31 Days of Horror: Day 18- Wake in Fright (1971)

Despite the gruesome creatures, flying limbs and buckets of blood, horror as a genre can feel pretty stale. For every excellent film there is a dozen forgettable or terrible ones. And there are so many that it takes a lot of wading through the rubbish to get to the interesting stuff. For each day in October I’m going to recommend a different horror film or film about horror.  For the most part they won’t be the accepted classics. My selections range from the genuinely excellent to the delightfully strange with a few that are more fascinating than they are great. Hopefully there will be something for everyone and you’ll find something new to give you a scare or maybe a laugh. This is my 31 days of Horror and today I’m talking about: Wake in Fright.

Horror is often about monsters chomping off dude’s heads or crazed killer’s finding elaborate ways to off people. Horror can also be about the terrifying things normal people are capable of. I’d argue that something like the war film Come and See is a horror movie in its own way because it depicts the dehumanising nature of war so well. What is scary is the depths of depravity and evil that humanity can go to. A lot of horror films deal with these ideas but they do so through a fantastical story. When it’s done through an incredibly realistic story or even a relatable one then it gets to a more personally scary level. Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright is this kind of film. The only monster is who everyone is capable of being. Through coercion, bullying and beer the main character transforms into a completely different man. What’s scary is how easily this transformation happens and that if we were in that situation it would happen to us.

Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is frustrated with his current job. After the government paid for him to get through University he was assigned a small position in a school in the outback. But it’s finally the Christmas holidays so he can go back to Sydney to see his girlfriend. On his way there he has to stop in a small town called Bundanyabba (known as “The Yabba”). After a few too many drinks and a gambling mishap he finds himself unable to leave. The locals are nice enough, if a bit too rambunctious for John. The longer he stays the more ingrained in their way of life he becomes and very quickly John finds himself going too far.

When John first steps into The Yabba it feels like an Australian version of The Wicker Man. Something just feels wrong about it. There is nothing supernatural or anything like that actually happening but something is off about the place. One of the first things that happens to John is that he is treated to a drink by a local policeman. It’s seemingly innocuous; people are a bit too nice if anything but nothing is really wrong. But it sets a precedent, that you don’t refuse drinks here. Someone in a position of authority is the first to give him a drink. Drinking is as much of a staple of the town that law enforcement is in any town. John’s a nice guy, he’s not one to turn down hospitality especially since this place seems to have their own way of doing things. That first drink is what takes John to the town’s gambling obsession. The local game essentially involves flipping coins and John gets drawn in. He wants to escape the dead end job he has in the outback and cash through chance could help him out. He starts doing well but things quickly go south. He sees his job as slavery and he looks at this as a way out, but he has found himself enslaved in a different way. With no money he can’t even leave. He’s gone from outsider to local in no time. Who knows how many other people have found themselves trapped in The Yabba because they were sucked in by the game. This is only the beginning for John.

He falls in with a local doctor played by the amazing Donald Pleasance. He’s obvious alcoholic who’s friendly and introduces John to some folk as well as giving him a place to stay. John’s introduced to more of the locals and he finds himself a bit out of his element. They’re all a bit too rowdy and crass for his liking and it’s getting harder to keep up with the drinking. Gary Bond’s performance as John is excellent. He exudes discomfort but you can tell that he feels obliged to go along with things. With no money these guys are doing John a favour by giving him food, drink and stuff to do. But he’s clearly being pulled into a lifestyle he’s not comfortable with. Everyone’s laughing and drinking so that means it’s fine. All of this comes so naturally to these men that John just tries to keep up. He feels like he’s the one being rude by not fully embracing their way of life. At a certain point though he realises that things have gone too far. The men all go off on a hunting trip that is truly disturbing and disorienting. Again, John just accepts that this is how they do things. But when he finds himself doing things he never thought he was capable of he has to rethink. Slowly he has been pulled into their deranged way of life. Their lives consist of fighting, drinking, shooting and nothing much more. It’s too late that John realises that their indulgences are not for his benefit, this is every day to them and he’s now a part of it. Without spoiling things it’s hard to get across what is so morally corrupt about their lives. It’s an unending cycle of mindless destruction that seems inescapable. John learns how fickle his morals really are. All it takes is some drinks and seemingly friendly intimidation and he would do pretty much anything.

The transition into horror happens very subtly in Wake in Fright. For the most part we feel the same way John does. If this is how they do things then it would be rude not to accept. We’re lulled into the same way of thinking that John is and that is incredibly scary. Although I’m a very different man from John I don’t know if things wouldn’t end the same way for me. It’s an unflinching look at a subset of Australian culture, one that seems frighteningly easy to slip into. John’s forsaking of his own values does not happen by accident. He willingly lets it happen without even realising. Wake in Fright is not a standard horror movie but it’s still horrifying in its own way. An incredible film that shows how it only takes the smallest of pushes to be set on a soul-crushing path.

James M Macleod

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