Shown in competition at Cannes in 1971, Ted Kotcheff’s journey into the Australian outback’s heart of darkness was a flop on its initial release and nearly disappeared altogether, restored only when a print marked for destruction was discovered in a Pittsburgh warehouse.
It’s ironically fitting that Wake in Fright went through hell, since the film submits schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) to his own No Exit, trapping him in a remote city populated with almost exclusively male inhabitants who enjoy drink, violence and little else. Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba,” as it’s known to the natives) is meant to be a pit stop on Bond’s trip to the big city, but when he ill-advisedly bets his bankroll in an attempt to free himself from the “bonded slave[ry] of the education department,” he ends up skint, face-down and naked on his hotel bed as if he’s been violated. Over the course of several days — although it might be years — he spirals downward on a tide of cheap lager, circling the drain with an alcoholic doctor (Donald Pleasance), whose addiction barely rates notice in the Yabba.
Although the film brings to mind Straw Dogs and Deliverance, the mood is closer to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a touch of Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel — a surreal horror in which the only devils are the kangaroos whose eyes flash red in the headlights before they’re run over for sport. Many reissues claim the mantle of lost masterpiece, but Wake in Fright is the genuine article.