Favored by Martin Scorsese when shown in competition at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright had been out of circulation for decades since the negative went missing. It was tracked down in the US in 2004 in a container waiting to be dumped. Following its restoration, it screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as a Cannes Classic title. A classic reborn.
Wake in fright introduces us to a schoolteacher from the city trapped in the outback mining town of Bundanyabba. Surrounded by drunk, violent men, he tries to get out of this wasteland. But he is kind of sucked in.
Britt actors Gary Bond (Zulu)and Donald Pleasence (Halloween) with Aussies Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, Sunday too far away) and John Meillon (Crocodile Dundee) head the cast of Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas forty, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood) in what is an amazing achievement.
Originating from an Even Jones screenplay, based on the book by Kenneth Cook, the film is technically and artistically well balanced with a slow and carefully constructed build up. It is a men’s men’s world, with its specific codes and rituals in which, at first, the main protagonist simply doesn’t belong (and he insists on stating about it). But while originally out of place (and we get the feeling he should get out of there fast), it becomes disturbing as he slowly gets conned by local misfits. This creates an degree of unwelcoming tension and produces an increasing chain of troubled behaviors.
The cast is strong (delightful Donald Pleasence as a sicko one more time around) and makes it realistically stressful and threatening. A state of anxiety sustained by Brian West inspired cinematography, including the shining outback takes and the infamous night chase sequence. He provides great light, shadow and tight framing material enhanced by Anthony Buckley’s nervous, thus highly effective, editing and John Scott score, in turn funky (reflecting the time period) and enlarged with the use of electronics such as a theremin (or was it Ondes Martenot? ) an early electronic instrument. A degree of experimentation that fits the picturesque quality and general mood perfectly.
With controversy, surrounding the addition of graphic images of an actual kangaroo hunt by professionals, which was severely cut in some release, Kotcheff had to justify his use of the cruel footage (these scenes were finally shown uncut after consultation with leading animal welfare groups). West said of the actual hunters that they were getting drunk in an orgy of (night) killing so the crew orchestrated a power failure in order to end it all. An anecdote that adds to the cult stature of this great film who’s place is in the videoshelf alongside Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.