one’s self (John, a stumbling wreck through the town’s streets, carrying a rifle, has stooped to a state beyond anyone else we see).


Train passengerHey mate, like a beer?

As soon as John is on the train “home” he appears to have learned something, accepting the offer of a beer from rowdy passengers when before he refused it and sat alone (as did the solitary Aboriginal traveller, minus the offer of the beer). Back in Tiboonda John is grateful for the security and solace of his own dead-end job, and happy to greet barman/hotelier Charlie (Crocodile Dundee’s John Meillon) when before he could barely contain his desire to be shot of the place. His earlier attempt to leave The Yabba, only to have his hitch deposit him back in the town, recalls the spinny head games of The Prisoner episode Many Happy Returns, in which an escaped Number Six, believing himself to be free, finds himself deposited unceremoniously back in the Village.


For a long time Wake in Fright’s reputation lay as a great lost film, as it had been out of circulation until about five years ago. It can currently be viewed on YouTube, and fortunately it’s one where rediscovery has only reconfirmed its reputation. It was Kotcheff’s third picture, and as someone more experienced with his later, decidedly unrewarding fare (some will defend First Blood but there’s also Uncommon Valor, Switching Channels and Weekend at Bernie’s to contend with; the ‘80s were the undoing of many a director) it's something of a revelation (Kotcheff is blessed with a superb, by-turns sinister and jaunty, score from John Scott and suffocatingly parched cinematography from Brian West). Even his later ‘70s efforts are less than stellar, making it even more welcome that this picture has been found anew.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …