Long lost Wake in Fright takes hellish holiday in the Outback

1971 Australian psychological thriller resurrected for theatrical run

What if one of Deliverance’s city slickers, instead of being attacked by brutal mountain men, began turning into one of them? Australia’s Wake in Fright, released in 1971, a year before John Boorman’s backwoods Georgia thriller, explores a similar tension between the wilderness and civilization. Unavailable on video or DVD for decades, a restored version of Wake in Fright now surfaces in theaters to recount an engrossing episode of psychological collapse.

Clean-cut John Grant (Gary Bond) feels stymied by his profession as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in a deserted corner of the Outback. En route to visit his girlfriend in Sydney, he stays the night in a mining town called Bundanyabba, which the locals call “The Yabba.” John clearly feels superior to the town’s rowdy, high-testosterone roughnecks, and an atmosphere of potential violence hangs over every encounter. But after John visits a backroom gambling den, where a coin-flipping game boils to a fever pitch, the teacher finds himself unable to extricate himself from the community.

John becomes embroiled in drunken sexual encounters and bloody kangaroo hunts — with shocking footage of real animal deaths — that resemble an increasingly intense, inescapable nightmare. Wake in Fright’s supporting cast includes Donald Pleasence as an inebriated doctor, and the manliest Australian actors of two of generations: Chips Rafferty playing a lawman in his last film, and Jack Thompson as a brawling hunter in his first movie.

The cinematography’s saturated colors look unlike any you can see in today’s cinemas and leave you feeling practically sunstruck. Director Ted Kotcheff made a diverse Hollywood career ranging from First Blood to Weekend at Bernie’s, but he may never have topped Wake in Fright’s atmosphere of dread. The film depicts a form of hospitality so aggressive that “Buy you a beer, mate?” could be Wake in Fright’s equivalent to “Squeal like a pig.”

Wake in Fright Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasance. Rated R. Opens Fri., Dec. 7. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.