Retro fear and loathing in 'Wake in Fright' and 'They Live'
FILM Wake in Fright opens with a slow 360 degree pan across a dry, barren, isolated landscape. There are railroad tracks and two small structures, but the rest is filled with a whole lot of nothing.
This is Tiboonda, the tiny Australian town where Ted Kotcheff's 1971 thriller begins. The descriptor "thriller" and the film's title — not to mention its arrival in theaters under the genre-friendly Drafthouse Films banner — suggests that Wake in Fright is a horror movie, but if it's Aussie Outback thrill-killing you seek, look elsewhere (starting with 2005's Wolf Creek). Wake in Fright is more of a psychological thriller, of the escalating-dread-building-to-a-gut-ripping-climax variety. Not for nothing did chatty ol' Martin Scorsese, a champion of the film since its 1971 Cannes debut, admit "It left me speechless."
Pity poor teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), assigned to teach in Tiboonda's one-room schoolhouse by the government he owes money to in return for his own education. Or don't: Grant, primly dressed in coat and tie despite the scorching weather, can barely disguise his disgust over being plopped into such a backwater. When the six-week Christmas break rolls around, he's on the first train out of town, heading for an overnight stop in mining town Bundanyabba before flying to Sydney, where cool waters and his sophisticated girlfriend await.
Of course, the best laid plans of desperate, sweaty men always go astray. Kotcheff — who is actually Canadian and whose best-known film is probably the first Rambo movie, 1982's First Blood (or 1989's Weekend at Bernie's) — sets the tone early with that lonely 360 degree shot, but Grant's misplacement becomes even more obvious once he starts encountering locals in "the Yabba." Everyone, except for the odd woman working the front desk at his hotel (has anyone ever come so close to making out with an electric fan?), emits a strange combination of menacing and friendly.
First, there's the cop (Chips Rafferty) who, five seconds after meeting him in the town's raucous meeting hall, simply insists that Grant chug multiple beers with him. Boozing leads to a back-room gambling game — where, again, everybody acts like it's no big deal that there's an outsider, "the guy in the jacket," in their midst. "One mere spin and you're out of it," reflects an oily man (Donald Pleasence) Grant meets in the chaos. Prescient words: when an unlucky coin toss means Grant's lost all his money, he's not only out of the game — he's out of his Sydney trip, out of any other options, and on his way to going out of his mind.
But he doesn't get there alone, and Wake in Fright amps up as Grant's downward spiral begins. There's beer — gallons and gallons of the stuff — off-roading at breakneck speeds, fistfights, further strange encounters with Pleasence's character (who turns out to be the unabashedly alcoholic town doctor), and a grim-faced beauty (Sylvia Kay, married to Kotcheff at the time) who is not as out of place in the sticks as Grant first assumes. The film's most brutal sequence involves kangaroo hunting — it's so disturbing that it warrants a disclaimer as the end credits roll. But really, all of Wake in Fright is a nasty, grimy, hopeless misadventure, an exposing of the dark heart Grant didn't realize he had, or was even capable of having. "I got involved," is all he can say of the experience, though the audience might lean more toward "Uh, what the fuck just happened?"