The story centers around John Grant (played brilliantly by Gary Bond – a damn shame he didn’t do a whole lot else), a school teacher stationed in a small, remote town called Tiboonda. Apparently, as a teacher you are ‘bonded’ to the government in exchange for your education and must pay back $1000.00 to satisfy the requirement. In the meantime, they can station you wherever they need someone to teach which is why John finds himself stuck and more or less miserable. It is made clear early on that John thinks a lot of himself, his education and looks down his nose at others. While he is never a glaring prick about this, he exists in a haze of thinly veiled annoyance and is aloof or mildly snide to nearly everyone he encounters, even those friendly to him. Again, it is not glaring, so he is sympathetic to a degree.
John heads from Tiboonda by train to Bundanyabba (dubbed ‘the Yabba’ by the locals) to catch a plane to Sydney for the Christmas holiday to visit his girlfriend and get out of the sticks. Upon arriving in the Yabba, he checks into a hotel and then ventures out to see about food and drink. He meets an aggressively polite sheriff type character Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who gives him some of the ‘low down’ on the Yabba all the while encouraging beer after beer until John is quite loose and needing food. Jock takes him to a place to eat where John has his first encounter with Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence – Dr. Loomis in Halloween films) and at the same time is met with a large back room jammed with men gambling on a game called 2-up. It is essentially a chance game with a player holding a small slat of wood and two coins, one side of each marked with white Xs and black backgrounds. Players wager on the outcome of the coins and throw money into the play area prior to the throw. John becomes quickly enamoured with this and gets into the game. After initial success (winning over $800.00), he sees a glimmering opening to win the rest of the money he needs to buy out of his government bond and be free of teaching in Tiboonda. We see the hope in his eyes, but we know with pretty clear certainty that it won’t go well. It doesn’t and John has soon lost all his money, including his paycheck from school and is essentially stuck in the Yabba.
I wanted to take time to lay out the setup because what happens after the seeming normalcy of the first act is a slow descent that is jarring and violent, scary and emotional. The whole torrid track is more or less meaningless if you as the viewer don’t have the ‘nearly had it’ aspect for John mixed with his sad pride as a memory. The time taken by director Ted Kotcheff (Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?, Weekend At Bernies) to carefully position John on the edge of the cliff is artful; once he tumbles over the side we feel it that much more. John takes up with a local bunch of hard living, base-level men who drink, fight and generally exist as a seeming force of nature rather than actual men. After a night of crazed drinking, John wakes to find himself in the home/shack of Doc (Pleasence) who, we learn, is a defunct doctor now living in this place as a refuge from the realities and failures he escaped. Doc serves as a tour guide of sorts, side-by-side with John whose behavior becomes more erratic, drinking becomes heavier and morals seem all over the place. It is, at times, painful to watch because we are watching a man coming apart at the seams whom we know had his act together not one day before. It is in this that the real horror reveals itself – no attacker, nothing stabbing him or chasing him but instead the systematic stripping away of logic and moral thought until only a shell remains.
There is some degree of controversy surrounding this film as it depicts (in the film carried out by the group of men) a brutal nighttime kangaroo hunt. A note at the end of the film mentions that the footage of kangaroos being killed was taken from an actual hunt and not set up/performed for the film. Notwithstanding, it is an unrelenting sequence that absolutely stopped me in my tracks and was quite hard to shake. Coupling that terrible imagery with the ongoing break from reality John is experiencing and you have a final act that just shakes you over and over and doesn’t let go. This is handled with the steady, soft hand of a director that takes advantage of, but does not exploit, your care for John’s safety in a shocking final spike of tension.
All in all, the restoration work is something extraordinary to see – a full palette of color run through the dust and wear of the Australian outback to reveal a washed hue of unmistakable beauty. DIrector Ted Kocheff’s Wake In Fright is a wonder of a film, not only a suspenseful and scary but all the while elegant and meaningful. I won’t forget this one for a good long time.