Wake in Fright

04 Mar

John Grant (played by Gary Bond) is a schoolteacher in a tiny remote school in outback Australia. When school finishes for the Christmas holidays, he heads back to Sydney for the six week break before returning to his post (as he is bonded there by the Education Department). Part way through his journey he must overnight at Bundayabba (the locals call it The Yabba) – a sizeable town full of hard working, hard drinking and hard playing men. Policeman Jock Crawford (by Chips Rafferty) seeks out John as a “new man” in town and introduces him to some social norms – Jock has a “blokey” demeanour, but you sense there is something far more sinister beneath. John gets seduced into some rowdy gambling but ends up stranded in The Yabba. The next day, seeing him down on his luck, Tim Hynes (by Al Thomas) invites John to stay with him and his daughter Janette (by Sylvia Kay), where he meets Tim’s mates Dick, Joe and the mysterious Doc (by Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle and Donald Pleasence). These guys are amiable and casual, but there’s something else there too. They are insistent that John join their in-town antics and he gets involved in some blokey mischief where they spend the next days drinking, hunting and fighting together. This lifestyle becomes too much for John when he starts to lose himself in the blur of alcohol and violence and he departs The Yabba to head to Sydney for the rest of his holidays. Well, that’s what he planned to do anyway …

This film is a dramatisation of the novel by Kenneth Cook (it was released as “Outback” in the US and UK) and premiered in competition at Cannes in May, 1971. It received huge critical acclaim, but little interest from the viewing public. The by-line on the movie says “considered one of the best films ever made in Australia”. After its 1971 screening, it was “lost” to public audiences and unavailable for purchase until it was restored and re-released in 2009. Even at that time it was reviewed as being “just as remarkable as ever it was”.

Sorry, but I don’t agree – this movie promises such a lot … but does not deliver. True, the performances are all good and the “menace” one might find in outback Australia (the mindless brutality, unquestioning loyalty and mateship and demonstration of manliness) is all there and that’s depicted well. I also agree that the camerawork is excellent, cinematography is clean, images are very well captured (particularly the editing in the scenes during the kangaroo hunt) and the direction is marvellous. However, in my view the suspense is where the movie fails. It is highly successful at building drama, creating sinister undertones and impeccably timing scenes to build suspense – but it never actually delivers. Even the mystery surrounding the “Doc” becomes quite impotent as the movie plays out.    

Because I had heard so many people say how good it is, I prepared to be frightened half to death (particularly given its title), so I watched it at a time when I had a chance to re-connect and calm down if I needed to.  Alas, not required – the movie is a lot like Outback Australia …. there are some quite interesting and remarkable things to see – but there’s a heck of a lot of nothing in between. 

Made 1971 – Directed by Ted Kotcheff

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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in Movies


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