Gary Bond (Zulu) works wonders as John Grant, the only teacher in the Australian desert town of Tiboonda, where the tiny, single-room schoolhouse is surrounded by sand and dust. On Christmas break, Grant heads for Sydney, but must spend a night in Bundanyabba before catching a flight the next morning. At least that’s the plan.
In Bundanyabba, he’s befriended by a local officer (Chips Rafferty, Mutiny on the Bounty) at a pub and introduced to what passes for entertainment in the town: a rowdy gambling game of heads or tails. After winning his first time out, Grant sees an opportunity to make enough cash to leave the teaching job he so despises. Naturally, greed gets the better of him, and with all his money lost, he has nowhere to go but down, and down he goes.
The details of his spiral will be left to viewers to discover, but it’s no spoiler to say that the character played by Halloween icon Donald Pleasence serves as his guide.
Wake in Fright is an unsettling story — one that could be told only Down Under, given the setting’s desolation, heat and misery. While many viewers may be disturbed most by genuine footage of a late-night kangaroo hunt, Grant’s missteps number so many that the collective grief he experiences result in an ending that’s tough to shake. That’s the mark of a tale well-told, and this one is done so by Ted Kotcheff, a director known more for more mainstream audience fare, including Weekend at Bernie’s and First Blood.
Just presenting the cult-worthy film would have been fine enough for Drafthouse Films’ disc, but it’s laden with plenty of supplements, including a Kotcheff commentary and a 45-minute Q&A with him at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Best is a 12-minute segment on the movie, culled from interviews Mark Hartley conducted for the exquisite Not Quite Hollywood documentary on Ozploitation. With this and Klown and Bullhead, the young Drafthouse Films label is becoming every bit the reliable importer of quality foreign fare as Criterion, Kino and their ilk. —Rod Lott