As director Ted Kotcheff told Senses of Cinema magazine, when Aussie grind house creeper Wake in Fright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, “There was an American seated in one of the rows immediately behind me, and he kept saying: ‘Wow! This is great!'” That American turned out to be Martin Scorsese, who, ironically, would claim that the screening “left me speechless.” Scorsese would spearhead Wake in Fright‘s return to the Croisette under the Cannes Classics banner in 2009, making it only the second film to play the festival twice, after L’Avventura. Wake in Fright evidently made a mark on those who saw it back in ’71 (Pauline Kael ended her review with the endorsement “You come out with the perception that this master race is retarded“—italics hers), but the film was considered lost for decades until the negative was found in a vault in Pittsburgh and painstakingly restored. Now a pristine print of a movie redolent with dust and sweat is making the repertory rounds, courtesy of Austin upstart Drafthouse Films.
Fright begins inside the one-room schoolhouse in nowheresville Tiboonda (Australian for “the boonies”?) where kids from six to 16 sit in a stupor, flies resting on their cheeks, before their master finally calls it a school year. He’s John (Gary Bond), and he’s in a hurry to catch the train that will take him to the Old West–esque town of Bundanyabba, so he can fly to Sydney and spend Christmas (in the dead of summer Down Under) nestling icy beers between the breasts of a blonde whose pic he keeps in his wallet. His landlord sends him off: “See you in six weeks, son.” John responds, “Not if I can rob a bank.”
In Tiboonda, John feels like a slave to the education system. In his travels, he finds himself repeatedly held hostage by men who demand he prove his manhood by submitting to drunken misadventure. The night he stops over in Bundanyabba, one beer leads to another, and the next thing he knows, he has lost all his money in a pub game and missed his flight, leaving him dependent on the “kindness” of small-town strangers he plainly detests. “Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do,” says one of John’s new friends, Doc. Played by a wild-eyed Donald Pleasence, Doc is the most vile of said strangers, but also the most neighborly. Stripped of that luxury by his desperate financial situation and the desolation of his physical location, John has no choice but to give himself over to the local social customs of a breeding ground for unchecked male id.
The Canadian Kotcheff would go on to direct First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s, films that look downright tasteful next to Fright‘s fetid vision. Too slow-going to work as a traditional midnight movie and yet too frankly depraved for the art house matinee crowd, this is a road movie using undeveloped land as a blank screen on which to project a dark deconstruction of masculinity and manifest destiny. Fright functions as the Australian precursor to another underseen film of the era, the 1973 Hackman-Pacino Cannes winner, Scarecrow. In both films, the road away turns out to be a loop, the dream of escape across the land ultimately drives a man mad, and homosocial bonds resolve in rape. But ’70s Hollywood has nothing on the outback; Wake in Fright is the more monstrous vision of men run amok.