Wake in Fright (1971)

When Nick Cave says a movie is “[t]he best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence,” you stop what you’re doing, buy tickets, and go see it as soon as possible. Also known as OutbackWake in Fright is indeed terrifying, but probably not in the ways you’re assuming.

John Grant is a schoolteacher who has been posted, quite against his wishes, to the small Outback town of Tiboonda. His landlord Charlie laughs as he bids John goodbye, knowing that despite what John says about leaving forever, he’ll be back again in just a few weeks, just like always. John is very much looking forward to spending the Christmas Holiday in Sydney with his beautiful, blonde girlfriend; all that stands in his way now is an overnight stay in Bundunyabba and then off to the city he flies. When he arrives in “the Yabba” he is immediately accosted by the local law enforcement. “New to the Yabba?” Jock the cop asks, insisting John drink beer after beer with him while he shows him around town.

Crazy eyes “Doc”

Eventually we make it to the local “restaurant” where Grant is promised to have “the best steak ever.” It’s there he sees what the locals do for fun – place bets in a back room on coin toss after coin toss. Joe leaves John to his own devices, and that is where John first meets “Doc” Tydon, awesomely played by Donald Pleasence. John, who has exhibited an uppity attitude ever since setting foot in Bundunyabba, sneers at the locals for their simplistic nature. But once he gets enough beer in him, he joins in on the fun and wins a crap-ton of cash. He grabs the cash in his fists and runs out of the restaurant and back to his hotel room, thrilled to have made such a killing. It’s there he looks at his schoolbooks and throws them against the wall in disgust. “Just $1,000 more and I’ll never have to go back!” And so he returns to the back room to gamble in hopes of winning a new life.

Unfortunately for poor, drunk John, he doesn’t win. In fact, he loses every damn penny he’s got to his name. In the morning he leaves the hotel and has nowhere to go; he’s got no money and misses his plane to Sydney. He stops in another bar and meets Tim, another local exhibiting aggressive hospitality: insisting that John drink, again, beer after beer with him, even though he can’t buy Tim drinks in return. After they get sauced, Tim again insists that John come to his home and stay with him, saying “we’ll figure it out, have another beer!”

Drink up, Johnny!

At Tim’s house, John meets not only Tim’s extremely sour (but promiscuous!) daughter Janette, but also Dick & Joe, Tim’s best buddies. When the boys show up it is a non-stop drink-a-thon; beer after beer is cracked open, and the men give John hell for talking with Janette instead of hanging out with the boys. One thing leads to another, and it’s not long before Janette has John “out back” for a walk, where she throws herself at him. John’s response is to… vomit. He wakes up to more drinking, and our old friend Doc joins us again, this time insisting that John spend the night at his place.

What follows are a few more days of hazy, sweaty, dirty debauchery which culminates in a vicious, drunken kangaroo hunt (and a warning to all potential viewers, the footage in the film is from an actual kangaroo hunt and is quite difficult to get through). Finally, after days of waking up too late to catch the train due to extended nights of drinking, John wakes up desperate enough to attempt to walk to the next town, or at least to hitch a ride closer to Sydney.

Nowhere to go.

This movie isn’t just about a guy who loses all his money and ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere – it’s about madness, desperation, guilt, and desolation. It’s about man’s relationship with nature. It’s about insiders vs. outsiders. There’s nothing outright frightening here, it’s more psychologically affecting. The locals are hostile, but not without exhibiting the utmost hospitality. The landscape is unforgiving, and like many Australian movies I’ve seen most of the characters are constantly caked with dirt and sweat. Perhaps the scariest feeling this movie evoked in me is the idea that no matter what direction you go, there’s just more of the same heat, sweat, and dirt to greet you – there’s no escape.

There’s a lot of nuance I’m not capturing here, but I’m okay with that, because I think everyone should watch this (you just might have to fast forward through the kangaroos!), and what fun is it to watch a film you already know everything about? Just know two things: Donald Pleasence will knock your fucking socks off, and yes, Charlie is played by that guy from Crocodile Dundee.


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