I was aware of Wake in fright amongst director Ted Kotcheff (of First blood fame) first ventures into feature length films, but never got the chance to see it.
I was watching the excellent documentary Not quite Hollywood, the world of Ozploitation films (a doc that analyzes the wave of exploitation films raised in Australia since the early 70's, while a small industry was built up and became a serious local contender to the American one) when a rough, scratchy trailer of Wake in fright transferred from an old positive (there's a reason why, discussed later) was abruptly featured amongst others. The doc not quite covered any aspects of the film, but its preview, displaying the international title Outback, surely succeeded to leave a strong impression on me. It actually blew my mind away. The grainy images, the impressive voice over (What happened to this man? The Outback happened to this man...) and a few more, well put together, scenes from the movie, capture immediately the attention of the viewer leaving him with a feeling of discomfort but eager to see more.
So, I was more than happy to discover that a brand new Blu Ray disc of the film was available in Australia. For the first time the film has been made accessible in the digital format, re-mastered and, most of all, the original negative has been completely digitally restored and a dupe one has been created for a short theatrical re-release down there and for preservation purposes. This miracle has been made possible because few dedicated people at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and original editor Anthony Buckley, were trackin' down the original materials for years, as for ages, the movie has been unavailable since the negative was thought to be lost. The whole search for the film, would deserve a documentary for itself, the quest lasted ten years, spent in calls, faxes, emails, suddenly discoveries (a load of films cans) and painful delusions (the film cans were filled only with old unusable 16mm positive prints), from the final task to save some materials from a garbage bin in the US, to the ultimate discovery of the negative. Finally the film was transported to Australia at the Atlab/De Luxe labs, that took care of the restoration.
John Grant is a young teacher, a man who accepted the most uncomfortable outpost in the desert, to get a better salary for his job. He's waiting for the final lesson of the season, dreaming a vacation in Sidney to be spent with a girlfriend, he didn't see for months.
When the day comes and the school bell rings, Grant grabs his bag and gets on the local train to reach another town in the outback for a connection to go straight to his final destination. Is the dream coming true? Maybe, but once there, the wait for the connection is long, the place is noisy, the night too hot, the local betting place it's too much of an attraction, with alcohols and its promises of easy money and a better living out of his teaching contract in no man's land.
He wins, lucky strike of the first timers, committing after then only a small mistake craving for more. So, in the end, he loses everything. Now, stranded in an unknown, unfamiliar place where strangers are not very welcome, he has to manage to get through the few weeks of vacation before to go back to his boring teaching. Will he succeed? One thing he doesn't know yet, this trip is gonna be an unforgettable experience that will change his life maybe forever.
Wake up in fright it's a movie that cant' be confined in a category, a genre, or a definition. It actually defeats definitions, each time the story develops in one way, there's an unexpected turn over of the events that makes it transcend genre limitations or classifications. Is this exploitation? It is indisputably not. It's an acute dissecting eye opened on human behaviors, scrutinizing them like an entomologist would do with an insect.
Beware, the movie does contain strong images. A real massacre of kangaroos could upraise more than a boo, from animal lovers, but it makes sense to the story and, to soften facts, it was shot during a local putting down because there were too many in the area.
But the real demolition occurs to the human characters. Few times we have seen such an uncompromising point of view on human nature. A bunch of dirty, greedy, lazy people full of lust and alcohol trying to forget where and what they are, trying not to became the wild that surrounds them outside the apparent cleanness of their huge mansions. And of course it's about the influence of mother nature on us, an influence so strong in Australian movies, with its landscapes and vistas, to become itself part of the cast. No other cinematography has this immense impact of natural beauties and horrors on its own storytelling. There would be no Mad Max without the long deserted roads; there would be no Picnic without the Hanging Rock or no Long Weekend without the woods and the seashore and so on, or it wouldn't be the same at least. If you think to an Australian movie it's almost immediate the memory of something natural in it, be a stone or a lake or what so ever, even before the story of the film itself. It's nature in the main role all the time. Funny though, that a foreigner like Kotcheff (Canadian) was able to capture this so well on film; only an eye coming from outside could have gazed the true essence of the place, having a distant and different approach to the subject matter.
The film was shown at the Cannes film festival in 1971 and went on an international release through United Artists later that year, with the changed title Outback.
Reactions down under and in some markets were tepid at least, while some complained the brutal impact of the film, some other ravaged it; the above mentioned violence on animals did not help. More, I believe it was a blow on the subconscious of Australians; a people that tried and maybe is still trying to adapt to a country like no other in the world.
It's a multilayered tale of corruption, where a well mannered teacher could become a savage killer and be caught in a frenzy of alcohol, sex and carnage. To adapt to the wild should we become wild as well? When there's no more hope of a different life, should we give up to our untamed desires?
Maybe this tale could be seen as an adaptation of Dante's Inferno.
Touring the many circles of his own private one, Grant will come out a different man, surviving also an apparently friendly wrestling game that leads to an almost homosexual rape.
He will finally find a way out, but instead to see the light of the stars, he'll be back in the bright lights of the desert, even if his cheap school will become a mirage of salvation after what he experienced before. Do we care about him? Yes, and in the same time no. And this was the reason probably the movie failed in the time of its release, because there's no empathy between the audience and the main hero, that is in the end the ultimate prick. He's nonetheless boring than the desolated school town in which he lives, arid and empty like a tin can of beer drunk by one of his fellows hunters. This is the movie true greatness, a fair of wretched lives in a beautiful, inaccessible place that for these reasons it's too miserable for them.
As I mentioned, this is one of Kotcheff's first films, and his best. He never managed to reach such perfection of form and contents again; from a technical point of view the movie is a beauty to watch and all the pursued camera angles and crane movements are finalized to the story the director is telling.
The Blu Ray is excellent faithfully reproducing the warm theatrical color palette with no sign of evident digital manipulation.
There are a lot of scenes with natural day and night light, but no evident brightness and contrast boosting has been applied.
This is definitely a movie that I highly recommend; it was made in a time, the 70's, when filmmakers were more interested in the mankind's soul and they were trying to depict it for what it was, without using a computer generated image most of all.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace