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Wake in Fright


Stars: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Peter Whittle, John Meillon

Director: Ted Kotcheff

It’s ironic that this vintage 1970s movie, rightly hailed as an Australian classic, boasts two British actors in the lead roles, is scripted (from the novel by Australian Kenneth Cook) by a scenarist who had never been Down Under and directed by a Canadian.

As an Australian colleague pointed out to me, the mixed creative contributions simply reflects an indigenous cinema which, like so many British movies, especially those from the heyday of second features, starred imported actors in order to boost the films in overseas markets (notably, as far as British B films were concerned, the casting of usually washed up Hollywood stars in an attempt to sell the films in America).

Happily here, the fortuitous combination of Canadian director Ted Kotcheff and British actors Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond, along with a powerful supporting cast of Australian players headed by Chips Rafferty, created a gripping, disturbing and hard-to-forget drama that still shocks after four decades.

The essential storyline charts the disintegration of teacher Bond (who is bonded to the New South Wales Education Department and would therefore have to pay a fine if he quit his job) who leaves his tiny school in the Australian Outback and heads for Sydney to spend Christmas in civilization. Unfortunately, his plan to catch a plane from the nearby town of Bundanyabba misfires when, relentlessly plied with alcohol by the locals, he loses all his money gambling on the flip of coins and ends up broke and stranded…

Bond’s disintegration is disturbingly powerful. But perhaps the most unsettling element of the film is a all-too-vivid and convincing kangaroo hunt which might well upset even the most dedicated horror movie buff, especially in context here.

Pleasence’s friendly but seriously sinister characterisation of the alcoholic doctor who befriends Bond is one of his finest and most unsettling, Bond scores strongly and vivid supporting contributions come from Rafferty as the friendly local policeman who catalyses Bond’s descent in to alcohol and gambling, John Meillon and a strong cast of Australian actors.

Kotcheff was nominated for the Palme d’Or when Wake in Fright was screened at Cannes in 1971. In 2009 when the film was saved from extinction by the fortunate discovery of the original negatives just before they were due to be discarded, Kotcheff won the Autour de la Sélection, Heritage Film award.

Alan Frank

Australia/USA 1971. UK Distributor: Eureka Entertainment. Technicolor.
114 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 18.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 10 Mar 2014