Set in the endless Australian Outback, Wake in Fright (1971) is one of the most upsetting Aussie films ever made. Don’t believe me? Well, fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it.
“Wake in Fright is a deeply—and I mean deeply—unsettling and disturbing movie,” said director Martin Scorsese. “I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless.” Musician Nick Cave was troubled as well, describing Ted Kotcheff’s fourth feature as “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence.”
There’s no denying Wake in Fright packs a pretty powerful punch, and the visuals are ripped straight out of your worst nightmares. But while Wake in Fright is certainly disturbing, does that make it a horror film?
Well, Roger Ebert certainly thought so. In his 2012 review, the late great critic wrote, “[Wake in Fright] comes billed as a ‘horror film’ and contains a great deal of horror, but all of the horror is human and brutally realistic.” Robert Fure of Film School Rejects seconded Ebert’s opinion, claiming that “it’s the type of horror film that is firmly grounded in reality, which makes it all the more disturbing.”
So what exactly do Roger and Robert mean? Well, Wake in Fright isn’t your stereotypical screamfest. There aren’t any vampires, demons, or machete-wielding monsters. There aren’t any psychos lurking in showers, and (spoilers) there isn’t a single death scene. Still, Wake in Fright qualifies for the horror genre because it takes us into some truly dark places, like deep down into the psyche of an average man, an everyday guy devolving into a wild animal.
“When I made this film in 1970 I was in a very, very strange frame of mind,” explains director Ted Kotcheff. “Very despairing, full of despair about human beings and that stupid war in Vietnam where they killed 53,000 boys and the Soviet Union and America was ready to commit suicide and drop H-bombs on each other….” Evidently, Kotcheff was in a bad place when he directed Wake in Fright, and you can feel his darkness throughout the film.
In a lot of ways, Wake in Fright is similar to Deliverance (1972), and not just because both films feature aggressive locals and male rape. Similar to how Jon Voight’s character abandons all pretenses of civilization when his life is on the line, John Grant (Gary Bond) also succumbs to his primal urges…only this is a whole lot worse. At least Voight’s character thought he was in danger. Grant goes off the deep end simply because he chooses to.
Granted, the copious amount of alcohol consumed in this movie isn't helping anyone, but when the middle-school teacher embarks on a bloody kangaroo hunt, we can’t blame it all on the booze. After spending just a few hours in the testosterone-fueled town of Bundanyabba, the formerly posh city boy has chucked his principles straight out the window. He’s morphed into a monster, scarier than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees combined because he’s just a normal man who’s lost his mind. He’s gone from upstanding citizen to kangaroo killer, a Jack Torrance without all those ghosts.
So is Wake in Fright a horror movie? Most definitely. As Robert Fure explains on Film School Rejects, “the true horror comes from the descent of John who goes from perhaps somewhat annoying in his disdain for outback life to completely unrecognizable.” And when he finally escapes Bundanyabba and returns to his school, Grant tells a friend he’s had the best vacation ever. At first glance, it seems like our hero is all right. Perhaps he’s learned a valuable lesson…but we know better.
When you visit “the Yabba,” you always bring a little bit back with you.