Presumed lost for almost 40 years, this sweaty and disturbing 1971 sicko comedy was recently unearthed in a Pittsburgh warehouse, where the original negatives sat in a create marked “for destruction.” I’m assuming the Australian Tourist Commission had something to do with that, as Ted Kotcheff’s insinuating, seedy Wake in Fright is a vacation from hell in the outback. Meticulously restored and released by the good folks over at Drafthouse Films, it arrives in theatres this week feeling curiously timeless. The Down Under cousin to Straw Dogs and Deliverance, Wake in Fright is a spellbinding tale of macho de-evolution, one can of beer at a time.
Ken-doll handsome Gary Bond stars as a pompous, pissed-off schoolteacher with an evening to kill in the overheated podunk town of Bundayabba before jetting off to Sydney in the morning to spend Christmas with his sexy surfer girl. Dubbed “the Yabba” by the over-friendly locals, the place is a swarming pit of daytime drunkenness and boorish behavior. Initially put off by all these back-slapping blowhards, our condescending anti-hero still manages to get so shitfaced that he misses his flight and loses all his money gambling on an awesomely stupid backroom game of chance. Stranded with only a dollar to his name, Bond falls in with a gregarious lot of alcoholics, a constant threat of violence simmering beneath all the laddish bravado. Creepiest of all is Donald Pleasance as a former doctor turned wastrel, advising that “discontent is a luxury for the well-to-do” while quaffing gigantic cans of lager and munching kangaroo testicles.
It’s an epic bender skewed through a nightmare lens, and the blackouts get weirder with bloody consequences looming inevitably on the horizon. At first it’s amusing to watch the buttoned-up, not exactly charming Bond discover his inner caveman, but as the film gets stranger, it becomes more alarming–civilization always a precarious few drinks away from chaos.
A far cry from the pieties of something like Flight, Wake in Fright hammers home the miserable wastefulness of alcoholism, the sad squandering of days and dreams on childishly destructive antics in noisy bars. The movie gets under your skin.