Wake In Fright (1971)

Director Ted Kotcheff
Writer Evan Jones
Starring Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle.
Genre Thriller
Tagline Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There's nothing else out here.

Talk us through it

John Grant is a bonded teacher who the Education Department have sent to the small outback hamlet of Tiboonda. Basically Grant, an educated and urban man, is stuck teaching in a single classroom school with the only other building being the local Pub. As luck would have it Grant is getting through the last day of the school year and is taking a train to the thriving town of Bundayabba, The Yabba to locals, the next day to spend a night, before catching a plane to Sydney to see his girlfriend.

After a train trip, with the dubious entertainment being a bunch of yobbos singing songs and drinking copious amounts of beer, Grant arrives in The Yabba and books a room for the night. His key deposit amounts to a dollar, which is sort of important later in the movie. With nothing much else on offer Grant heads to the local pub, which amusingly is meant to close at 6.30pm but is still raging at 9.30pm. He's taken under the arm of Jock Crawford, the local law, and is introduced to the concept of "the shout" and drinking rapidly to keep up with current company. Grant naturally is the worse for wear after a few rounds and is taken to a local eatery to get the best steak in town. Unfortunately he also runs into a backroom game of "two up", an Aussie gambling game you can do a google on if interested. Grant wins a number of rounds and leaves with $500 in his back pocket, a sizeable sum back in the day. Thinking he has a golden opportunity to win his $1,000 dollars bond, and get out from under the Education yoke, Grant heads back to the gambling den and promptly loses every cent he has to his name.

Down on his luck Grant is taken under the wing of some of the locals and his descent into madness begins as the heat, booze, and masculine culture kick in big time. Ready to go cull some Roos?


"What's the matter with him? He'd rather talk to a woman than drink?" - Dick

Wake In Fright is considered to be Australia's first feature length horror movie, that would be horror themed there in reality, and is pretty much seen as an iconic film. The movie was thought lost for a number of years, it was originally made to be television filler, but turned up in the most unexpected of places. A couple of years of painstaking digital enhancement later and we have a modern print ready for a new generation to marvel at. You can find out the story behind the salvation of the movie either on the DVD extras or via a google, it's intriguing stuff and for mine is a far better story than the one we are actually presented with in Wake In Fight itself. Lets break it down.

There's a certain amount of 20/20 vision going on through rose tinted glasses amongst modern Australia Reviewers in regards to the actual merit of Wake In Fright. Like the ponderous and over wrought Australia, Wake In Fright is viewed as being above reproach, and you are clearly un-Australian if you don't think it's the best thing since beer arrived in tins. Sorry to be the voice shouting in the wilderness here, but I thought Wake In Fright was overly simplistic, didactic to the nth degree, and no where near as legendary as others might think. To be brutally honest I found the film over long, tedious to the point of boredom, and simply a pandering to the pseudo intellectuals. The veneer of civilisation is thin and we are one step aware from savagery, even by 1971 this theme had been done to death, Wake In Fight brings nothing new to the table in terms of underlying themes.

Director Ted Kotcheff starts his film with one of the more impressive opening shots you are likely to see in a movie. A slowly revolving camera in a static position gives us a panoramic view of Tiboonda and environs. There's the one room school, what passes for a train station, and of course a pub. Enclosing Tiboonda on all sides are miles upon miles of red desert stretching to the horizon. Isolated, insular, and the last outpost of human civilisation in the Outback is immediately brought to mind. Kotcheff masterfully cuts to the interior of the school house where we find a bunch of kids counting down the seconds till the end of the school year. There's quite the age range there as one would expect in a small rural school. The teacher, who seems to be finishing some papers, is presented in tie and jacket. Say hello to our symbol of civilisation John Grant, who views himself as a slave to the Education Department and who is yearning to escape to England as so many Aussies were back in the early 1970s. Anyone else already starting to note a flashing neon sign spelling out the major theme?

The movie is certainly overrated and doesn't bring as much to the beer garden as it's reputation would have us believe. While noting the depth of themes I also noted that they had already been well covered by 1971 by various foreign movies. Does bringing it home in a similar fashion to yank remakes of j-horror classics really work?

Kotcheff takes time to ensure the Audience are aware that Grant is well read, urbane, and is not in Tiboonda by his own choice. This is further enforced when Grant takes the train to Bundayabba, is that meant to be Broken Hill? - and declines a beer from a group of rowdy fellow travelers. Notably an old Koori is on his own on the train and is humming along quietly under his breath in a clear attempt to block out the noise the revelers are making. It's at this stage that the first crack appears in an otherwise solid looking movie. What the hell the script writers were doing with the Koori character remains a mystery, it's never revisited, Kotcheff makes no further allusion to native issues, and you are left with the feeling that everyone simply decided this angle wasn't worth pursuing. About the only thing I could deduce from this scene is that Director Kotcheff is doing a preview of the night time Roo hunt, an early indication of Western Civilisation's violent encroachment on the native landscape that is done with complete ignorance to the effects that is causing. It's the first note of cinematic discord in [i]Wake In Fright[/i] and at best is sloppy film making.

Peter Grant's first night in the Yabba spells the insertion of chaos into his otherwise orderly world. But it should be noted that Grant isn't the victim here, he seems to dive into the whole beer drinking, gambling, macho environment with hardly a look back in anger. Stripped of resources, he really shouldn't have gone back to gamble some more, Grant is forced to rely on the locals to see him through. Grant goes back to see if he can't double his money and get out from under the Education Department's bond and away from his current situation. Are the script writers indicating that you shouldn't try to rise above your situation or are they saying nothing is achieved via taking the easy road? Since this is another aspect of the movie that doesn't get revisited you are left to make your own mind up about it.

It's during the middle block of the movie, Grant's descent into madness, that you are left wondering how the hell that a movie which seems overly long can drop the ball on a character study so quickly and badly. Grant starts to drink beer heavily, egged on by various characters, and gradually his veneer of civilisation starts to wear away, if by gradually you mean over the course of one night. The morning after Grant wakes to find he's sharing a shack with Doc Tyden, a medical doctor who is happily slipping into an alcoholic induced daze. The good Doctor is happy enough to inform Grant that he is an alcoholic but points out he restricts himself to beer. This is sort of a prelude scene to the real activity of the day and following night, beer drinking and Roo shooting. Notably Grant takes to both activities with a fair amount of glee, one step from civilisation there.

The night time roo shoot is the single most attacked part of Wake In Fright and remains disturbing to this very day. Well it should do as Director Kotcheff inserts footage from an actual kangaroo cull, including the attack by the dog. If you are a member of PETA then this is probably about the stage that you and the movie are going to part company. The local rednecks, and by this stage we are including Grant, don't so much violate the bush as rape and pillage it. If Wake In Fright was a modern horror flick then we would fully expect a Koori curse to come into play or at the very least a giant mutant Roo out for payback. But since this is a "message" movie made in 1971 we are left with internal strife, fueled by alcohol, going down and the sort of drunken rampage normally associated with Rugby League teams. Thankfully no hotel corridor pot planets were in evidence.

Grant does try to get out of dodge before things descend to total anarchy but in the best traditions of Australian horror all roads lead back to where you started. Just when Grant thinks he has got out of town and is in Sydney he finds himself back in the Yabba. This device is a recurrent theme in Aussie horror and has cropped up in movies as divergent as Lost Weekend, Lost Things, and Prey. An Aussie film would not have the family sticking around in the Amityville house once the poo started hitting the fan, but would still manage to concoct some reason why they can never get away from the supernatural happenings.

Kotcheff rounds off his foray into "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Grant accepting a beer on the train ride back to Tiboonda and once there informing the barman that it was the best holiday he has ever had. I leave it to the reader to determine what the point of that was, I was left with a "you have to be fracking kidding me" attitude to be honest. Try line open, ball dropped, with no defenders in the way.

Donald Pleasence ('Doc" Tydon) is pretty mesmerizing in the movie and once again shows why he was the go to guy for anyone wanting a deranged medical character. Pleasence would of course go on to play Dr Loomis in Carpenter's seminal masterpiece Halloween. Gray Bond (John Grant) turns in a performance that is better than it first appears. He plays the urbane role well, but is perhaps a tad to gleeful when he fully endorses the local Yabba culture. Bonds does raise his poorly written character above where it could have ended up and deserves some accolades in doing so.

Special note of Jack Thompson (Dick) debuting in Wake In Fright. He gets to play a stereotypical character but does so with style.

John Scott did the score that ranged from standard drama overtures to experimental dross. It about matches the rest of this "made for TV" movie to be honest. Unfortunately this style of score would be picked up and run with in various other Down Under movies through the 1980s.

Summary Execution

So every one has probably seen an Aussie movie fully embracing the slightly eccentric larrikin character, well with Wake In Fight you get the equally stereotypical "bogan" character that also seems to crop up with irritating regularity in our movies. I was immensely disappointed in this movie and am calling totally overrated. The themes had been done to death previous, the characters are shallowly drawn, and the dialogue is culled from "An Idiot's Guide to Writing Ocker Screen Plays". In short the movie was made as television filler, does rise slightly above the usual level of dross that involves, but spends so much time neon sign postings it's supposed messages that it never takes time out of it's busy schedule to do a reality check. Wake In Fright is a movie made for the pseudo intellectual to wax lyric over during wine and cheese nights. I was bored, groaned with each thematic development, and really wished I had of dialed into something else. Not happy Jan!

I brought myself one of the new groovy R4 releases of Wake In Fright as a completist thing. Pretty good package folks; you get a slip cover, a booklet that only the purists will bother reading, and a pretty ingenious system for holding the single DVD that doesn't involve major swearing when you try to get the disc out. There's a ton of extras on the disc itself that are worth checking out, oh, and I guess if you must the actual movie.

I'm getting ready for a barrage of hate mail as you don't write reviews criticising holy chalices Down Under without someone getting their nose out of joint. In for a pound I guess, I also thought Australia sucked the life out of the universe and remains a blight on our cinematic landscape. Wake In Fright is over wrought with a reputation that far exceeds the actual merits of the movie. I'll reiterate here, the movie was made as television fodder, nothing more nothing less. No recommendation on this movie, it's dated and the themes had been done over and over again previously. After checking the movie out I didn't wake in fright from the themes, but I did have a panic attack over the thought that I could have spent my dosh on something a whole lot better.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

Of historic value only to Australian film historians and dark genre nuts, otherwise it's woken on the wrong side of the bed!