If there was ever a horror film that the Criterion Collection needed to inject with crack, it would have to be Ted Kotcheff’s lost Australian film “Wake in Fright.” At first glance, and upon reading its title, one would assume it’s a psychological thriller or an Australian slasher flick set in the outback. Well, you wouldn’t be 100% correct, but you’re not too far off either. This forgotten gem from the ‘70s takes much of its influence from Southern Europe’s New Wavers who emerged from the ashes 10 years prior, and centers its creepy edge more so on the horrors of unfamiliarity and environmental fatigue. “Wake in Fright” is a very animalistic and, not to mention, artistically crafted production that thrives on complete uniqueness for its time. The first thing you’ll come to realize once the film begins is that it displays some of the most breathtaking cinematography in movie history. The second thing you’ll realize is that the film’s soundtrack is not only quirkily awesome, but obviously inspired the end credits theme for “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” I mean, it just had to, it’s a dead ringer.
Somber, lonely, and a somewhat menacing portrait of a man outside his own element- which is a great change of pace from the average Australian horror flick- that finally uses the continent’s harsh and eerie surroundings as a main focus, rather than a mere bonus. A school teacher named John Grant (Gary Bond), or at least a man forced to be a school teacher until he pays off his government debts, takes a train out of town during the school’s vacation time. After a small hotel deposit, a very uncomfortable encounter with an intoxicated law enforcer, and a half dozen beers later, he attempts to gamble his debts away in an underground betting ring. Awkwardly though, John leaves a day later with $1 to his name and many years of teaching ahead of him… if he can even get back without transportation fare that is. From this point on the film then lands him in one horrifyingly uncomfortable situation after another as he has no choice but to accept offers from a handful of seemingly generous people who provide him with shelter, alcohol and life threatening experiences. The most extreme of the latter being a late night Kangaroo hunt, which features real hunting footage of kangaroos being shot and killed for over 10 minutes straight. The climax of this segment is enough to make any animal activist shit themselves. As an extra plus, you’ll also get to experience more than half of this film with a great performance by Donald Pleasence in probably the least Loomis you’ll ever see him.
“Wake in Fright” is an introverts worst nightmare. For anyone who already hates being forced to interact with strange people and has not the energy for adapting to new environments on a whim, this film finds a way to do a number on you. The picture does a fantastic job at coming off as raw and disturbing without showing a single trope of the modern horror movie genre. There are no vampires here. No virus killing everyone off. Not even a crazy man with a big “knoife”. This is a horror film that lets the actualities of life reflect upon you from beyond the LCD screen. Let’s all take a moment to thank Martin Scorsese for personally exposing this film to the modern public when he nominated a preserved print to be screened at a recent Cannes Film Festival. That bloated trade show of a “art showcase” has been useful for something after all.
– Sterling “The Spork Guy” Anno