Thursday, October 4, 2018

Halloween 2018 #4: Wake in Fright ***1/2 (1971)

Those outback Aussies love their beer. They like beer. Gary Bond stars as a bored school teacher John Grant in a provincial town is about to begin his holiday and be reunited with his lovely girlfriend Robin (only seen in flashbacks). But John gets sidetracked and the lost weekend of all lost weekends ensues. A lacerating portrait of masculinity in line with other movies from the period like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, and Deliverance - Wake in Fright presents a "society" devoid of women and rife with violence.

John's bored with teaching and while he's gentlemanly and polite, one can sense he's full of turmoil. On his way to Sydney he gets waylaid in Bundanyabba (The Yabba) and is offered lots of beer by the raucous locals. With the courage of drink he stumbles upon a gambling house playing two-up, a primitive coin flipping game. When he wins big, he decides to make one more wager that will win him enough money to quit teaching - but presses his luck too far. Now broke and with no way to get home he falls in with a group of hard drinking townies.

What follows is a fascinating and often terrifying exploration of violence, drinking, sexuality, and boredom. With little to do John falls into drinking and takes an interest in the wife of a local who's more than willing to accept his advances. Donald Pleasence is by turns disturbing and poignant as the town's drunk doctor who serves as a sort of Socrates figure to the men. All these men are in lousy situations and alcohol seems to be their only release - and also hunting. In the most notorious sequence they begin to slaughter kangaroos - and the footage is real. A disclaimer at the end explains it was conducted by licensed hunters.

Since the story is told from John's point of view, it's easy for to be appalled by it all. Yet the men have this strange code of honor among them. They never brutalize John and mostly accept him as one of them. Is he slumming it and getting a charge out of it? Or does John gain much needed self knowledge after the experience? A little of both. The world he thought he knew is not as simple as he once perceived. 

Although it's not a horror film in the traditional sense, Wake in Fright reminds us every day life can sometimes be unpredictable and take ominous turns without warning. So much of horror depends upon the most unlikely and outrageous of occurrences, but here we get a plausible set of things that probably would happen. The impressive direction from Ted Kotcheff and masterful use of setting make for a unique cinematic experience. 

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