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.