Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 film Wake In Fright is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
As a self-styled horror-snob, I spend most of my time experiencing disappointment at much of the current fare. My sensibilities around what is horrifying are actually pretty strict, and my ability to suspend disbelief has waned. I’m no fan of excessive violence, or the spectacular aesthetics of ‘gorenography’, or the supernatural, as it relates to cobwebs and castles, and their canonical creatures. I love dread, which is a heavier feeling than suspense, and nothing to do with people walking around in houses with the lights off.
Dread is the feeling a really good horror film puts you through, and leaves you with. A good horror film clings to your clothes. I remember watching the first Final Destination movie in some big old London cinema – a fine, fun film and easily quaffed – and then, for days afterwards, found myself imperilled by every scaffolding tower and passing car, and later, in the privacy of my bathroom, by every pair of vanity scissors. One of the few dud-notes in that particular movie is when they visualise the ‘angel of death’ as a sort of shadow or blemish – we surely didn’t need that – but a good horror film should accomplish this same thing; a ‘reaching out’ to imprint on our lived realities.
Wake In Fright achieves this for me, and then some, even though Kotcheff’s film is not a horror film at first glance, and while the world of its story is full-bodied antipodean, its dreadfulness feels native, a nightmare cut from Phil-shaped cloth.
Nothing about the film’s slim plot suggests it should resonate so personally: an enervated school teacher, teaching in the parched environs of the back of beyond, sets out on a trip to Sydney, where he plans to spend his two week Christmas vacation with his girlfriend. The teacher alights at Bundanyabba, the mining town from where he’s due to catch his flight to the big city, and with time to kill before he leaves in the morning, he goes for a beer in one of ‘The Yabba’s pubs. What ensues is not your usual The Hills Have Eyes fare, in which a more obviously educated and ‘city-fied’ character is pitched tooth-and-nail against the atavistic savagery of the local population. What Wake In Fright shares with that film, and likewise with Deliverance, Straw Dogs and Duel, is what it tells us about the fragility of civilisation and the frailties of manhood.
Rather like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, whose own largely nightmarish adventure begins with the consumption of a potion with powers of reduction, John Grant’s trip down the rabbit hole begins with a single beer, bought for him by the Yabba’s local policeman, Jock Crawford.
Crawford is an imposing character. Grant, who is as pretty as Peter O’Toole, is presented altogether differently. The interior of the pub is unambiguously confrontational; working men drinking together, Grant moving between them, an outsider, as in an unfamiliar face, but different too in terms of class and the sensuality of his features. The pub is rammed, but Crawford singles him out once, and insists on buying Grant a beer, then watches him drink it. This scene reminds of me of the ways in which boys at school would have to smear new shoes, blooding them if you like, finding their shine insufferable. This scene is about class, but it’s also about homoeroticism – and not the good kind. Crawford is drawn to Grant because he is too handsome, and in this way, in this context, unmanly, and so the noticing of him is unmanning. Grant produces a visual tension in this place, his contrast with the other men obvious. He is a tall poppy, or should that be pansy, and here comes Crawford, the alpha, to buy him a beer and supervise its consumption, to see if Grant is ‘man enough’ after all; to see if he is ‘one of us.’
Even at this early point in the film, I feel the grip of claustrophobia. I think about my teenage years, and all the beers I’ve accepted when I haven’t wanted one, accepting one because I know it would say something about me if I didn’t, those alarm bells ringing at Real Men HQ.
Peer pressure isn’t one of those phrases that necessarily fills us with horror. We perhaps think of it as more of a nudging influence, more likely to result in us buying something we don’t want, or taking up smoking, getting an ill-advised tattoo, or accepting a beer in order to fit in. This is likely why Wake In Fright isn’t marketed as a horror movie, in which the malign influence at work is group think, but were we undecided what Kotchek thinks about the benumbing effects of cultural homogeneity, the director soon makes his feelings clearer still: suddenly, a siren goes off, and every man stops drinking to observe a collective act of remembrance for Australia’s world war one soldiers. The ritual is presented as sinister and dehumanising, a moment of mass zombification. Twitchy and bewildered, Grant falls in line accordingly, coerced into strict observance by the ubiquity of everyone else’s behaviour.
I feel the same way about this moment in Wake In Fright as I do about the last night of the proms, or clapping like seals to to show our appreciation for nurses in lieu of paying them. I feel the same way about Come On Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Baggy Trousers by Madness, or rather the way both songs transformed the dance floors of my youth into temporary ‘no-go’ areas, because this was the music mobs of straight men felt able to dance to without breaking whatever rule had otherwise kept them glued to the bar. Grant’s discomfort mirrors mine around the wearing of remembrance poppies. It’s not the act of respect-giving or the imaginative act of empathy that gives me pause, but rather the panoptical coercion of having to present as respectful. Wake In Fright presents its own ritual of remembrance similarly, not as an opportunity for the individual to imagine the lives and losses of soldiers, but as an opportunity to fall in line. When I watched Wake In Fright most recently, this particular scene made me think of Conservative politicians sneaking union jacks into their every television appearance, and weighing in on what national museums can say or do about their statues. Kotchek presents nationalistic obedience as innately sinister – because, innately, it always is.
Wake In Fright is a fish out of water film, wherein the fish is middle-class and metrosexualised, and the parched environs of The Yabba are working-class and and hyper-masculine. Some of the film’s other othering effects are more common-and-garden. The Yabba itself is presented as intrinsically surreal and solipsistic, as any new place might be expected to feel to the outsider, its various customs abstruse and its inhabitants odd and unknowable. We’re treated to a short, terrifying shot of Father Christmas; an old man gawps vacantly, and the woman on the reception desk of Grant’s hotel is as rude and flat as a wax mannequin, albeit one who is melting in the heat, dipping her fingers in water and applying it to her face in a gesture striking us immediately as breaking some public/private wall. She may as well have her fingers dipping below the elastic line of her knickers.
But John Grant’s long day’s journey into night truly begins when he involves himself in raucous game of gambling back in the shadows of another drinking establishment-come-restaurant, the rules of which are simple; money is won and lost on the tossing of coins marked with a cross. This is another scene that captures brilliantly the strangeness of male culture, for even though the mood of the game is raucous, and opportunities for theft are rife, some long-established, if unspoken, gentlemen’s agreement keeps everyone in abeyance. From the outside, the game comes off as feral and unregulated, but their are decencies being afforded here and a rule of law maintained. More tripwires for the unwary and the unmanly, I think, as I watch the school teacher make all the wrong choices, losing all his money on the flip of painted pennies. At one point, the camera treats us to a single shot of the hot white spotlight illuminating the gaming arena; I’m always reminded of that other antipodean film about civilised folk ill-prepared for the brutal environment in which they find themselves lost; in Nick Roeg’s Walkabout, the close-ups of the blazing sun are treated similarly, the heat whining mosquito-like on the soundtrack.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too childish, too unsophisticated, too queer, but when, come the morning after his disastrous dalliance with this big boy’s game of pennies, John Grant is next shown lying completely naked on his hotel bed, I’m always shocked by the spectacle of it. I think to myself, ‘Oh grow up, Phil! It’s just another man’s arse’, but then I think to myself, ‘But why this shot and why now?’ After all, there are any number of ways to play this same scene, any number of ways to communicate how this character has been stripped of his costume of respectability. Ultimately, I can’t help feeling as if this man’s body is being displayed, not least because he’s got that vintage porn star’s tan, which further objectifies his bum cheeks by lighting them up for all to see. I don’t know if I’m supposed to find this moment titillating? The truth is I do. Then I get to thinking, if I’m a bit confronted by this other man’s prone nakedness, what about all the red-bloodied straight men in the audience? How discomforting for them, how unwelcome. After all, real men are not supposed to look upon each other’s bodies in this way (even thought the history of popular cinema is a the history of male flesh presented as spectacle: Tarzan, all those sword and sandal epics, Stallone, etc). I’ll concede there is a long and noble tradition of academic types dressing up their erotic pleasure as subjects for great seriousness and meaningful debate, but anyway I’m going to argue this one scene is key to understanding what is really going on in Wake In Fright.
That John Grant has a sexy, metropolitan girlfriend waiting for him in Sydney is the reason he embarks on his journey to the Yabba in the first place. Interestingly, the girlfriend never exists in the film as a contemporaneous character; she is a picture in his wallet, and what might be a memory of a day at the beach, in which boobs and beer are twinned. For this viewer at least, there is something hyperreal and processed about this memory, like we’re watching an advert instead. Nothing about this moment is particularly convincing, and what it really reminds me of is the way I would thumb my way through those discarded pornographic magazines that somehow found their way into school from railway sidings. I’d want something about these scenarios to strike me as convincing, or as credible, but they never would, just as this moment of heightened heterosexuality in Grant’s imagination feels freighted with artifice and overly self-consciousness.
The women of Wake In Fright are either mythically sexual, as in the case of Grant’s girlfried, or waxen and disembodied, as in the instance of the hotel receptionist; or, in the case of the character of Janette Hynes, an off-centred hybrid of both.
After Grant accepts a beer from Janette’s father, a gnomish, unpleasant man who, like every other male character in the film, bullies Grant into accepting ‘another beer’, the teacher ends up returning to this other man’s home. Grant is now broke, his options limited, and this should feel like a moment of Samaritan-style kindness. That instead it feels Faustian is another example of the Wake In Fright‘s special peril. In this film, hospitality is always coercive, where someone buying you a drink is a spider wrapping you in silk.
Janette, meanwhile, is bored and expressionless, largely invisible to the men around her. In addition to inviting Grant into his house, Janette’s father is visited by two local working men, miners both, thick-set, thicker-headed, and ‘out out’ on an all-day binge of relentless beer-drinking. With their hairy chests and brawny bodies, Dick and Joe are cocks-of-the-walk, but they are as disinterested in Janette as her father, and so she turns her attention to the beautiful stranger, and little wonder. Grant engages her in conversation. He is attentive and discursive. He is sensitive.
Their decision to continue their more intimate conversation outside, away from the boorish interactions of the menfolk, results in the decision they should have sex. Nothing about their particular chemistry makes this seem inevitable, although it is obvious from the outset that they will. The sex they go on to have is awful. As Janette readies herself for ravishment, with a squirming fervour speaking to agonies of loneliness, Grant rolls off her and vomits up his guts. I suppose we are to make from this no more than Grant is ‘too drunk to fuck’, but I can’t help read this disastrous encounter as him rejecting something he cannot stomach. In this moment, I am flashed backwards to what is phony-seeming about his imaginary girlfriend. It returns me to the way Grant’s naked body was served up so gratuitously. Not so much ‘too drunk to fuck’, I think, but too closeted.
It is with the arrival of Doc (played to sweaty perfection by Donald Pleasence), that Grant’s evening deteriorates further, with Grant waking up to find himself at Doc’s tin shack, where Pleasence seeks to assuage the teacher’s roaring hangover with a frying pan brimming with minced kangaroo.
Doc makes for strange and stressful company, off-kilter, yapping, a disgraced doctor and alcoholic, living out on the edge of civilisation and broiling greasily beneath the heel of the sun. As he follows Grant about in his yard, invading the other man’s space, watching his guest urinate, Doc produces an energy at once hard to pin down, but also completely recognisable – to anyone, that is, who has ever felt themselves alone in the company of someone with whom some kind of sexual contact is on the cards. The push-me-pull-you between these two characters reminds me of moments from my own adolescent life, those fraught, taut episodes in which a male school friend has come around to the house, to watch a video maybe, and we’re alone on either end of the settee, and something is off because something is on. I recall a gardening job one sweltering day, moving bags of shingle into the back garden of an unlovely terraced house in an unlovely town. I had someone helping me, an acquaintance really, and not even that, but off came our shirts, the two of us sweating and stinking, our bodies close and getting closer as the job wore on miserably. Resting again, the two of us talking, making jokes, the other guy suddenly put his shirt back on, some membrane between us thinning or spoiling, my eyes dipping perhaps, slipping.
The sexual tension between Grant and Doc is not of this delicious kind, humming sweetly like a chiming fork. It’s all the sour notes instead. There’s a grimace to it, a squalor, an incipient abuse of power, and it’s only going to get worse, and it does.
In common with other films of the 1970s and early 80s, Wake In Fright‘s notoriety originates from the fine line it walks between fact and fiction. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) sets itself up as a real historical event; Cannibal Holocaust (1980) includes images of animals being butchered. Snuff (1975) is entirely fictional, but wants you to think otherwise, while Faces of Death (1978) does include footage of fatal accidents. Wake in Fright is nothing like these grubbier examples, but it does include a protracted kangeroo hunt, in which actual footage of the shooting and killing of kangaroos is mixed with staged elements.
Grant’s initiation into bona fide masculine culture, which began with all those glasses of beer he didn’t want, continues apace as he joins Doc, Dick and Joe on a kangaroo hunt. In a scene of blatant homoeroticism (while in no way being homoerotic), we’re treated to the spectacle of the hunters castrating kangaroos, the scrotums of which are of commensurate size and heft as those of the men themselves. While watching Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, in which a cowboy castrates a bull with his bare hands, I was reminded of these scenes from Kotcheff’s film; of the way in which these men rush to touch the impressively large and hairy gonads of another powerful male, but only as a prelude to destroying them.
In pure cinematic terms, Wake In Fright‘s kangaroo hunt is transformed into expressionistic flashes and tableaux by the swinging light of the hunter’s searchlight, which they use to mesmerise their marsupial quarry. Not content with shooting them, one of the hunters goes hand-to-hand with a kangaroo in an absurdist facsimile of a street-side brawl. Grant is required to make his kill too, to be bloodied, to pass, and while we’re shown the teacher gurning happily, pissed, shooting guns, accepted finally, we know very well he is spiralling into the abyss, monstered by his masculinity and the price of performing it to the satisfaction of his peers.
After the hunt, Doc, Dick, Joe and Grant find their way to some out-of-the-way pub marooned on the edge of a great sea of scrub and nothing. There is more drinking to be done, and I watch this moment with a growing sensation of asphyxiation, imagining my own secret scream if I were likewise trapped in this nightmare of consumption. I’m reminded always of those tableaux glimpsed in airport terminals, groups of men already getting into their first pints, preloading their stag-dos. Maybe I’m just envious of their stamina? Maybe I’m as boring as I sound? Maybe I’m afraid, if I were to start drinking at 7am in an airport pub, I too might find myself covered in blood, a pair of kangaroo’s testicles cooling in the palm of my hand.
Not content with drinking themselves into oblivion, Dick and Joe wrestle each other, rolling about in the dust, their arms about each other, their constricted faces mere centimetres apart. It is impossible to not superimpose the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates from Ken Russell’s Women In Love. It seems the kangaroo hunt was foreplay, but with no sanctioned means of discharging their inflamed libidos, Dick and Joe fall to the ground in each other’s arms. I recall here the anecdote from the set of Russell’s film, wherein Reed and Bates went their separate ways before their scene together, in order to ‘sort themselves out’, so guarding against the horror of any conspicuous displays of arousal. I recollect a moment in my own life, back when I was a sixth former, an outbreak of ‘bundling’ sweeping the common room that saw the young men in my friendship group (myself included) falling to rough and tumble, our bodies knotting together against the thin leatherette cushions of the common room furniture. As Dick and Joe wrestle in the dust, I can’t help think, ‘Oh, just fuck why don’t you?’, which I suspect was a sentiment not too far from the minds of some of the girls in that same sixth form common room, looking on at our plain-sight sublimation of wanks and other kindnesses with small knowing shakes of their heads.
Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence’s character falls into an existential monologue about the barbarity of humankind (like we need reminding, given what we’ve been sitting through) and Grant, a stranger to himself but more recognisable now to everyone else, falls finally into unconsciousness. As the other men continue to fight, Doc smashes up the bar, flinging chairs and howling. It seems the only way this night will end for these men will be in other acts of terrible violence, and so it does, in a fashion.
Grant’s night ‘out with the boys’ concludes with him back at Doc’s shack, where the two men engage in some horseplay of their own. More drink is consumed, only this time the imagery is urophiliac, the two men messing themselves with amber liquid, splashing it around, wetting together like two farmyard animals. Then Grant’s shirt is off, and Doc is leering and laughing and touching and grappling, and while the specificity of the act that takes place between them is left to our imaginations, we know very well something did.
On waking – in fright, we presume – Grant dresses quickly. We’re treated to a shot of Doc wearing his gruesomely stained vest as a tube-dress, I guess because the director wants us in little doubt as to how blurred things have become for the film’s protagonist – or unblurred, arguably, as the painful light of day reveals the more abject realities of sexual desire. This final violence is an interesting one, not least because it inspires Grant to try and murder Doc with a shotgun. It is problematic to suggest the worst thing imaginable is a homosexual act, which is to fall in-step with Steve McQueen’s Shame, where we are encouraged to believe that film’s protagonist is only truly morally bankrupted after we see him being done unto in a gay club. I’ll argue instead, for a closeted man trying to ‘pass’, a homosexual act is likely the worst thing imaginable, and so the final violence here is enacted against Grant’s image of himself.
In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Freud identifies déjà vu as one of the phenomena likely to elicit this special category of unease. In one of Wake In Fright‘s finest episodes of dread, Grant, desperate, begs a lift back to the big city from a truck driver, whose vehicle has the word Sydney emblazoned on it. Grant climbs on board and sleeps, but when he next wakes, the truck driver announcing, ‘We’re here,’ Grant discovers, to his disbelief and horror, the truck driver has driven him all the way back to the Yabba.
What is most unsettling about déjà vu is the creeping feeling we are doomed to repeat something, that instead of our lives building towards knowledge, new wisdom and growth, we are otherwise trapped in a particular setting or state of mind. What is most unsettling about Wake In Fright, a film not short on such moments, is how it ends: with a series of shots mirroring the opening of the film, as we see Grant returning to Tiboonda, his dust bowl home with its dust bowl school. Given the nature of his adventure, the way it peeled him from his skin and stripped him bare and quivering, you might presume Grant irrevocably changed. You might think it quite impossible for this man to go back to his old life, knowing what he knows and having done what he’s done, but Wake In Fright proves otherwise. Apparently, it is possible to fall, beer-first, into the dark heart of masculinity, to be made over into the semblance of acceptable male norms via alcohol and terrible violence, to be shown, in no uncertain terms, the barbarism of gender norms and their cultural presentations, and then, this short time later, just pat yourself back into shape and continue pretending. If you read this film as being about the agonies of a terminally closeted man, Wake In Fright is frightful indeed.