Fantastic Fest 2012: WAKE IN FRIGHT Defies The Mold Of Rural Horrors
Of course, the elephant in the room when anyone talks about the terrors of the uncivilized parts of the civilized world is John Boorman's Deliverance. In that film, a group of weekend warriors decide to take a canoeing trip in order to conquer their own primal urges and prove their manhood to themselves. However, they are ambushed by some of the locals and spend the rest of their film running for their lives - when they aren't being emasculated, tortured, and terrified out of their wits. In the years since, the hillbilly horror has become a staple of low budget horror and action films, presumably because of the relatively low production costs and the always effective fear of the unknown that they inspire. In fact, there are enough of these films to have even spawned and incredibly funny reworking of the story from the villain's side in 2009's Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil.
However, as many people will hopefully discover in the coming months, Deliverance was not the first film to explore what happens when a city boy runs into his rural opposites. Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright, from 1971, is a masterpiece of rural terror that takes the road less traveled in following its protagonist through the looking glass into a world of primal terror. Wake in Fright asks what would happen if the weekend warrior who gets accosted by his backwoods antagonists sat down for a pint together, rather than running for the hills. Sure, in this case we aren't dealing with rural forests like in an American film, but the idea is the same (though the barren Australian Outback is perhaps an even more unsettling locale in which to be caught in such a situation).
School teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is eager to leave his rural schoolhouse assignment in tiny Tiboonda. So when his semester ends, he catches the train to the nearest city big enough to have an airport in the hope of catching the first flight back to Sydney. That city just happens to be Bundanyabba, a mining town filled with hard drinkers who like their action fast, hard, and rough. These are the kind of guys who like a good fight almost as much as they like a good kill out in the Outback. When Grant falls into a gambling den and gets a taste of success, he sees his opportunity to buy his ticket out of the sticks. Instead, he loses everything and has to find a way out of The Yabba... which isn't going to be easy.
The next eighty minutes of the film are dominated by John Grant's rapid descent into his most primal self as the desperation at being stuck in The Yabba hungrily tears away the facade of his civility. Rather than being attacked by the locals, he's taken in like family. But being family means you do what the family does, and sometimes it ain't pretty. For John Grant, this involves being driven insane through the systematic destruction of everything that he is by his assimilation into this world of violence, drunkenness, and debauchery. Even as he is breaking down before our eyes, we can see him falling apart, especially in a particularly brutal scene involving a clandestine kangaroo hunt. Yet still he pushes forward.
Films like Deliverance never show us the antagonists as anything other than crazed madmen. Our protagonists don't engage with the enemy. That is a common thread among many of these films. In everything from Wrong Turn to Friday the 13th and Cabin Fever, the locals are shown to be deranged, creepy, occasionally violent, and always weird. Wake in Fright does us the (dis)service of bringing us into their world, initially to show us that they aren't monsters, but eventually it allows us to see the monster from the inside out. It is a strange set of goggles to put on, but it gives us a good look at how easily this man, desperate for an escape from his soul-crushing existence alone in this small town, could fall into the trap that sneaks up on him in the guise of having another beer.
There is a running gag in the film about never refusing a drink. This seems to be the cruelest insult with which a man can stab his enemy. As a result, the movie is filled with more beer than I've ever seen on film. This drinking does seem to facilitate much of the savagery that occurs on screen. The way that alcohol is used is absolutely mesmerizing. John Grant's hazy recollections and poor judgement make all of his cruelties and devolution seem more like a dream than a quickly deteriorating reality. It is easy to abscond one's self of guilt with the excuse of having had one too many and just having gone out for a bit of fun. It isn't until the fog clears that the real ramifications of Grant's lost weekend catch up with him in a spectacular way.
Wake in Fright is as much a psychological thriller as a horror or exploitation flick. There's no doubt that the film will play well among the new breed of exploitation fanatics. However, there is both too much and too little to satiate the casual viewer without deeper exploration. The first forty minutes or so of the film are relatively aimless. The pacing is very deliberate and the action is sparse. You really have to become invested in the characters enough to build psychic connections with everyone in the film, not just John Grant. He's got quite a crew of burly Outback cohorts who are determined to make him into their kind of man, hence the kangaroo excursion and the rest of the testosterone soaked shenanigans. If you can make it through that piece, the film really takes on a life of its own. It doesn't become any more linear in terms of plot, but Kotcheff's intentions become clear, and we're off to the races.
If you're looking for a goofy Australian exploitation film along the lines of the fantastic work of Brian Trenchard Smith's early 80s films like Turkey Shoot, you're barking up the wrong tree. However, if you've got room in your life for a harrowing look at how quickly a man can lose his ties to reality and his own sense of self, you've got a winner in Wake in Fright. This film is undeniably terrifying, thanks in part to a stupendous, scenery-chewing performance from Donald Pleasance as the village doctor, and numerous other supporting characters. The damage that the hillbillies do in Deliverance has nothing on Wake in Fright's acid bath of moral regression and psychological decompensation. This is one not to be missed.