For nearly 40 years, “Wake in Fright” was regarded as the great lost Australian movie — and most of the country had no interest in finding it. Adapted from a novel by Kenneth Cook (and originally released in the US as “Outback”), the 1971 drama took a harrowing look at the beer-soaked macho culture of Down Under, concluding that if de-evolution exists, it has its global headquarters in the tiny Australian town of Bundayabba, fondly called “the Yabba” by the locals. After a cursory VHS release in the ’80s, the film went missing and assumed the status of legend; a few years ago, one of its producers tracked down the negative to a Pittsburgh warehouse, where it sat in a box marked “For Destruction.” Restored, the movie is now making the rounds of festivals and art houses, and it lands at the Brattle today like a toxic shrimp on the barbie.
Directed by Canada’s Ted Kotcheff (“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” “First Blood”), “Wake in Fright” begins in roughly the same neighborhood as “Straw Dogs” or “Deliverance,” only to head in stranger directions. John Grant (Gary Bond), a young schoolteacher in a tiny outback hamlet, passes through the Yabba on the way to Sydney and his blond surfer girlfriend. Unwisely, he gets pulled into a gambling game with a mob of the town’s men — it involves betting on two flipped coins and looks more like a rugby scrum. He loses everything, the first step in a downward spiral that John alternately shrinks from and embraces.
The Australia depicted by “Wake in Fright” is sweaty and savage — an endless frat party hosted by overgrown boys. There are women here, but they’re silent with suppressed rage, like Janette (Sylvia Kay), the daughter of one of John’s new drinking buddies. The stricken expression on her face when she sees a photo of the hero’s carefree girlfriend screams louder than any of the carousing men.
A young Jack Thompson (“Breaker Morant”) plays one of the yobbos of the Yabba, and the much-loved Aussie character actor Chips Rafferty has his final role as a sanguine police chief urging ever more beer on John. Bond, in the lead, has a prettiness that turns increasingly ruined as John slides into degradation — it’s like we’re up in the attic watching the picture of Dorian Gray as it rots.
Filmed in nightmarishly hot oranges and reds (the DP was Brian West), “Wake in Fright” cast Donald Pleasence (“Halloween”) as Doc Tydon, the film’s most unnerving role. Pleasence never met a part he couldn’t make creepier, and the good doctor is an intelligent man sunk so far into decay that he has become an animal. When his friendship with the hero turns homoerotic, you sense the filmmakers want to dig deep into the bedrock ooze beneath the Australian psyche. No wonder this film got lost.
Hardest to take, yet most crucial to the movie’s vision, is the nighttime kangaroo hunt during which John and a group of drunken locals hypnotize the animals with a spotlight mounted on their truck and blast them into bloody bits. The sequence looks distressingly real and is: Kotcheff accompanied professional hunters working for foreign dog food companies and filmed them at work. (Local animal rights activists gave the director the go-ahead because they wanted the world to see the slaughter.)
It’s at this point that the movie becomes less about Australia and more a frightening cautionary tale about the precariousness of human civilization in general. “Wake in Fright” is a monster movie, and the monster is us.