By Raj Ranade
5:25 PM EST, January 22, 2013
Wake in Fright
Directed by Ted Kotcheff. Showing Jan. 27 – 29 at Cinestudio, 300 Summit St., Hartford, (860) 297-2463, cinestudio.org
A lager-soaked nightmare under the searing outback sun, the 1971 Australian thriller Wake in Fright (playing at Cinestudio from January 27-29) provokes some strong reactions, not least of which is the urge to immediately send a check to a film-preservation foundation. Despite debuting to raves at the Cannes Film Festival, all prints of director Ted Kotcheff's classic were very nearly lost — only in 2004 were a set of negatives discovered, inexplicably marked for destruction at a warehouse in Pittsburgh.
Now in a vibrant digital restoration, this story of a schoolteacher's weekend-long descent into barbarism has an eerie power. Traveling toward Sydney during a vacation from his government-bonded duties at a rural school, John Grant (Gary Bond, a brown-eyed Peter O'Toole doppelganger) stops for the night in the mining town of Bundanyabba. The residents of "the Yabba" are a rough crowd, the kind who like to knock back tallboys before knocking some heads together, but they're also remarkably hospitable. When John blows all his cash on one of the town's spectacularly disorganized coin-toss contests, stranger after stranger insists on helping him out and buying him another beer (as long as he first chugs down the half bottle in his hand).
In another film, these friendly townsfolk would be hiding a terrible dark secret, but here they're on the level with their mix of camaraderie and cruelty. What's secret is in John himself. When this uptight British-born aesthete gets a taste of unrestrained id, he's horrified to discover there's a part of him that rather likes bar brawls and the use of cuddly kangaroos for target practice. He's egged on by his charismatic mentor in debauchery, Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Tydon is a cultured former city-dweller who now preaches a gospel of enlightenment through intoxication and wanton sexuality ("We break the rules," he says, "but we know more about ourselves than most people.")
He recalls, at times, the charming/terrifying Judge Holden of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. And like McCarthy, Kotcheff here tells a story about masculinity and the violence lurking under polite, civilized surfaces in a way that feels apocalyptic. All the shattered windows, bloodstains, and rusting metal, captured in impressively elaborate shots, given the production's meager $800,000 budget, might even put you in mind of Mad Max (another Australian production) though the only apocalypse here is that of being flat broke. (That most of the film's misery is related to unemployment, underemployment, and oppressive education-related loans makes the film feel all too contemporary.)
But if there's a Heart of Darkness vibe to the proceedings here, there's also an undercurrent of comedy about a snob, who initially decries "the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be stupid as they are," getting his comeuppance. It's one of the film's more tongue-in-cheek takeaways — if our common origins in the mud mean that we all have potential monstrosity within us, they also mean that we might not want to take ourselves so seriously.
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