When you are an Australian living in Britain or America, you soon come to accept that nobody—not even the people you know who are film people, the ones who really take the cinema seriously—has seen the films that you consider your country’s masterpieces. Often they haven’t even heard of them. Unless its title comes with the words Mad Max in front of it, it probably doesn’t register even as a name glimpsed once on a Top 100 list. I don’t particularly mind this myself: Australians are used to being ignored by the rest of the English-speaking world, and besides, it means I regularly get the pleasure of introducing someone to a film as breathtaking as Lake Mungo or Beautiful Kate. But there is one Australian movie (alright, its director is Canadian, but it’s still our movie) that I really, deeply wish more non-Australians had seen.
Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, the most disturbing film ever made in Australia, is a horror movie like no other.1It is a film that seizes you by the arm—like a man in a bar who will not let you leave until you’ve had just one more drink—and then drags you, kicking and screaming, down into the ugliness inside yourself. Our avatar on this bad trip is the hapless schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who has been put to work in a one-classroom school in the tiny outback hamlet of Tiboonda. It is the start of the summer holiday, and Grant is headed back to Sydney—to “civilization,” and to the swimsuit-clad girlfriend that we glimpse in flashbacks, emerging from pristine surf like a too-perfect fantasy. But before he can return to Sydney, Grant must spend a night in an outback mining town: the heat-struck, beer-soaked sprawl of Bundanyabba.
All the locals call it the Yabba. It is the right name, because it sounds less like a town and more like a panting animal. Say “Bundanyabba” and you feel mundane, almost goofy; say “the Yabba” and you feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. And so you should, because the Yabba is a place where squirming, wriggling things crawl out from under the rocks inside your tidy, well-kept soul. On his first night in the Yabba, John Grant loses his plane ticket and all his money after he gets drunk and starts gambling. That is the Friday. By the small hours of the Monday, he will be lying passed out on a stranger’s porch among empty beer cans and shards of glass, while a man with a face like a grinning devil tells him that all his culture and his learning are worthless rags, and here in the Yabba is his real, sickening humanity. For the first time in his life, Grant will be forced to look that humanity in the face—and come to terms with the man he really is.
I was John Grant. In a way, I still am. When I first saw Wake in Fright, 17 years old and longing to break away from Australia, I saw myself in this bookish, arrogant, uncomfortable man, who looked on the country around him with contempt, and who wanted one day to “get to England.” For intellectual Australian boys who want to be writers, this is an old and common type. Any list of our country’s brightest minds will always be studded with those—Robert Hughes, Clive James, a host of other talented, imaginative young men—who fled Australia because they could only imagine making a real career in England, in the old imperial motherland. They became famous writers in London because they couldn’t bear to attempt it in Sydney. In Australia, we have come to call this feeling the “cultural cringe”: that deep, unshakeable sense that we are not good enough, that it will always be Europe where the real talent goes to thrive.
I felt that way as a teenager—and indeed, I did run away to England the moment I was out of school. I wasn’t trapped in an outback town like John Grant (I grew up in Canberra, leafy and safe and decidedly bourgeois); but that didn’t matter. The dust and heat of Wake in Fright’s Yabba was instantly recognizable to me, not as a physical place but as a feeling. It was the arid, hopeless Australia that I believed I lived in—the Australia that held little promise of a full, rich, cultured life. And watching Grant’s descent into the heaving stomach of this Australia, I shuddered with disgust, because I believed I was in danger of being trapped there too. Like Grant, I wanted only to get out.
Was I being stuck-up, entitled, and frankly classist? Of course I was. And the film knows this, and plays on it like a fiddle. Part of the disgust that we feel in Wake in Fright stems from one particularly uncomfortable source, uncomfortable because we hate to admit that it affects us. Let’s be honest about it: this film makes middle-class people feel repulsed by the working class. Before we descend into the deeper, more universal horror that lies at its core, Kotcheff leads us into the Yabba by making us feel frightened of the people who live there. The revulsion we feel in the early scenes is revulsion against sweaty, beer-drinking men with thick accents, who don’t understand our educated references in conversation. It’s Hicksploitation: a year before Deliverance and three years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Kotcheff was already playing on the same deep-seated middle-class suspicions: the fear that working-class people are “not like us,” that they are predatory, that they are monstrous.
But go deeper into Wake in Fright—deeper into the Yabba—and you find that you are sinking into a morass of even more uncomfortable home truths. After Grant has been through his first suffocating night in the Yabba, lost his money, and been stranded, he falls in with a group of local men. He does not like these men. He is the kind of man who feels uncomfortable when a stranger offers him a beer, but even more uncomfortable when his refusal to share a drink is met with confusion and anger. That detail, by the way, was one that felt especially and painfully true to me on my first viewing: the way that some Australians take it as a personal affront if you do not wish to join them in the culture of binge-drinking. But the labor exchange is closed on weekends, so what else is Grant to do except go along with these men? And after all, what wrong have they done him, other than buying him drinks and giving him a place to stay? They have shown him nothing but kindness. He resents them because the way they show kindness comes with backslapping, crude jokes, and beer. He resents them for being the men they are.
When I first watched Wake in Fright, I spent this whole stretch of the movie—its long, hot, turgid second act—begging for Grant to just get the hell out of there. Kotcheff masterfully sets us up to feel certain that something violent and awful is brewing. He fills the streets of the town with looming black shadows, even under the midday sun; and he makes the men gambling in a dive bar into a mass of bodies writhing like devils, their faces bathed in hellish red light or in sickly yellow. When the revelry in this bar is suddenly interrupted by an ANZAC memorial service—the ritual that Australians have now made the heart of our national identity—it becomes not a simple commemoration of fallen soldiers, but an eerie, red-lit, profoundly unsettling thing. Kotcheff is telling us that even under our reverence for the dead, hypocrisy and violence lurk in the shadows.
So I knew, with every nerve of my being, that this place was bad, these people were bad, and something hideous and terrible was going to rear its ugly head. I responded to Wake in Fright like we respond to The Wicker Man or Get Out, or any other horror film that relies on our protagonist staying in place while the warning signs flash in blaring neon red all around them. And who doesn’t love the delicious thrill of a movie like that? What horror fan can resist watching The Wicker Man’s Sergeant Howie just keep on choosing to stay on the island, while the villagers smile their sinister smiles and the pagan costumes peep around the corners?
But here’s the thing that makes Wake in Fright different—the thing that now, watching it at the end of my 20s, I finally understand. In all those other movies, the source of the horror really is in all those sinister locals. We spend the movie knowing that those villagers, or that white family, or whoever they may be, are trouble. We sense it in our bones, and we scream at our protagonist to just see what we can see, so they can do the sensible thing and pack up and leave. And then when the climax arrives—when Sergeant Howie discovers that he has an “appointment with the Wicker Man”—the big pay-off is that we were right. Those people really are monstrous; our protagonist really has been in mortal peril for this whole movie; we, the viewers, have been right all along.
In Wake in Fright, this does not happen. In Wake in Fright, nobody attacks John Grant, nobody tries to harm him, nobody coerces him to do anything at all. Reckless and greedy, he himself loses his money gambling. Apathetic and weak, he himself chooses to keep on drinking for days. Careless and passive-aggressive, he himself gets into a car to go shooting kangaroos. And then in the heat of the night, he himself wrestles with a wounded kangaroo until he is plunging the knife clumsily into its side, coating his own body in the gory mess.2 All the degradation that Grant experiences, he chooses for himself. We have accompanied him on a headlong screaming plunge into the darkness that we all carry inside. Kotcheff spends the film making us feel the horror in the oppressive presence of all those leering, unwashed men. But in the end, the horror is not in them. There is no pay-off, and we were not right all along. The horror is in Grant himself. The horror is in us.
And just in case we thought we could forget what is inside us and go back to being that stiff, repressed schoolteacher, there is somebody here, grinning at our elbow, who will not let us. The most powerful performance in the movie comes from Donald Pleasence, as the skin-crawling, pig-like, magnetically charismatic Doc Tydon. Like Grant, he comes from the big city. You hear it in his accent: he has an educated clip. But he has chosen to live in the Yabba because he prefers raw physicality to all the culture in the world.
The doc is a beer-swilling, oafish man, but the glitter in his eye tells you that he knows it, and he wants it that way. Inconveniently for Grant, he has a way of saying things that he can’t really refute. It is Doc Tydon, when Grant first tries to protest that the men of this town are uneducated and crude, who points out to him that their working life is “worse than death” in the mines.
“Do you want them to sing opera as well?” he comments drily. Grant is brought up short by being confronted with his own privilege, and he will only be confronted more from there. Civilization, the doc says to him two nights later as they sit on that glass-strewn porch while two men brawl behind them, is “a vanity spawned by fear.” He means the fear of facing what is within—the very fear that is now driving Grant insane. The doc has embraced it, and lives happily in the dirty hut where Grant woke up that morning with vomit caked around his mouth. As the doc says, speaking about his affair with a local farmer’s daughter: “Janette and I are alike. We break the rules. But we know more about ourselves than most people.” The doc’s self-knowledge is inseparable from what makes him terrifying: he has come to terms with the darkness within. Doc Tydon is what Grant fears he will become.
This is the reckoning I have spent much of my 20s having with myself. What John Grant goes through in a handful of nights, most of us go through much more slowly. We have to recognize that we contain cruelty, weakness, greed, and all our uncivilized animal drives. I’m at least glad to say that when I left school I already knew this perfectly well with my conscious, rational mind. I had read Lord of the Flies like a good schoolboy: I thought I knew full well that there is an untamed savage (what a quaint phrase) inside every one of us. More than that, I thought I knew that it was actually, counter-intuitively, a good thing—that our primal humanity is really a creative, life-affirming force.
All the truths of this movie were already there in theory. But there is a world of difference between knowing these things in your head, and feeling them in your gut. I needed to discover my own ugliest places for myself. I needed to feel them viscerally. And having plunged into those places for myself, I can now return to Wake in Fright, to watch it again. So I can feel all the more that I am John Grant, finally recognizing my own full humanity.
This is the movie to purge the arrogance from the kids like me. It takes us, thrashes us, and forces us to let go of all our misplaced self-importance. It forces us to realize that we all carry the Yabba inside us, because the Yabba is nothing more or less than the raw, uncultured, animal space of the id. That’s why there’s such beautiful inevitability when Grant tries to leave the Yabba behind, and get back to the self that has been stripped from him in any way he can. He walks, he hitch-hikes, he shoots and eats a feral rabbit to stay alive, he treks for miles under the hot sun. He thinks he is on his way home. And then in a painful, blackly hilarious misunderstanding, he hitches a ride on a truck going the wrong way—and he wakes up back in the Yabba after all. What could be more foolish than to think we can ever escape the Yabba?
The trick, of course, is not to try to escape. The trick is to accept it—to be reconciled to carrying the darkness of the Yabba somewhere inside us. For the longest time I didn’t understand the end of Wake in Fright. When Grant returns at last to his outback schoolhouse after spending his entire summer in Bundanyabba, I thought this was the most horrific conclusion imaginable. He had never escaped. It felt worse than the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—at least Marilyn Burns gets away in the end. I didn’t understand the quiet smile that Grant gives Doc Tydon as he finally leaves town. I didn’t notice that when a stranger offers him a beer on the train back to Tiboonda, he smiles again and accepts it with friendly ease. I didn’t see how Grant had changed.
Grant has come into close contact with his own raw humanity. It repulsed and terrified him, because he never really believed it was there—and so when it rose up inside him, he fought it. And he very nearly lost himself. But now, he has come through. He discovers that when we accept our whole selves, darkness and all, it doesn’t kill us—it makes us more at peace. That doesn’t mean we need to become like Doc Tydon, and live in the Yabba all the time. But it means that when we go there, we can be at ease, and maybe even be happier, stronger, and more ourselves. Perhaps the Yabba isn’t such a horrifying place after all.
It is also a film that was so decisively rejected by Australians themselves when it was first released that its master negative actually went missing for decades. For almost 40 years, Wake in Fright was lost to history and became an un-seeable legend. It was restored only after the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, tracked down the negative in Pittsburgh in 2002—in a container marked “For Destruction.”
I should warn any first-time viewers that this is a real kangaroo hunt: those kangaroos are actually being shot, stabbed, and mutilated. It wasn’t staged for the film (the crew just accompanied a regular hunt), but it’s still real. In a movie that is based on making us look face-on at the realities we would rather ignore, I find this wholly appropriate. But your mileage may vary.