The Voice‘s Karina Longworth knows how to throw an opening pitch: “As director Ted Kotcheff told Senses of Cinema magazine, when Aussie grind house creeper Wake in Fright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, ‘There was an American seated in one of the rows immediately behind me, and he kept saying: “Wow! This is great!”‘ That American turned out to be Martin Scorsese, who, ironically, would claim that the screening ‘left me speechless.’ Scorsese would spearhead Wake in Fright‘s return to the Croisette under the Cannes Classics banner in 2009, making it only the second film to play the festival twice, after L’Avventura. Wake in Fright evidently made a mark on those who saw it back in ’71 (Pauline Kael ended her review with the endorsement ‘You come out with the perception that this master race is retarded‘—italics hers), but the film was considered lost for decades until the negative was found in a vault in Pittsburgh and painstakingly restored. Now a pristine print of a movie redolent with dust and sweat is making the repertory rounds, courtesy of Austin upstart Drafthouse Films.”
Wake in Fright, opening for a week-long run at Film Forum in New York before setting out across the country, “is not exactly a horror film,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo. “Nor is it, as its distributor suggests, the precise Australian correlative to contemporary movies like Deliverance or Straw Dogs. Visceral as it can be, Wake in Fright is a richer sort of allegory. The cautionary tale of a snooty school teacher from the most out back of outback settlements who attempts to make a travel connection in a somewhat larger, wide-open town known as the Yabba—a place populated by drunks, gamblers, and macho morons given to mindless brawling and wanton destruction, is something like a scrofulous version of The Lost Weekend crossed with Lord of the Flies.”
“Wake in Fright helped herald the rebirth of the nation’s film industry in the 1970s, a revival later called the Australian New Wave,” writes Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times. “The antipodean directors who would emerge included Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Bruce Beresford (Breaking Morant) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). But the film’s heightened picture of life in the Australian hinterlands was directed by a Canadian: Ted Kotcheff, an underrated shape-shifting filmmaker later responsible for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, North Dallas Forty, First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s.” And he chats with Kotcheff, currently an executive producer on Law & Order: SVU.
A decade after Wake in Fright, “in First Blood,” notes John Semley in Slant, “Kotcheff delivered a vision of a burly, shell-shocked Vietnam War veteran (Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) reinserting himself into nature, surviving off the land as he evades capture through the dense timberlands of the American Pacific Northwest. Wake in Fright‘s vision is decidedly bleaker. The film’s vision of masculine self-sufficiency is built around—and on, via Australia’s own bloody colonial history—an elemental violence.”
“A reasonably faithful adaptation of Australian author Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same title, the film is the bastard child of a nascent collaboration between Australian and American production companies,” notes Jeff Gibson, writing for Artforum. “[T]his multinational effort is nonetheless a painfully accurate portrayal of the cruel conviviality—on condition of collective inebriation—that characterized the old, beer-and-Scotch-sloshed Australia…. Blending the psychological horror genre with cultural anthropology and fictive documentary, Wake in Fright mercilessly skewers and debunks two of Australia’s proudest mythologies—the moral rectitude of Aussie ‘mateship’ and the romantic mystique attached to the outback terrain.”
David Fear in Time Out New York: “Pitched between the wasteland psychodramas of Australia’s then-sprouting New Wave and the grotty underbelly-tickling of later Ozploitation gems, Kotcheff’s beware-the-backwoods thriller takes an unholy pleasure in watching [Gary Bond as the visiting teacher, John Grant], an actor who always looks as if he’s just bitten into a maggot-filled peach, devolve from full frontal dude-ity into a beast. Push any guy long enough with alcohol and aggressive masculinity, the film suggests, and you’ll find an XY-chromosomed predator lurking behind the mask.”
“For all its merits as an example of Australian or exploitation cinema, Wake in Fright is above all a serious and appreciable drinking film,” writes Rumsey Taylor at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. “Its narrative is effectively one monumentally unfortunate bender.”
“The film might flirt with aspects of hillbilly horror, but it’s precisely rendered enough to achieve an absolute seriousness of purpose,” writes Benjamin Mercer at the L. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir: “It’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, a full-on shotgun blast to the face of rediscovered 1970s weirdness, something like finding out that there’s a classic Peckinpah film you’ve never seen, or that Wes Craven and Bernardo Bertolucci got drunk in Sydney one weekend and decided to make a movie together.”
“Perhaps the most striking aspect of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence in a performance that should have garnered him heaps of critical praise and awards,” writes Marc Campbell at Dangerous Minds. “It’s a brave, visceral thing of beauty that does for acting what Hunter Thompson does for literature. Pleasence is 3D in a 2D world. Finally, the world at large will have an opportunity to savor Pleasence at his most sublimely unhinged.” And at Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell flags the work of cinematographer Brian West, “who captures a dusty, sweaty Australia, equal parts friendly and terrifying. The film is also notable for two notable Australian stars known for their rugged personification of Aussie manhood, Chips Rafferty, in his last role, and Jack Thompson in his first feature.”
Related: Dennis Harvey‘s guide to “Horror Down Under.”
Updates, 10/7: “I haven’t lived in the outback and wasn’t alive when the film was made, but there are all sorts of things about Australia in the movie I’ve never seen portrayed so well,” writes James Guida for the New Yorker. “While it’s tempting to say that it required a foreigner to see such traits so clearly, it should be noted that the film is extremely faithful to Cook’s short novel. Kotcheff’s few narrative departures are quietly decisive, and generally work to accentuate the story’s elements of nightmarish fable. He’s partly explained his uncanny feeling for the culture by observing that both Canada and Australia are nations where, instead of liberating, space imprisons.”
“It’s kind of a wonder that this mesmerizing and horrifying existential thriller was forgotten in the first place,” writes Tynan Kogane at Cinespect.
Update, 10/12: “Wake in Fright is an unflinching portrayal of modern man’s moral disintegration in the face of the collective mob, and his ensuing culpability in the ever-widening ripples of despair that dissolution engenders,” writes the Austin Chronicle‘s Marc Savlov. “Or, to put it more succinctly, small towns breed small minds, and suave, intellectual urbanity is no match for the primordial urge to drink, fight, and fuck shit up beyond all hope of repair…. Wake in Fright is calibrated for maximum psychic impact. Its madness is viral and disconcerting.”
Updates, 10/18: A clip…
And Giovanni Marchini Camia talks with Kotcheff for Bomb.