(Way, Way, Waaaay) Down Under: “Wake in Fright”

THE TRULY GREAT HORROR MOVIE is the one scarier the second time one sees it, of which there are few. For instance, “Psycho,” “Don’t Look Now” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” all contain scenes more unsettling in the context of the entire movie, and therefore reach their potential only on a repeat viewing.

A second look at Ted Ketchoff’s recently rediscovered and deservedly feted “Wake In Fright” (1971) reveals one of these rare cinematic moments, although it doesn’t qualify as a horror movie, really, unless you’re of the cineastes who consider “Come and See” a horror film.

“Wake in Fright” chronicles the steep, quick descent of a callow school teacher (Gary Bond) serving a bonded stretch in Australia’s Outback circa 1970. Our hero, waylaid on the way to Sydney for the holidays, finds himself stranded in Bundanyabba, a Bush town the locals proudly call “The Yabba,” just large and self-sufficient enough to be a horrible, horrible place.

Our moment comes during a kangaroo hunt that is, frankly, difficult to watch. By this point, feckless hero John Grant — played with an utterly realistic sense of bewildered acceptance by Bond — has lost all his money and fallen in with an odd crew after being invited home by a middle-aged man in a short-sleeved shirt, hat and tie named Al. What Al does for a living is never broached; probably middle management at the local mine, whence come two strapping jackaroos who have stopped over with beer and rifles (one played with reckless abandon by a young Jack Thompson).

The fourth is Doc Tyden, a medical doctor who five years ago was John Grant. As absorbed by Donald Pleasence, Tyden is the Yabba’s John Milton. “All the little devils are so proud of Hell,” he tells Grant when they meet on the teacher’s first night in town.

When Grant, still smug at this point, asks Tyden what he does, the good doctor says, “I drink.”

Two days into his bender, Grant finds himself in a Ford Fairlane with his new friends, rifle in hand. They have shamed the teacher into shooting a kangaroo, and now are baiting him to end its misery by slitting its throat. If that sounds awful, rest assured it is somehow worse. Nearly unwatchable, it is nevertheless too integral to skip, and the film is substantial enough to hold its weight.

In the hot, sweaty heart of the film, Bond slinks off toward the wounded animal, followed by a spotlight used to spook prey. The young miners hoot and holler, but Pleasence, bottle in hand, watches in the way one might watch insects overwhelm a helpless rival — fascinated yet sick to his stomach. Here is our moment. Pleasence manages to comprise victory, repugnance and regret on his ostensibly blank face.

Bond, in a distressingly rare film role, returns with tears in his eyes, dragging his unseen catch behind him. The school teacher finally has slaughtered his wounded pretense and is brutally reborn; in the next shot, he lies in the backseat of the truck, drinking from a liquor bottle the way a baby sucks on a bottle of milk.

Later, Bond hops out of the back of a hooded truck, happy to have escaped the Yabba, only to discover he is right back where he started. The revelation — a static shot of a hopelessly ugly and out-of-place town hall — is a remarkable piece of pure cinema.

This dissonance between nature and civilization, the colonial and the aboriginal, has always seemed the primary thread of Australian cinema, whether it’s Richard Chamberlin trying to stave off Armageddon in Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” or the custodian who insists upon watering the abandoned school’s lawn in Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout.”

“Wake in Fright,” in fact, seems to me the flip side of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Weir’s distaff version — made a couple of years later — of being swallowed whole by the Cosmos. In that film, a gauzy reverie against the crisp, bright colors of “Wake in Fright,” the Victorian school girl is never found; the final genius of “Wake in Fright” is the fact that Grant does return, and his final line is one of the greatest, and most trenchant, punch lines in all of cinema.

This is streaming on Netflix, and has been for months. Watch it before it disappears. Lost for nearly 40 years, “Wake in Fright” was saved from the furnace by its editor, Anthony Buckley, restored and screened at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival. Its disappearance can probably be traced to the fact that Australians hated it, an understandable reaction in 1971.

It has since been embraced as a seminal piece of Australian cinema. True, and yet that somehow sells it short.

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