Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)

(Australia/US - 1971)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff.  Written by Evan Jones.  Cast: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, John Meillon, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas. (Unrated, 109 mins)


Based on a 1963 novel by Kenneth Cook, 1971's WAKE IN FRIGHT is a still controversial early film in the 1970s Australian New Wave, a renaissance that began with films like this and Nicolas Roeg's WALKABOUT (also 1971) and continued throughout the decade with standouts like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975) and MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979) and into the 1980s with BREAKER MORANT (1980) and THE ROAD WARRIOR (1982), among many others.  WAKE IN FRIGHT, a US co-production headlined by two British actors and directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, is a famous and infamous film in Australian cult cinema, influential and abhorred, revered and reviled, and unlike anything you've ever seen.  Among its fans is Martin Scorsese, whose 1985 film AFTER HOURS has a bit of an NYC WAKE IN FRIGHT vibe to it.  After its theatrical run, it was screened only sporadically, and never appeared on home video.  Edited and censored prints turned up here and there over the decades but the original, uncensored negative was nowhere to be found and the complete WAKE IN FRIGHT became a de facto "lost" film.  That changed when the negative was found in a Pittsburgh storage facility in 2004 (US co-producer Group W Films was a short-lived wing of the Pittsburgh-based radio network Westinghouse Broadcasting), in a container labeled "For destruction."  The film underwent an extensive restoration before being unveiled at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival and being released on the midnight movie circuit by the Alamo Drafthouse in late 2012.  It was just released on a stunning-looking Blu-ray (and DVD) and finally, after over 40 years, is widely available to be seen, discussed, and debated once more.

Disgruntled school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is bored running the single-room schoolhouse in the desolate outback town of Tiboonda, where he's been assigned as part of a contractual bond and is eager to ride out the term and move on.  Over the Christmas break, he has plans to fly to Sydney to meet up with his girlfriend, but those fall apart during a one-night layover in the mining town of Bundanyabba, known to the locals as "the Yabba."  Grant goes to a Yabba pub and is aggressively befriended by affable but pushy sheriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), drinks way too many beers and gambles away all of his money playing Two-up.  Out of money and with nothing but time on his hands, Grant dives head first into his personal apocalypse. 

Missing his flight and unable to leave the Yabba, Grant heads to the pub where he's taken in by old-timer Hynes (Al Thomas) and his strange daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Eventually, two rowdy locals, Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) show up, and they're later joined for an evening of heavy drinking by Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a disheveled wreck of a physician who lives in a bug-infested cabin on the outskirts of the Yabba.  Janette tries to seduce Grant, who's too drunk to do anything and nearly vomits on her.  Grant wakes up at 4:00 pm the next day at Tydon's pigsty of a hovel, where Tydon serves him kangaroo stew before they head out to a drunken kangaroo hunt with Dick and Joe (the film's most disturbing and censored sequence), the most perilous step yet on a psychological journey from which the Grant of two days earlier will never return.

Ted Kotcheff today
The general concensus on Kotcheff is that he's a journeyman hired gun who took the assignments that paid the bills.  That's only partially true. Sure, his career is filled with a lot of commercial fare like FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (1977), UNCOMMON VALOR (1983), SWITCHING CHANNELS (1988) and WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S (1989), and the now-81-year-old Kotcheff spent over a decade as a supervising producer on LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.  But from its brilliant 360-degree opening shot, WAKE IN FRIGHT is indicative of a visionary filmmaker who could've been an auteur.  To merely label Kotcheff a journeyman hack is unfairly dismissive:  films like ROOM AT THE TOP (1965), THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1974), NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979), SPLIT IMAGE (1982), and JOSHUA THEN AND NOW (1985) were met with critical acclaim and are generally held in high esteem.  NORTH DALLAS FORTY is arguably the best film ever made on the subject of pro football.  Even a film like FIRST BLOOD (1982), largely written off as a "typical" Sylvester Stallone vehicle by critics when released, has come to be regarded as an important and serious film, one that's completely different in tone from its cartoonish, flag-waving follow-ups.  It hasn't helped to make Kotcheff's case as a filmmaker worthy of study when he's spent most of the last 20 years in television, helming some TV movies and even resorting to directing episodes of the Showtime series RED SHOE DIARIES at one point.  He hasn't made a feature film since the 1995 Dolph Lundgren actioner HIDDEN ASSASSIN, which went straight to video in the US.  The rediscovery of WAKE IN FRIGHT can do a lot to solidify Kotcheff as a unique voice, and fortunately, it's happening while he's still here to be a part of it.  There's a small contingent of Kotcheff fans who have long praised films like NORTH DALLAS FORTY, but now that WAKE IN FRIGHT has been reintroduced to film fans, it will no doubt belatedly come to be regarded as his masterpiece.  It was nominated for the Palme D'Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and was showcased again at the festival in 2009 when WAKE IN FRIGHT superfan Scorsese was heading the jury and personally chose it for a "Classics" screening.

To this day, WAKE IN FRIGHT is not a well-received film in Australia, due largely to its depiction of the people of the Outback as unintelligent, uneducated, beer-guzzling, brawling, macho he-men.  Those same qualities are played for laughs in everything from CROCODILE DUNDEE (1986) to Foster's beer commercials to every time someone uses a terrible Australian accent when ordering a Bloomin' Onion at the Outback Steakhouse.  However, WAKE IN FRIGHT puts a decidedly sinister spin on it, and really, with only a few changes, this could almost be a raunchy comedy in the vein of THE HANGOVER.  It's the kind of film that burrows under your skin and stays with you, haunting you days after you've seen it.  It has elements that put in in that same subgenre that one might classify STRAW DOGS (1971) and DELIVERANCE (1972), but the plot details differ.  Like Dustin Hoffman's mathematician in STRAW DOGS and Jon Voight's intellectual, pipe-smoking ad exec in DELIVERANCE, Bond's Grant doesn't blend in, but unlike the protagonists of those other films, he isn't met with hostility by the Yabba residents, even when he makes his pompous arrogance known.  Grant clearly thinks he's better than these people, and he resents Jock's "aggressive hospitality."  But, like Hoffman and Voight, he's about to learn what he's made of, with his manhood almost constantly being called into question (it's not enough for Grant to just quietly enjoy a beer; Jock isn't comfortable getting another one for himself until Grant's is empty).  Despite his disdain for these people, he's constantly placating them.  Nothing that happens to Grant happens because he's defending himself.  He's taken in and welcomed by the Yabba folks, which perhaps prompts him to let down his guard.  But even that doesn't explain why he wakes up face down in bed and completely nude the morning after his first night in the Yabba.  Rather than being forced to fight for his life or defend his home or property, Grant is forced to confront sides of himself that society, his education, and his upbringing have taught him to keep buried: gut-level impulses of violence, excess, and sexuality.

You can also almost smell the sweat, beer, cigarette smoke, and armpit stench wafting through the pub in the Yabba, which is home to an overwhelmingly male population.  The bar where Grant spends his first night and begins his descent into madness couldn't house any more of a sense of sweltering homoeroticism if it was the Ramrod in CRUISING (1980).  Kay's Janette is the only female character of note, and the most we learn about her--from Doc Tydon--is that every guy in town has had a go with her, with Doc saying they still get together every now and again, when the urge strikes.  That hardly prepares Grant for what happens--offscreen--after he and Doc crash at Doc's shack after the kangaroo hunt.  Playful wrestling gives way to a pausing glance...and the screen fades to black.   Cut to Grant waking up the next morning, his pants undone and Doc lying next to him in a woman's nightie (an absurd visual for Pleasence that has to be seen to be believed).  Clearly, some kind of sexual act has taken place between the two men, and it's too much for Grant to handle (certainly this sense of Grant's gay panic wasn't lost on Bond, an actor who was openly gay at a time when it wasn't the most accepted thing to be).  He's lost his money, bailed on his fiancee, been on a multi-day bender, and took part in the horrific slaughter of kangaroos, and now sex with Doc has made him aware of too many dormant sides of himself that he wasn't ready to face.

But Grant survives his several days in the Yabba and emerges a changed person, almost like a boy maturing into a man.  He isn't better than these people.  He is these people.  His days of dehumanizing regression in the Outback have reduced him to man's most basic state:  eating, drinking, fighting, pissing, puking, and fucking.  He's adapted to this world and it's a part of him, and the transition comes full circle as evidenced in his accepting a drink from some boisterous passengers on the train back to Tiboonda.  They may be the same blokes who were on the train when he left Tiboonda.  He declined their drink before, sitting several rows up near an elderly aborigine man, two outsiders who don't belong.  But on the way home?  Sure, he'll have a beer.  Who wouldn't have a beer?  It's just what you do in the Yabba.

Also contributing to the profoundly unsettling tone of WAKE IN FRIGHT is the much-discussed kangaroo-hunting sequence.  Kotcheff accompanied and filmed an actual hunt and cleverly edited the shots of the animals and the actors so that it seamlessly appears as if Pleasence, Bond, Thompson, and Whittle are shooting (or in Bond's case, stabbing) the kangaroos.  It's the kind of disturbing material usually seen in the horrific animal slaughter footage in any number of late '70s/early '80s Italian cannibal films.  The kangaroo killings in WAKE IN FRIGHT, done on a real hunt by professional hunters, aren't quite as nauseatingly exploitative as the far more graphic material in something like Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) or Umberto Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX (1981), where the directors would have the actors slaughter animals for real, on camera.  Nevertheless, it's disturbing stuff, and very hard to watch, but it only adds to the film's gut-punching impact. 

Chips Rafferty (1909-1971)
Fans of Pleasence will be surprised to see some of his antics as essentially a drunken id in WAKE IN FRIGHT, with one meltdown that surpasses his "You're the Duke!" histrionics in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).   This was the only feature film lead for Bond, who had supporting roles in ZULU (1964) and ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS (1969), but was best known for his work on British television and in stage productions of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and EVITA.  He died of AIDS in 1995 at 55.  It's the presence of Rafferty, in a daring and wonderfully subversive bit of casting, that's one of WAKE IN FRIGHT's most interesting and least-discussed elements.  Born in 1909 in Broken Hill--known as "the capital of the Outback"--and beloved in his homeland (he's on an Australian postage stamp, and the entertainment center in Broken Hill is named after him), Rafferty was sort-of the Australian John Wayne and the very image of "the Outback" to Australian moviegoers.  The Rafferty persona was a clear inspiration on Paul Hogan's portrayal of Crocodile Dundee.  To see Rafferty in WAKE IN FRIGHT would be akin to seeing the Duke as a vaguely threatening character in an American film that didn't have very many nice things to say about Americans.  His performance as the gregariously intimidating Yabba sheriff was Rafferty's last:  he died from a heart attack before the film was released and, according to some sources, just a few hours after a phone conversation with Jerry Lewis about possibly co-starring in Lewis' next planned film, THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.  Whether it was years of hard Outback living that caused Rafferty's heart to give out or the stress, anxiety, and shock of trying to process exactly what Lewis had just offered him, we may never know.  I'm going to blame THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED.

United Artists released this in the US as OUTBACK, which takes away from the theme inherent in the title WAKE IN FRIGHT:  this film is one of the most vivid nightmares ever captured on film.  It's doubtful that a still-irate Australia will ever accept this film--maybe it's the depiction of some of its people, maybe it's that it was made by outsiders.  John Grant left the Yabba a different man than when he entered, and for better or worse, audiences will leave WAKE IN FRIGHT in the same fashion.  Still as shocking, powerful, and groundbreaking today as it must've been to the few who saw it in 1971, WAKE IN FRIGHT is essential viewing for serious cinephiles.


  1. Thanks a bunch - excellent review. Already on my "buy list" for next month.