wakeinfright

When Nick Cave describes a film as “The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”, you can be sure of two things. One: he’s probably not talking about Crocodile Dundee, and two, coming from a man whose most accessible work is blood soaked ballads involving sodomy and murder, said film is most assuredly very scary indeed.

True to form, Wake in Fright is a powerful, disturbing and wholly believable buttock clenching journey down the dusty back roads to insanity with nary a golden hued, leathery skinned Paul Hogan cracking funnies in sight.

It’s hard to describe just how efficient Wake in Fright is at instilling fear in the minds of most right-thinking individuals (and Nick Cave). Its nearest bed-mate is probably Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, but even that – with its simple Cornish folk who divine enjoyment from rape and annoying the outwardly nebbish Dustin Hoffman – offered obvious antagonists. The lead in Wake in Fright, a snobbish English teacher called John Grant, is undoubtedly his own worst enemy whilst the outback town of ‘the Yabba’ offers the perfect backdrop to contrive a fall through the cracks of civilised society.

The people who inhabit the Yabba aren’t unfriendly. Far from it; when Grant is approached by the town’s Sherriff in the Yabba’s drinking establishment (which won’t be completely unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever popped in to a Wetherspoons) the alarm bells soon start ringing. Years of watching backwater horror films has engendered the viewer to suspect it won’t be long until he’s attempting to wear John Grant’s face whilst conveying his skewed morals in the kind of overcooked monologue that might make Nicholas Cage blush.

But he doesn’t. He simply buys him more drinks. And buys more drinks. And buys more drinks.

And that’s what makes Wake in Fright even more terrifying. There’s no clear reason for John Grant to leave; the locals are friendly, there’s food, drink and good times aplenty. It will adequately sustain you, at least until your liver leaves town. The problem is, when viewed through the slightly more sophisticated prism that the viewer brings with them (a metaphorical monocle in my case), it looks like a fucking horrible place, with leery sweaty men getting shit-faced and blowing off steam, and it would be very hard to turn such earnest offers of hospitality down without looking like either a puritanical bum-head or a complete snob. Neither one would be embraced in the Yabba, but they probably wouldn’t be ostracised either. More likely they’d be offered a drink, and the offers wouldn’t top until they’re half-pissed or driven mad by persistence.

But John Grant’s problem doesn’t come from turning a drink down. Instead he soon launches himself wholeheartedly into the Yabba’s activities, downing ales, eating steaks of mysterious origin and gambling on a coin toss in a giant sweat-filled hall. The Yabba exposes his weaknesses but he doesn’t put up much of a fight. Instead he lets it carry him away – despite always carrying a slightly superior air that serves to notify the audience that his fall will be far and painful.

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Wake in Fright doesn’t contain many narrative surprises, but it’s not exactly short of shocks either. The most infamous sequence, and the main reason it’s still discussed in hushed tones to this day, is a graphic hunting expedition that would be enough to turn you into a vegetarian – if you were in danger of eating kangaroo, which is probably quite likely if you’ve bought a meat product in the past 10 years. When you consider that the film also features what appears to be a forced homoerotic coupling featuring Donald Pleasance as the suitor, you go some way to understanding the film’s potency and its ability to provide memorably disturbing imagery.

The passage of time has not dulled Wake in Fright in the slightest. If anything its rough edges and audacity are even more apparent when lined up against modern fare. In fact, you get the impression that it would be hard to make in today’s climate as it doesn’t really fit into a genre. Its thrills are sparse, its horrors are ambiguous and its laughs are basically non-existent (which might make it suitable for an Adam Sandler retooling I suppose). With its loud, brash, ballsy and disturbing nature, it’s essentially a celluloid distillation of the Australian stereotype, which admittedly makes it a bit of a tough sell.

Wake in Fright is well worth tracking down. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that has emerged as a classic of its genre over the years. I’m just not sure what that genre is.

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