- Monthly Theme: Ozploitation
- The Film: Wake in Fright
- Country of origin: Australia
- Alternate title: Outback (U.K. title)
- Date of Australian release: October 9, 1971
- Date of U.S. release: October 13, 1971
- Studio: Group W, et al.
- Distributer: Drafthouse Films
- Domestic Gross: $49,000
- Budget: $800,000 (estimated)
- Director: Ted Kotcheff
- Producers: Howard G. Barnes, et al.
- Screenwriter: Evan Jones
- Adaptation? Yes, taken from the 1961 novel Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook.
- Cinematographer: Brian West
- Make-Up/FX: Dennis Gentle
- Music: John Scott
- Part of a series? No.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror icon Donald Pleasence (Halloween, Alone in the Dark, etc.).
- Other notables?: Yes. British actor Gary Bond.
- Awards?: Heritage Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
- Tagline: “Sweat, dust and beer… There’s nothing else out here mate!”
- The Lowdown: This week we tackle one of the first and best Australian-set movies of all time. Wake in Fright was a controversial movie when it was released in 1971 – an infamous story from an early Australian screening has one irate audience member stand up and shout “That’s not us!” at the movie screen, to which Jack Thompson (the actor who plays Dick, who was in the audience for the screening) shouted back, “Sit down, mate. It is us.” The film did not fare well in Australia upon release, though it was embraced overseas (particularly in France and the U.K.), and soon faded into obscurity. It was considered a “lost film” until a print was rediscovered and released in 2009, leading to a DVD and Bluray printing and a rescreening at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival (it’s one of only two films to ever screen there twice). Lauded by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Roger Ebert, Nick Cave and Rex Reed, Wake in Fright underwent a serious reassessment during its re-release, and now enjoys a devoted cult following and is routinely cited as a contender for “greatest Australian film of all time” (alongside films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout). The movie concerns schoolteacher John Grant (a magnetic Gary Bond) who is serving out his government contract in the rural outpost of Tiboonda. Grant leaves on Christmas holiday with the intention of taking the train to Sydney to rendezvous with his girlfriend, but a stopover in the outback city of Bundanyabba soon turns into an endless bout of drinking and carousing that threatens to unravel Grant’s very humanity. The film also features an electric supporting performance by horror stalwart Donald Pleasance as the debauched alcoholic Doctor Tydon, as well as turns by Aussie stars Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson.
If you haven’t seen Wake in Fright our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: Okay, like with Picnic at Hanging Rock, I’d like to start with ratings… This is my new thing.
Sean: Sure. Let’s.
Kristine: My rating is This movie left me hollow and uncertain AND Masterpiece! I give equal weight to both.
Sean: Me too. I steal those.
Kristine: We are in sync… United.
Sean: So tell me about your verging-on-Wolf–Creek-levels-of-trauma reaction.
Kristine: Okay, my reaction to this movie was similar to my experience of watching Wolf Creek in several ways. 1. Wake in Fright goes there – there being my breaking point – and then just continues with no let-up. 2. It contains incredibly hard-to-watch, realistic violence. 3. It made me think I was going to vomit. 4. It delves into a mucho macho world that scares the shit out of me. Though the mucho macho-ness here is more interesting, because it explores something I have often noticed and wondered about – the thin line between dudebro “mateship” and homoeroticism. 5. And they both feature some truly indelible characters/antagonists – Mick for Wolf Creek and Doc Tydon for Wake in Fright, respectively.
Sean: Was the “breaking point” you speak of connected to the kangaroo hunt sequence?
Kristine: Yes, the kangaroo hunt. Though some scenes of drunken debauchery were hard for me to handle, too. Like when Dick and Joe are fighting and Tydon is smashing up furniture and the dog is cowering in the car, for example.
Sean: Oh god. The kangaroo hunt fucking broke me too.
Kristine: I can’t with that, Sean. I cannot.
Sean: Let’s discuss it in a bit, after we clear the air? So a few things to set some context here…You know this film was lost for decades right? And rediscovered circa 2009?
Kristine: I did read that.
Sean: I just saw the film earlier this year for the first time, when I was researching Ozploitation movies for this month. I thought it was extraordinary and, most of all, Gary Bond (the actor who plays schoolteacher John Grant) really struck me as magnificent and a movie star and incredibly fucking debonair and almost Don Draper-ish. And then I did research and realized he was a hot and sexy gay man who made time all over the globe and that, of course, we lost him to AIDS in 1995.
Kristine: Very interesting, I thought of Don Draper, also.
Sean: You did?
Kristine: I did. At the end, when it’s clear that Grant’s plan is to forget that any of it ever happened…
Sean: Oh, see, funny… I thought of Don Draper in the first 20 minutes, when John Grant is suavé-ing around the Yabba.
Kristine: Interesting. The fucking Yabba…
Sean: I think that initial hang between Crawford and John Grant is like, a riveting masterpiece of character study and class conflict. All the guzzling of the beer, the boorish conversation, the implied insults.
Kristine: Crawford is the police chief, right?
Kristine: HIS role in all this is interesting. He’s like some kind of gatekeeper or sphinx. Like he is part of Yabba and he isn’t… He is delivering souls to the devils there. Or something.
Sean: And who John Grant is is very masterfully revealed in how he interacts with first Charlie, the bartender in Tiboonda, and then Crawford that first night in Bundanyabba.
Kristine: I really, really liked how the movie did not spent time “building” Grant’s character at the beginning with all this back story. Like you say, his character is revealed through his interactions with the people he meets on his journey (which is totally mythological, don’t you think?). And I like how he is not a stalwart of morality brought down by evil, he is just a man reacting to his environment.
Sean: Yes yes yes to all that. Totally mythological, total ordinary human ugliness. Were you struck by Gary Bond as angel of the cinema? Because I thought he made Grant totally human throughout, even when the character was a snob, a jerk, a louse, and a fool.
Kristine: I thought he was very charismatic, yes.
Sean: And, I might add, almost preternaturally sexy and attractive. I can’t believe he wasn’t a gigantic movie star.
Kristine: I have questions for you. John Grant is a schoolteacher, and so are you. Remember the beginning, when he is in that wretched one-room schoolhouse with those Children of the Corn (or, in this case, Children of the Bush)? Has teaching ever felt that way to you? Because I thought of you during that opening scene and laughed and laughed.
Sean: Well, first off, I teach college freshman how to write essays, which is a lot different than what John Grant is doing. And I’m in a relatively hip little desert city with a diverse population, not some tiny little outpost in the middle of nothing. It’s only a 90-minute drive to Arizona’s largest city from here. But I was struck by how John Grant is making the kids sit and wait until the “authorized” time…. And how there are traces of inanity even in that (which becomes fullblown insanity once he gets to the Yabba). The idea that civilization is just a set of habits and codes put in place, and that they’re so fucking arbitrary and could so easily be washed away by a river of booze or sex or cocaine, strikes me as completely true and, at least in Wake in Fright, gripping. Also, there’s Tydon’s speech towards the end: “Affectability, progress – a vanity spawned by fear. The aim of what you call civilization: a man in a smoking jacket, whiskey and soda, pressing a bottom… a button to destroy a planet a million miles away, kill a billion people he’s never seen.” Note his Freudian slip that replaces “button” with “bottom” there (just one in a long series of references to men fucking each other in the ass). But that speech zeroes in on the class issues at the heart of the movie that also gripped me.
Kristine: Speaking of class, Grant reminded me of a lot of “good” liberals I know who went into the Peace Corps or Americorp or something with high hopes and good intentions and then were like, “Umm, these people are trolls, this place is a hell pit, I am out!” And I mean “good liberals.” I am not calling their goodness into question. I would be out of there (there being rural Kazakhstan or Namibia or some shit) like nobody’s business.
Sean: Right. But I actually don’t know if that analogy totally works for me. I feel like this movie decided very forcefully that it is not about race. It is about the class politics of urban vs. rural within one society. It’s not about two different cultures coming into conflict with each other, it’s about two different stratas of the same society coming into conflict with each other, and that’s a fine but important distinction to me.
Kristine: I don’t know if I agree. But continue…
Sean: Well, for example, when Grant gets on the train from Tiboonda at the very beginning of the movie (and he, pointedly, will not share a beer with the band of white revelers who offer him one) the camera pans over to an Aboriginal man isolated on the train, alone and quietly looking out the window by himself. To me, that is a very purposeful moment. It is Kotcheff, the director, acknowledging that even though the issues and realities of race exist and they are often a specter looming over everything, that Wake in Fright is not going to go “there.” That lonely man is Kotcheff acknowledging racism and race, but stopping there. Wake in Fright really sidesteps the issue of ethnicity/race and true culture clash, I think, which your Peace Corps scenario rests heavily on.
Kristine: But why does Grant hate Tiboonda so much? Because the people there are redneck trolls.
Sean: I feel like Grant’s anger is directed at bureaucracy and that $1,000 bond chaining him to Tiboonda, more than something racialized (which, again, the Peace Corps scenario pivots on). But I totally agree with you that Grant begins the film believing in his own moral and cultural superiority to the, as you say, “rednecks” (would the Aussie term be “yobbos” or “bogans”? I’m not sure what the appropriate slang would be) who live in both Tiboonda and the Yabba. That’s why I think this is about class conflict and not culture clash, if that makes sense. I was actually really relieved the movie avoided any Aboriginal/”savagery” tropes to explore that conflict.
Kristine: Agreed. That’s fine. The point of my analogy wasn’t the race thing, it was people choosing to go to “another world” and thinking they can handle it, nay, provide a valuable service and be loved for it, and realizing they in no way can handle it. A comeuppance of sorts.
Sean: Right. But that “world-crossing” is about going from urban to rural, right? I mean, really specifically for Wake in Fright. The “idea” of Sydney hangs over the whole movie. Though Grant does tell Janette he wants to “go to England.” Just like the “idea” of the city or the suburbs hangs over most “hillbilly horror” movies. Remember how the specter of California lingered over things in The Hills Have Eyes? Especially with regards to Brenda and Bobby?
Kristine: I agree that Wake in Fright is hillbilly horror, but it’s more complicated than that also, because what is the source of evil here? I mean, all the Yabba men scare the fuck out of me, but they are victims of the Yabba as much as Grant is. Who can we shake our fists at?
Sean: Well that is the question – what is the horror here? I have my theories. What are yours?
Kristine: I mean, yes, Wake in Fright is about the conflict between rural and urban, but here is the thing – Tiboona is more rural than the Yabba, right? I mean, Bundanyabba has the train to Sydney, and is much much bigger and an actual city. So the Yabba is like some purgatorial place, where some people can move seamlessly on to their destination (Sydney, or wherever) and some, for whatever reason (something inside them? just chance or fate, as that retarded gambling game might suggest?) get stuck there infinitely, like Tydon or, for a time, like Grant. So I think there is more to the Yabba then just being rural. It’s some kind of mythological city of the damned, or some kind of devil at the crossroads.
Sean: Good point. Yes, I concur. The scene at the end when Grant pawns his rifle to get to Sydney and finds himself back in the Yabba because the driver misheard him and thought he said he wanted “the city” (not “Sydney”) which to the driver is the Yabba. That was a beautifully purgatorial twist.
Sean: Shades of The Others there.
Kristine: Truth. And he even gets his rifle back. He is right back where he was.
Sean: Yeah, it’s fucking horrible.
Kristine: But also darkly hilarious.
Sean: But I just want to add that the Yabba is “rural” in contrast to John Grant, the man. He believes himself to be urbane, to belong in Sydney not the Yabba, to belong in the cities of the U.K. not in Australia. It’s all about perspective, and so it is Grant’s perspective that is the “urban” thing that comes into conflict with the Yabba. There are lots of similarities to The Wicker Man in that dichotomy…
Sean: Let me ask you this: Does Wake in Fright qualify as a horror movie?
Sean: I think so, too, and (just like with Picnic at Hanging Rock) the score tells us so. I really loved the music. But back to the question, the horror in this movie is, to me, the horror of any community – but especially ones that are male-dominated or male-centered – in which massive amounts of alcohol create or form the social bonds. So, Wake in Fright is a “critique” of drinking culture, as has been commented on by many others before us. But that’s tied into the rape/violence culture of the Yabba’s men, right? I was wondering if the movie’s depictions of drunkenness and revelry rang true to you, and if this movie could have been re-titled Scenes from the Golden Nugget. [Editor’s Note: The Golden Nugget is a midtown dive bar in Tucson, Arizona that Kristine frequented in her 20s.]
Kristine: I actually made a note that after-hours with Tydon and the boys was totally every after-hours party in Tucson, ever, and also yes to the Nugget. The Nugget is an especially apt comparison because it is a working class bar that at times during my, uh, regular patronizing, got trendy with college kids who would be tolerated until they got snotty, and then would receive their comeuppance from one of the old crusties. But yes, people with hard lives drinking themselves into oblivion, for sure. And I agree with your above framing of the drinking culture in the Yabba, though I would go bigger and say that the horror the movie is exploring is that of any community where the day-to-day reality is so fucking shitty that an “opiate for the masses” is absolutely necessary for the mechanics of said community to continue working… Any community like that is going to be a fucking nightmare. So that opiate could be (and often is) alcohol or drugs, but could also be religion or institutionalized violence or what-have-you.
Sean: Right, right. But this is where gender gets bound up in everything because the social spaces in the Yabba are run by men almost exclusively. And so this movie is, thereby, about the homosocial public space – how to navigate it, what it’s like, what its limits are, and so on…
Kristine: How absurd was it that after that first night of drunken debauchery John Grant still was such a prig he couldn’t even utter the word “toilet” to Tydon? Stuff like that is what makes this movie so great.
Sean: So yeah, the movie is about how men bond, right?
Sean: And the simmering violence and eroticism just under the surface of their interactions?
Sean: I feel like the movie is suggesting that the drinking culture of the Yabba robs the men of their potency and their heterosexuality. Which is an awfully weird (and sort of homophobic) critique.
Kristine: I agree. Especially evidenced by the only two ladies we meet – Janette and that bizarre front desk gal – both of whom are clearly not fulfilled sexually.
Sean: Like that moment when Dick and Joe marvel at Grant paying attention to Janette… They’re like ““What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?” And Tim Hynes says, “Schoolteacher” and they’re like, “Ooooooh.”
Kristine: Yes, that quote says it all.
Sean: The joke is that being a schoolteacher makes you less manly – but they’re the ones who ignore women for booze and bro-time. That contradiction underscores life in the Yabba, no?
Kristine: Exactly. Also remember that Grant’s coitus gets interruptus because he gets the alcohol-induced barfs – a literal illustration of booze winning out over sex with a woman.
Sean: Yes – and heterosexuality being “nauseating.”
Sean: But you’re right that the culprit is the booze. In fact, the lack of sexual release in that Grant/Janette encounter seems tied into the escalation of violence later, and the homosexual acts that happen between Tydon and Grant.
Kristine: Address the front desk gal and her erotic relationship with her personal electronic device – a fan.
Sean: Oh, that fan is her vibrator, straight up.
Kristine: Yes. She was cray.
Sean: And her dipping her dainty little fingies into the water? And her chin-acne?
Kristine: I loved her. She was like the Joan Crawford of the Yabba. Or something. She was the Something of the Yabba. “Fingies” is beyond gross, by the way.
Sean: She was more like Joan Harris crossed with April Ludgate.
Kristine: Crossed with Mary Katherine Gallagher, Superstar. Right?
Sean: What about Janette?
Kristine: I kind of loved Janette.
Sean: Remember when Tydon says, “If Janette were a man, she’d be in jail for rape.”
Kristine: I loved her looks of expected disappointment coming to fruition yet again. When one of the dudebros was physically menacing her in the kitchen and she was just like, “Whatever…” It was so heartbreaking but also weirdly strong.
Sean: Yeah. The men totally dehumanize her. But then Tydon thinks he’s her soul sister or whatever.
Kristine: I feel like she sexually acts out in a sort of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” way. Like, if she wasn’t sexually voracious, she would be getting raped, so…
Sean: The uncomfortably long time it takes her to get her dress open during her aborted tryst with Grant, and how she’s head-turned-away-eyes-closed the whole time, reminded me jarringly of a million terrible sexual experiences from my own past.
Kristine: Oh, Sean.
Sean: Well, right?
Kristine: “A million”?!?!?!?
Kristine: Was your coitus ever interruptus by a vom stream?
Sean: Only metaphorically.
Kristine: Literally for me. That’s what happens when you exclusively date alcoholic miscreants for a solid decade plus.
Sean: I would expect the same from anyone with your history of drunken debauchery.
Sean: What did you make of the Tydon/Janette connection? Tydon delivers these passionate monologues about Janette, remember? He says, “What’s wrong with a woman taking a man because she feels like it? Sex is just like eating. It’s a thing you do because you have to, not because you want to. Most people are afraid of it” and “They think Janette’s a slut. The women would like to act like her and the men she hasn’t given a tumble to. Janette and I are alike. We break the rules, but we know more about ourselves than most people” and “If I were ever to marry, Janette’s the type of girl I would marry – She likes sex, she likes experimenting, she likes variety.”
Kristine: It doesn’t quite jibe for me. I think Tydon wants to believe that is the case with Janette, but it isn’t quite. I don’t think Janette is liberated as much as she is stuck in this hellish situation and trying to do what she can to escape. In the case of the men, they do this through booze, she is doing it through sex. I think as much as Tydon thinks he is embracing the Yabba, he is trying to bring “cultured” ideas to the table, and they don’t really jibe with the actual reality. Does that make sense?
Sean: I got the feeling that when Janette says “She’s a slag, this little mutt, she’ll try anything” about the pregnant dog, we’re meant to think she’s also talking about herself.
Kristine: Oh, yes, for. She is searching for escapism, not an orgasm. Says me. Can we talk about what separates homos from dudebros?
Sean: Yes. What do you think about all that?
Kristine: I think… I think… It’s bizarre and I don’t know what to think. Why are the most macho heterosexual traditions gender-segregated?
Sean: Wait, what do you mean?
Kristine: I mean that I would think male heterosexuality would be defined by being around women – but instead it seems to be defined by having sex with women, but spending time with men – hunting, football, male-dominated professions – those things are emblems of male heterosexuality, which seems all backwards.
Sean: Well, here is where I confess to being mad at the movie a little. Wake in Fright is bizarre for me just because for 1 hour and 40 minutes of its running time I love it and think it’s a masterpiece, but then there’s this other 10-to-12 minutes that I hate and don’t think work at all (I’m talking about Grant’s running to Tydon’s house with a gun and then attempting suicide). The movie’s homophobia is pretty intense, and it is tempting for me to cut it some slack and think about it only historically and in context. But it’s hard for me to do that when this particular trope – that gay sex is literally demonic and the absolute lowest, most depraved and disgusting thing that can happen to a male protagonist – weren’t alive and well in the 21st century. Two big arthouse hits of the last fifteen years – Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible in 2002 and Steve McQueen’s Shame in 2011 – milk that trope for all its worth, using gay sex as a kind of shocksploitation spookhouse haunt, the dimestore skeleton that pops out of the coffin at the end of the haunted house to really scare the fuck out of you. Gay sex has been used like that forever in movies. I mean, Robert Downey Jr. getting caught on his knees sucking cock by Andrew McCarthy in the film version of Less Than Zero sent a very loud and very clear message to little 12-year-old me that faggotry was wrong and disgusting and horrible and only people who are depraved and desperate would ever do those things. And looking back on that, I find it appalling. I hate that fucking movie for that. And I hate it even more knowing how Reagan-era 1980s that staging was, and how the filmmaker completely fumbled the pansexual nihilistic sexuality of the Easton Ellis novel, opting instead for a conservative, anti-gay, after-school-special scare tactic. And so Wake in Fright really isn’t much different from that. That’s hard for me to think through or puzzle out. Because I love the movie, but those fifteen minutes sicken me in all the wrong ways, and that suicide attempt, in my eyes, is nothing more than a movie trying to terrify the queer right out of anyone whose watching, and that fucking pisses me off. But at least Wake in Fright is, I would argue, trying to make some larger points about homosocial masculinity and so I can see how and where this nightmare vision of gay sex fits into that.
Kristine: I absolutely agree with you on all of this. Wake in Fright is about warped male sexuality – when all the hallmarks of dudebro-ness (drinking, violence, macho swagger) go too far. And the movie does suggest that gay sex is the ultimate act in the downward slide toward depravity. Why doesn’t John Grant want to fucking kill himself after that ghastly kangaroo hunt? Why is it realizing he did the nasty with Tydon that makes him not only suicidal but homicidal? It’s a problem. So this movie gives us a valuable critique on hetero-male culture, but it also serves up a gross and upsetting idea that homosexuality is only a by-product of said warped and twisted hetero-culture. And that sucks.
Sean: Right. Does it change anything that Gary Bond was a fabulous gay cock-o’-the-walk (the Stuart Jones/Brian Kinney of his day) in real life?
Kristine: I think it is fascinating, but no… I thought it was a wee bit heavy-handed (but I still liked it) when Grant chucked his philosophy books, realizing they were artificial symbols of civility. Especially because I think the movie makes deep nods towards existentialism, right? Especially Sartre? No Exit? I see Janette, Tydon and Grant as players in a No Exit-type scenario.
Sean: Yes, right. Life is random and often a misery, you are at the mercy of your surroundings, there is no order or meaning to the universe. As Tydon says upon meeting Grant: “All the little devils are proud of Hell.”
Kristine: Right. It is horrifyingly relatable when Grant is (ineptly) killing the little kangaroo to fit in and please the dudebros… Ugh I am so depressed.
Sean: What are we to make that Grant refused to share a beer with the on-train revelers on his way to the Yabba, but at the end he accepts a beer from the man on the train back to Tiboonda?
Kristine: I wondered about that, too. Does he think he is in the clear? Or has he accepted something about himself? I don’t rightly know. What do you think?
Sean: I felt like the idea was, he’s learned the rules of survival here.
Sean: He’s lost some of his snobbery and pretension.
Kristine: Agreed. He’s no better.
Sean: Remember he tells Tydon about his revulsion of the Yabba, “I’m just bored with it. The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.” He’s not that person anymore at the end. Charlie, his landlord/bartender in Tiboonda, is the most depressing character in the whole movie for me. Him being so delighted at Grant’s dispirited return…. He is like, “Now you’re one of us you pompous faggoty fuck!” I wanted to cry. I was rooting for Grant to keep some of his snobbery.
Kristine: I agree that Charlie is awful and totally depressing. Hey, one more thing that can serve as a segue between the homosocial stuff and the terrifying kangaroo hunt… How is it that the film can show every fucking excruciating second of that kangaroo hunt and zero man-on-man sex? And also, this is the second film we have seen when a kangaroo hunt was restaged as a sexual something between two men – here when Tydon shines the light in Grant’s eyes to blind him like they do during the hunt, and pins his arms behind his back the way they do to the kangaroos – and in Razorback, remember?
Sean: Well, can I just say that I felt blessed we didn’t have to see any Tydon-fucking? I wanted Grant to get to have sex with one of those two big lugs. He might have actually enjoyed it.
Kristine: We had to see him pour beer on Janette’s titties, and it was upsetting.
Sean: Oh I assumed that in those sequences, the women were stand-ins for Grant himself. Those were all the things that Grant and Doc did, no?
Kristine: Sure, but the visual was still there.
Sean: Yeah it made me sad. Also, Janette the actress is the director’s wife, irl.
Kristine: Oy vey.
Sean: So… I think it’s time to discuss the kangaroo hunt.
Kristine: Please no.
Sean: We have to discuss it. It is the setpiece of the movie. Did you read the disclaimer at the end?
Kristine: Yes. I will say this. I think that it should be required viewing for everyone who applies for a hunting license, and it is actually a good use for that kind of archival film. That said, it made me incredibly unhappy and shaken. Like, sad to the core.
Sean: Did you weep? Was it as traumatic as Mick torturing the girls in Wolf Creek?
Kristine: Yes and yes. And also, though I want to believe, I am not sure I believe the disclaimer. That it was all existing footage.
Sean: No that’s not what the disclaimer said. You misread it.
Sean: The film crew actually went on a kangaroo hunt with trained hunters and all of that was real and was filmed for the movie and apparently, there were kangaroos covered in blood wounded with their intestines trailing and the hunters were all laughing and the film crew was like, vomiting and one of the producers fainted.
Kristine: Oh fuck. 10,000 times worse. I hate the world.
Sean: And they staged a power outage to get the hunters to stop.
Sean: But still. I was crying and upset when they were stalking and shooting them, but when they get out of the car to like, physically assault the terrified and wounded kangaroos, I was screaming and sobbing at the television.
Kristine: Me, too. So, so horrible.
Sean: I was hugging Ronin to my chest and weeping like a mongoloid. [Editor’s Note: Ronin is Sean’s German Shorthaired Pointer.]
Kristine: The hand-to-hand combat with the blinded kangaroos fighting for their lives… I was so hoping for kangaroo victory.
Sean: Here’s the thing – the pleasure the men take from inflicting all that suffering and death. I don’t understand THAT. I can understand hunting even and I can understand the excitement of tracking an animal and shooting it for food and sport, in the abstract (though I’ve never done it and am not sure I could). But causing all that rampant mayhem and pain and death and then like, laughing and cheering about it? Grinning like a kid on Christmas morning because you got to physically assault, terrify and then brutally stab an animal to death?
Kristine: You are asking the wrong gal. I do not grok it. But I can understand getting shitfaced after witnessing something like that. And staying shitfaced. Like, for the rest of my life.
Sean: Would you ever hunt?
Kristine: No. I would go target or skeet shooting, but I will never hunt.
Sean: Like, would you even shoot a duck?
Sean: Would you fish?
Kristine: No. I would perhaps accompany someone fishing, but I myself would not fish.
Sean: Would you go on a duck hunt, but just chat and pet the dogs and sip whiskey from a canteen?
Kristine: Perhaps. Depends. I need more information about this duck hunt.
Sean: Does your boyfriend hunt?
Kristine: He has in the past, but it’s been many years. He does not enjoy it. He feels badly he doesn’t fish with his dad, because that was one of his main things he did with his dad growing up, and his dad still goes regularly.
Sean: Because honestly, as someone who eats meat, I don’t think it’s fair for me to get all riled up about hunters…. Even though sometimes I want to.
Kristine: Let’s be clear – the kangaroo hunt in this movie and the meat industry have squat in common. Not that I am defending the meat industry. But I don’t think we even need to make a cursory association.
Sean: Morrissey would spit blood in our faces and scream “Nooooo!” at us. He would claim the meat industry is worse.
Kristine: Don’t you think people should see this footage though?
Sean: Yes. This movie should be required viewing for all people in the world. That’s my feeling. But that’s what Morrissey does at his concerts. He like, takes a break from performing to show viciously horrible slaughterhouse footage.
Kristine: Oh Christ.
Sean: I mean, this is why my boyfriend wants us to start raising rabbits and quail for food – just so we can have total control over both the quality-of-life and the general quality of the animals we eat. But this whole issue is like, too much to get into. Though I do think there’s something classist about the movie’s attitude towards the lifestyle of rural living, which includes hunting, which is up for critique in this movie.
Kristine: I agree 100%.
Sean: So, can I point out a couple of thematic ties that I discovered on my re-watch?
Kristine: Please do.
Sean: I think the hunting scene is thematically tied to the middle-aged man singing “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” in front of the live band in the Yabba bar that first night. I think there’s supposed to be an irony there. Also, my favorite line in the movie is when Tydon says to Grant: “It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?” and then when Grant wakes up at Tydon’s drunk and be-nakeded the first time, there’s opera playing. Also “I was just checking your oil!” made me laugh.
Kristine: Right. I liked that, too. I didn’t catch the Rudolph thing, but holy disconnect between society and reality.
Sean: Right? “Not a Mason, not a Buff – ah. You’d be a Roman Catholic, then.” also made me crack up. In fact, Tim Hynes made me crack up in general and was a highlight of the movie for me.
Sean: I guess the only other thing I want to think about is Grant’s explosive rant at the end, where he says, “What’s the matter with you people? Sponge on you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child – that’s all right. But not have a drink with you? Don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you? That’s a criminal offence. That’s the end of the bloody world!” That rant is the key to the movie, right? That speech?
Kristine: Indeed. I think so. And like you said, by the end, Grant “gets” it and accepts the beer on the train back to Tiboonda.
Sean: So what is that about? Male camaraderie? Because when Tim Hynes is trying to buy Grant a drink, he is like screaming at him and it is an act of aggression cloaked as an act of camaraderie.
Kristine: It is about the fact that dudebros rule the world? That we’re all the same scumbags at the core so we might as well drink together? I don’t know. It’s upsetting, whatever it is.
Sean: Does this movie make you rethink bar culture? Because “the Yabba” could easily be Che’s Lounge or The Buffet. Or IBT’s for that matter. Is bar culture a sham? [Editor’s Note: These are all the names of local bars in Tucson – respectively a hipster/college bar, a dive bar and a gay bar.]
Kristine: It makes me rethink living.
Sean: No. I feel terrible.
Kristine: You realize you totally sound like a Prohibition-era anti-drinking zealot, right? You are Carrie Nation wildly swinging a hatchet around and menacing innocent people trying to enjoy a cocktail.
Sean: When the main social space is dedicated to obliteration, then we have all fallen.
Kristine: I am terrified of you right now.
Sean: I mean, don’t you think the movie makes a pretty compelling case against drinking culture and bar life in general? The Yabba is bro/frat culture, is redneck culture, is urban party culture, is so many things…
Kristine: I think we need to remember the oppressive, hellish circumstances that are driving people to drink in the Yabba. “Worse than dying in the mines” is pretty fucking bad.
Sean: Good point.
Kristine: What will you do if you meet a kangaroo hunter in real life?
Sean: Ask him if he slaughters animals willy-nilly. And why he is a monster. And then, if he’s hot, try to fuck him.
Kristine: And then rip his nuts off and feed them to a kangaroo after you fuck him, like a lady praying mantis.
Sean: Those images of the terrified, mortally wounded kangaroos will be burned into my brain until I die.
Kristine: I know. Thanks for that, Sean.
Sean: Terrified, cornered, alone, no hope. I want to die.
Kristine: Me, too.
Sean: Shall we die together?
Kristine: Might as well.
The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND This movie left me hollow and uncertain.
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND This movie left me hollow and uncertain.
12 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971)”
Another great write-up on my favourite horror blog. This movie is amazing. When a restored print played at a film festival a few years ago and I tried to get someone – anyone – to come with me, the response I got was “It just doesn’t seem interesting.” Then when it came out on dvd the same people were watching it and saying, “It is a masterpiece!” Go figure. But sitting alone among strangers watching this movie on an enormous screen with only the vaguest idea of what I was in for was pretty damned intense.
Do you think there’s any connection between this and Ted Kotcheff’s later film of First Blood? I think that movie is a different kind of critique of masculine knuckle-dragging. It’s not as startling as Wake In Fright, it pales in comparison to its source novel, and it’s been massively tarnished by the gung-ho sequels, but I suspect Kotcheff was drawn to both movies for similar reasons. (Not that I would make a case for him as an auteur or anything; it’s not like he carries over similar themes to Weekend At Bernie’s.)
Pearce – I just watched First Blood (which I’d never seen), inspired by your comment here. Totally dug it – I thought all the movies in the Rambo series were gung-ho shoot-’em-ups. I had no idea the first one is like, a critique of bigotry and abuse of power. Also looked up Kotcheff’s imdb page – he made North Dallas Forty? And Duddy Kravitz? It seems like there IS a theme, at least in the first half of his filmography, concerning masculinity and power. I seriously cannot believe he made Weekend at Bernie’s. WTF.
Ok, so I don’t know if anybody is going to read this… I realize this blog entry is almost a year old, but I just watched Wake in Fright a couple days ago and was mesmerized by it and wanted to find out more about it and more about what it’s about. Upon googling it, I ran into this blog which, although it took me a long time to read (kept getting interrupted by my kids or something else), I thoroughly enjoyed. Especially like the back & forth discussion format.
Being a heterosexual male who lives in a rural area and enjoys hunting, I think I can bring a different perspective to the table. I didn’t really get the homo eroticism of it until Dick and Joe showed up at Tim’s house and even then I only got it from the line which you guys quoted about the schoolteacher wanting to be with the woman instead of the men. And it’s definitely there when they’re all wrestling around. But, being a guy, I can see the joys of male camaraderie and getting soused together without any sort of homo eroticism. So, at first, the homosexuality, is not really obvious to me until after seeing the whole film I look back on it. I’m not completely ignorant to it, I just didn’t see it right away.
I don’t think that this movie had much to do with class struggle, as I see class struggle as lower, working class against the rich folk and John Grant is obviously not rich. He is bonded, and I believe at one point he even says that he grew up poor or something to that effect. I can sort of see rural vs urban because he is from the big city and now lives and teaches in Nowheresville and is obviously bored and angry by it. He wants to get out of his bond and back to the city (and his girl). Then again, the place he teaches is even more rural than the Yabba. So, I’m not sure how big a role that is either.
What I really need to do is read the book. I HAVE to get a hold of a copy somehow. Am checking the local library system once I’m finished with this.
As far as the hunting scene… well, I hunt deer and duck and have hunted other animals in the past, and I can assure you that the kangaroo hunt is NOTHING like any hunt I have ever been on. I was disgusted and disturbed by it too. Even if they would have left it after the first scene when they let the dog after one and hit another with the car, I still would have been disturbed. I was angry that they just took the balls and left the rest to rot. As a hunter, I have the utmost respect for my game. Hunting is a thrill on many levels, but I would never hunt just for “sport”. I do not need to hunt to feed my family, I could certainly live without it, but I always eat what I kill. As most hunters, I support the conservation of wildlife and the environment. I love being outdoors, watching birds, the whole nine… I do get the symbolic link between the kangaroo hunt and the seduction scene with Tydon and Grant. The whole spot light thing…
One thing I’m not sure I agree with you on is the character of Janette. What Tydon says about her, I’m not sure we have any reason to trust it. I don’t believe Tydon ever did have sex with her. Maybe she’s not a slut at all, but sees in Grant someone different. A handsome, well educated fella who is interested in her and what she has to say. He’s just different from the rest of the guys (from what she sees anyway) that she throws herself at him… it’s her own way of escaping. Although I think most of the males in this movie have engaged in homo erotic activities, latent or otherwise, sexual or not, I take Tydon as straight up gay. Like, I don’t think he would have sex with women. Maybe I’m way off… Like I could see Joe and Dick having sex with each other and having sex with lots of women too. I think when Grant sees Tydon having sex with Janette in his mind, it serves multiple purposes. She works as a stand-in for Grant himself because he wants to block it out of his mind and because filmmakers and audiences were not yet ready for explicit scenes of homosexuality. Besides that, Grant uses those images to try to fuel his anger at Tydon via jealousy, as well as to reassure himself of his own sexuality.
When he fails to kill himself, does he also knock some sense of self into his head? Once he’s out of the hospital, he is friendly with Tydon. When he arrives back home, he tells Charlie that he had a good holiday, “the best.” Does this mean that he’s discovered his own sexuality? Does it mean that he has just accepted what happened? Or is this meant to be completely sarcastic?
Also, I don’t think you can discuss this movie without mentioning what I think is a true horror movie and has similar themes, Deliverance. Both of these films have themes of naturalism similar to stuff you would read by John Steinbeck or Jack London. The characters have no say or choice in their life, things just happen to them. Like how Grant ends up back in the Yabba after trying to escape. The characters can’t escape the nature of themselves or the world around them. There is an element of man as beast. Some of the best horror movies, deal with the horror of humans (or the human mind) as monsters. Even in a movie like The Mist where there are supernatural monsters, the real horror is the humans themselves.
Anyway thanks for your insights, I enjoyed reading them.
This is great.
It’s been a while since I’ve looked back over our discussion, but let me try to chime in on some of your thoughts…
As far the question of ‘class conflict,’ maybe that’s not quite the right phrase? And you may be right that Grant himself may come from a poorer background. However, I think a lot of Grant’s ennui comes out of feeling superior to his circumstances, and especially feeling like he’s educated and urbane enough to make it amongst a ‘better class of people’ than those in either the Yabba OR his post in the Outback. He longs for the city and to get away from the rural, to be with his girlfriend (and I think, in this movie, a girlfriend – especially an urban one – is a marker of civility, a civilizing force that helps set limits on man’s violent nature). His distaste for the men he meets in the Yabba (and the bartender at his teaching post) seems to come from his feeling that he’s better than them, that he knows more, that he’s superior by way of education, literacy, knowing how to dress, knowing how to talk well… That’s the stuff of (for lack of a better phrase) class conflict, for me. One doesn’t have to have money to believe oneself a ‘better class of person’ than your peers. John Grant has cultural capital (education, style, elegance, articulation) that he feels makes him too good for the rural life. His existential trap is that he doesn’t have the economic power to bypass the system that’s bonded him to the Outback.
As to the homoeroticism… That’s tricky to talk/think about, at least for me. Especially because the line between the homosocial (how men behave, bond, act when in an all-male space) and the homoerotic (when that behavior, bonding, action takes on a distinctly queer erotic charge) is often blurry and difficult to pinpoint. My belief is that horror movies often negotiate that line/border with prurient intent. That is, since the specter of queerness is one of the things horror fiction/cinema was constructed to invoke and then repudiate, that means the specter is usually haunting the proceedings. What makes the line between the homosocial and the homoerotic blurriest is the level of misogyny or hatred of women present. To my mind, things begin to veer towards the homoerotic when a deep hatred/distrust/or disgust with women is an intrinsic part of the male bonding process. I would separate this kind of homoeroticism from “authentic” gay/queer maleness, because I reject the idea that there’s an intrinsic misogyny at the heart of male homosexuality/queerness. But I think when men who are constructed or identified as “straight” base their “straightness” on routinely indulging in a disgust/distrust of women, there’s something queer about that. Female bodies get Other-ed, female bodies become receptacles; male bodies get celebrated, male bodies become ideals of form and beauty. I see that happening in Wake in Fright. Also, this might not be fair, but Gary Bond’s real-life queerness informs the movie for me.
Your thoughts about hunting, etc…. I assume that all ‘right-thinking’ hunters would share those values/attitudes. I think the behavior in Wake in Fright is supposed to be beyond the pale/perverse/disgusting. But I also think it says something profound about the depths of male sadism, and what happens when all-male bonding is based on a celebration of violence and ‘toughness’ and lack of empathy or emotional depth. If being sensitive means you’re a “pussy” or a “faggot,” then wild escalations of violence become permissible – in fact, they may seem like the only option. I think the more indelible the line between masculine and feminine is drawn, the more sociocultural pressure gets put on people to behave in certain ways. The hunters in Wake in Fright, I would argue, are offered up as grotesque examples of ultra-masculinity – no remorse, no empathy, pure toughness, pure drunkenness, scornful and revolted by anything ‘feminine’ (with the kangaroos being symbolic of the feminine here).
I’m totally convinced by your ideas about Janette, and how she fits into the psychosexual dynamics of the men in the Yabba. And YES to Deliverance being a perfect movie to pair with Wake in Fright…. I’ve still got to show Kristine that one.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights.
Thanks for your response. I do see what you’re saying about Mr. Grant’s sense that he is better than the rest of the characters and there definitely is some ‘civilized’ vs ‘primitive’ thing going on here. I would also say that, if you took out the kangaroo hunting scene, the film itself doesn’t seem to judge any of the Yabba residents. And I agree with you about the homosocial vs the homoerotic. I sometimes think that literary and film critics are fishing and/or trying to sound smart when they find homoeroticism in works where it really isn’t there. It is often hard to pinpoint if it is there or isn’t and the great thing about art is that it’s completely up to the audience to interpret their own way.
There definitely is a lot more that could be said about this film, I am just excited to talk about it since it’s doubtful that anyone I know personally has even heard of it, let alone seen it.
And make sure you fit Deliverance in at some point, it’s one of my favorites and in my opinion the best film of 1972 (the year The Godfather was released!!)
But anyway, you got a new subscriber!
I was able to get a copy of Kenneth Cook’s book. It was a fast read and even with my busy schedule, I was able to finish it in a couple evenings. As I was reading it I kept thinking how remarkably true the movie was to the book until I got towards the end.
The major difference between the movie and the book is that in the book he does not go back to Tydon’s hut intending to kill the Doc. He attempts his suicide in a park. In the book, he leaves the hut after the night of debauchery and never sees Tydon again. There is no fantasy/hallucination of Tydon ravaging Janette, spitting beer into her mouth, etc.
As far as my thoughts about Doc lying: in the book, it says (as Tydon is talking about Janette being a slut and how he had been with her), “That did not ring true to Grant. Tydon seemed to him a nasty little psychopath who had neither been a doctor nor gone to bed with Janette…”
There is no explicit/definite mention of sex between Tydon and Grant, although it can be inferred by the reader. The description of the act is actually less than in the movie. Here is the entire sex scene:
“Then, Oh God! The light was bright and this could not be, again. It was all to do with being drunk because this could not, did not, happen to John Grant, schoolteacher and something. Tydon was a foul thing. But so was John Grant. Oh God, that light! But it was going out. And it went out. But what had happened before was terrible. It should not have happened. It could not have happened. It had happened twice.
And then nothing for a long time.”
Notice the word ‘again’ in the second sentence. Had he engaged in this kind of act before? Is that what was meant by ‘It had happened twice’ or did he and Tydon have sex twice? Is that why he was a ‘foul thing’? During the Janette seduction scene, it is mentioned that Grant had never been with a woman before (although he fantasizes about being with Robyn). Another interesting thing: “John Grant, schoolteacher and something”. A couple of pages earlier, he had referred to himself in thought as “John Grant, schoolteacher and lover.” Ha! From here on out, this scene is referred to with the thought/mention of bright light. At one point (which I didn’t mark down and can’t find the quote), Grant questions whether it even happened or he dreamed/imagined it. But this might just be denial.
Here is one more thing, a more explicit scene that could serve as Cook’s literary device in describing the gay sex. It happens in the hospital after the suicide attempt:
“The nurse pushed him so that he rolled over and his buttocks were exposed–he seemed to be wearing something like a white nightgown which stretched only to his waist, no, it had been rolled up. The nurse plunged the needle of the syringe into his buttock and pushed the plunger. Grant saw about a quarter of a pint of clear fluid expressed from the syringe into his flesh.”
In many Australian secondary schools in the 1970s and 1980s, Wake In Fright was on the required reading list. We were also taken to a cinema in Melbourne to see the film. (We were around 17 years old). I don’t recall any of my mates feeling particularly disturbed by it, or even recognising the homo-erotic elements but perhaps we were putting on a macho face or we just didn’t get it.
I see the underlying conflict explored in the film as being between yobbos/bogans and civilised society. Thus, its closer to Lord of the Flies or Deliverance. The homophobia in Australia has always been so visceral and pervasive, particularly in the yobbo segment of society, which you will find particularly in the urban working class and in rural areas, that I think some of the homo-erotic inferences you have made are overdrawn. However, the concept of (strictly heterosexual) ‘mateship’ is equally potent and pervasive at all levels of Australian society. (A recent Prime Minister here wanted to put the term into our constitution) Therein lies the ambiguity.
p.s. A commonly used term of exasperation here ( hetero included) is ” it hurts like buggery’. Figure that one out!
Thanks so much for weighing in – its amazing and great to hear dispatches from within the cultural context of the movie (or at least, from its country of origin).
Points taken. I think perhaps I should get a t-shirt with the words “Some of the homo-erotic inferences I have made are overdrawn” printed on it, because it is literally a chronic condition. But I continue to believe that all-male spaces that are predicated on the dehumanization/dis-inclusion of women are powered by the (unspoken, often unrealized) inevitability of guy-on-guy fucking.