Published on April 1st, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Wake in Fright (a.k.a. Outback)
Australia’s ‘Wake in Fright’ may have almost been lost to filmgoers physically, but found and restored, it hasn’t lost an ounce of horrifying, psychological kick.
The trajectory of the film Wake in Fright (also known as Outback) is similar to the Heart of Darkness path that is undertaken by its lead character. Where protagonist John Grant is lost in the Outback, so too was the film almost lost itself, to the sands of time. The 1971 Australian thriller became infamous for not being available on VHS, DVD, or on television — none of the prints they could find were in good enough shape to transfer to a watchable format. And yet, this was the movie that kick-started the Aussie New Wave of film that lead to Mad Max, The Year of Living Dangerously, and even Crocodile Dundee (this Aussie chic exploitation of Australian culture in film was later dubbed ‘Ozploitation’). After a ten-year search for negatives, editor Anthony Buckley found them in Pittsburgh in a shipping container marked, ‘for destruction.’ Given a painstaking restoration, the film that Nick Cave notably called, “The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence,” was finally put back into the public forum.
In the film, Grant (Gary Bond) is a big city teacher that has been forced to live in a rural Australian town, Tiboonda, to pay back a bond the government gave him for his education. He plans a Christmas vacation back to Sydney, and takes a train to Bundanyabba (The Yabba) to catch a plane to the city. However, he gets caught up in a night of gambling, reasoning through a drunken haze that he can win enough to pay back the bond. Instead, he loses his money and finds himself trapped in The Yabba. What follows is a descent into madness and alcoholism, as Grant finds himself amongst the violent, boozed up locals that threaten to engulf him, body and soul.
The film was also notorious for the devastating kangaroo hunt scene, where Grant and his new ‘friends’ get sauced up and hunt kangaroos. The scene is a nightmare to behold, and moreso if you know about the making of the film. Apparently, the crew hired professional hunters to cull the ‘roos while they filmed the encounters. However, after several hours, the hunters were riotously drunk and the crew watched as they barbarically mutilated the poor animals, shooting them, splattering them, and in some cases not finishing them off, some of them bleeding out or dragging their own entrails behind them. The crew eventually faked a power outage to end the hunt though the footage they shot is in the film, the characters every bit as brutal as the real-life hunters, with Grant surrendering his humanity as he tries to keep up with his new mates.
The film is skillfully rendered, from the shots of the open expanse of Outback to the capturing of morning after snapshots, remembrances of the night before’s maniacal moments of drunken rage. It is expansive and claustrophobic at the same time, with the filmmaking matching the story itself, terrifyingly worming its way into your brain as Grant spirals downward. It drips with atmosphere and rides a crest of narrative thrust, a movie that hasn’t lost its emotional or visceral wallop; it hits you like a pair of kangaroo feet between the eyes.
Grant himself is a fascinating character, an educated snob that at first thinks he is above these Yabba Men, as they call themselves. But it’s an anti-Pygmalion story, as Grant slowly devolves and finds that he’s capable of being just as depraved as the people he looks down on. Wake in Fright knows that we are all capable of brutality and harm, regardless of the social class we fall into — we don’t like to acknowledge this truth, but any one of us could be Mother Teresa or Hitler, depending on how we got there, or perhaps, on where we get stuck.