Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Wake in Fright: What, You Don’t Love the Yabba?

The good citizens of Bundanyabba (“The Yabba,” like The Bronx or The Hague) will be happy to buy a drink for any visitor.  It is a matter of civic pride.  However, The Yabba seems to amplify the worst in human nature throughout Ted Kotcheff’s long lost grindhouse for the art-house Wake in Fright (trailer here), which opens in all its restored glory this Friday at Film Forum.

John Grant’s heart would not be in teaching, even if he were posted to a school in Sydney.  Unfortunately, he is financially bound to the outback during his term of service.  With the semester break starting, he will finally be able to visit his attractive girlfriend in  the city.  He just has one night to kill in the Yabba before continuing on his way.  Oh, but there will be complications.

After losing his term’s pay in a glorified game of heads-or-tails, Grant falls in with a gang of lowlifes led by the town’s unapologetically boozy doctor, Tydon.  A whole lot of alcohol will quickly hasten Grant’s slide into the dark side.  At least, he is not a kangaroo.  When Grant’s dubious new mates set out on a hunting trip, the carnage is famously disturbing.

Not exactly a thriller or a horror film, Wake is a brutally pessimistic morality play.  In the Yabba, the veneer of civilization is rather chipped and faded.  An intellectual like Grant ought to be a model of man’s progressive perfectability, but Doc Tydon and his running mates reduce him to his nasty, brutish core in a matter of days.  Yet, it is never clear whether the Yabba yobs are really out to break him down or if he is just a puppet of fate.

Whether it is the blinding sun, the hallucinatory kangaroo hunt, or the stone cold humiliations meted down on Grant, Kotcheff maintains a visceral intensity throughout Wake, controlling the vibe like a master puppeteer and framing some powerful visuals.  One of only two films to be twice selected for Cannes, it makes a convincing argument Kotcheff might just be the world’s most underappreciated auteur.  Indeed, his oeuvre also includes Rambo: First Blood, Uncommon Valor, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Weekend at Bernies, which is what we call a career in mi casa.

The late Gary Bond, who would eventually become an Andrew Lloyd Webber regular on the West End, sure looks like a tool who needs to be taken down a peg or two.  Still, he takes his character to some pretty scary depths.  Donald Pleasance plays his doctor-tormentor.  That is so perfect, there is no need to explain further.  In his last screen appearance, Chips Rafferty also adds further authentic flavor as Jock Crawford, the ostensibly welcoming local peace officer.

It is important to bear in mind no ‘roos were hurt for the sake of Wake.  Kotcheff just tagged along with a regularly scheduled commercial hunting outing.  The results stand in sharp contradiction to the Paul “Shrimp on the Barbie” Hogan image assiduously crafted by the tourism bureau.  Of course, for fans of Ozploitation the restored Wake is a can’t miss release.  A surprisingly challenging work, Wake is recommended for all patrons of cult cinema when it opens this Friday (10/5) at New York’s Film Forum, with Kotcheff on hand to receive his overdue ovation at the 7:30 screening.