Wake in Fright is not strictly a horror film. I (half-seriously) think it has more thematically in common with Apocalypse Now than anything else.
Australia is a frightening place. For starters, it’s full of Australians. This is backed up by an array of spiders, snakes and probably a number of unholy combinations of these. And, as the opening shot of Wake in Fright pans around an immense, dead desert landscape, it reminds you, where are you going to run to?
Gary Bond plays John Grant, a British teacher stuck working in a town that seems to consist of two buildings – the schoolhouse and the bar/his room – divided by a train track. Term is finished, and he’s making his way to Sydney to reunite with his girlfriend, but on the way he has to spend the night in the rough mining town of Bundanyabba; henceforth known as “The Yabba”.
We’re given the tone of the place right away, uneasily hilarious, kind of like An American Werewolf in London. He goes immediately to the local pub, we’re shown a clock that says 8:25 on top of a sign that says “This bar closes 6:30pm by order”. A local tells him to “shut [the door] mate, we’re closed”, before the camera pans across to reveal at least a hundred people packed in, drinking heavily.
He meets the local police chief who displays the kind of aggressive, worrying friendliness that seems like it could turn bad at any minute. Everyone in the Yabba will buy you a pint, drink it like a shot, then stare at you until you catch up so they can buy another and do it again. Grant gets drunker and drunker and has a series of misadventues that get darker and darker.
He ends up having a wonderful time with/in the captivity of a group of threatening, jovial drunks including Donald Pleasence’s hard drinking, Socrates quoting doctor.
The film is excellently balanced, moving gradually more and more towards outright madness, with Grant not sure if he’s terrified or having the best experience of his life. He is initially snottily dismissive of the people he’s met, “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you be as stupid as they are”, before almost immediately getting sucked in to the most basic gambling game ever devised – forty or fifty people betting huge sums on heads or tails – and wavering back on forth on these feelings for the remainder of the film, without letting him or the audience come down too hard one way or the other.
Oh hey, I think I just understood the heads and tails metaphor.
It’s pretty excellently tense throughout, you want to see how close to rock bottom Grant can get, while also wanting him to escape without too much damage. It has a smattering of hilarious lines, mostly from the deadpan Pleasence. The atmosphere is thick and sticky, everyone is coated in sweat and flies, the houses and bars we see are grimy and packed, and the film expertly pulls of the thrill of being accepted by the wrong sort of people while having the gnawing worry in your guts that you want to get out before it all gets too much.
Basically, don’t go to Australia.