March 25, 2014

Movie Review: Wake in Fright

I will occasionally watch a movie for no reason, well, perhaps a bit more than occasionally. I will watch movies as background noise, because I love them, because I hate them, sometimes I am just curious. Wake in Fright is one of those movies I watched out of sheer curiosity. No other reason, I knew nothing about the movie going in, just the title. And what a title it is. Is Wake in Fright not an alluring title or what? I had no idea what I was in for. I had no idea what an involving, unsettling experience I was about to have. I also had no idea how interesting the story around the movie would end up being. The short of it is Wake in Fright is a fantastic film that you almost never had a chance to see.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a bonded schoolteacher at a remote school in the Outback. As the school semester ends, John intends to stop overnight at a nearby town before catching a flight to Sydney. Of course, things change. As he settles in for the evening, he goes out for a drink, where he meets the town sheriff, who insists he drink, drink, and drink some more. He is also introduced to the local game of chance. John sees this as a chance to buy out his bond and not have to go back to that small school in the middle of nowhere. This does not go well and he soon finds himself broke and not on his way to Sydney.

While this is not exactly how he saw things playing out, the other side of the coin finds him being taken in with the locals. Again, this sounds better than it ends up being. What began as a single night of drinking and gambling sees him awaken to a different version of himself. He is faced with a new sort of people and a new sort of him. He finds himself going down the rabbit hole, taken in with a new type of person, seeing himself in previously unforeseen circumstances, spiraling down in a vortex of self destruction.

It is a pretty fascinating film, watching John Grant discover himself, a darker version of himself. It is interesting to see how a person can build up this shell of what they think they are and how quickly the scales fall from their eyes and the real person underneath bubbles up, almost a reaction to the new experiences, things their false walls never could deal with. The big question is if you like the real you, or if you can wrangle it into something else.

Wake in Fright has a pretty simple plot, what makes it work is the writing and the superb performances. Everything feels genuine. We watch the educated, high on his horse Grant get taken a down a few pegs and rebuilt in a way that would make him be a stranger to himself. It does not hurt that one of his guides is the almost assuredly insane Doc Tydon (played with a contradictory reckless abandon by Donald Pleasance).

The movie was directed by Ted Kotcheff, who would go on to direct First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's, shines in this early effort. He grounds the movie in this dark realism that draws you in and forces you to confront some unsettling material. The screenplay was written by Evan Jones, based on a novel by Kenneth Cook. This is a movie well worth the time and effort. It certainly surprised the heck out of me.

As for the story surrounding the movie, well, it was well received critically, but was a box office bust and quickly disappeared. It never received a home video release of any sort on any format. In 1994 the film's editor mounted a search to find the film. The search took a decade to find a usable print. It was in a warehouse in Pittsburgh and was slated to be destroyed. If he showed up a week later, the movie may have been lost forever. It is interesting, this is an exception in a world where we have lost so many films, it puts a point on the transient nature of the medium (until the digital age, anyway). It is scary to think about almost not knowing this film, not to mention thinking about all the films that have actually been lost of the years. There is more to this, just look around and you can see about it.

See this movie. Wake in Fright is the sort of movie that will sit with you well after the credits have finished rolling. Although, I should warn you, there is some real animal violence in this film, and there is a disclaimer at the end that it was done with the involvement of animal cruelty prevention organizations. It is an unsettling sequence that helps put an exclamation point on the proceedings.

Highly Recommended.

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