En route to Sydney to visit his girlfriend, schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) stops off in "the Yabba", a muscular, menacing outback town. A bourgeois fellow who resents serving out his government bond in rural Tiboonda (in return for his university education), John greets the Yabba's slack-jawed, heavily accented locals with bemusement and no little superiority. The locals, in return, question his masculinity: "What's the matter with him?" marvels one, "He'd rather talk to a woman than drink!"
After a few beers and one losing streak at two-up (an unsophisticated coin-tossing gambling game), John finds himself in the demented company of the local physician, Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence). Blackouts and fragmented drunken memories reveal drunken sexual fumbles, a savage kangaroo killing spree and the complete obliteration of all the trappings of civilisation.
“Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do,” slurs Doc. “If you got to live here, you might as well like it.”
For decades, Wake in Fright (aka Outback in the UK and US) was cinema's pre-Cern Higgs Boson particle, a theoretical keystone in the construction of the New Australian Cinema of the 1970s, and its gap-toothed relative, the Ocker Comedy. Released in the same year –1971 – as Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, Ted Kotcheff's psychodrama has been variously cited as a precursor for Mad Max, a jumpstart for a national film industry, and, by the reckoning of Rex Reed and Nick Cave, the greatest Australian film ever made.
Inquiring minds knew of its elementary significance, but damned if they could find it. Though well-reviewed and selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Wake in Fright was never available on VHS or DVD and was, as recently as 2008, considered "lost".
This new print arrives courtesy of the Australian Film Archive and a 13-year-search undertaken by Anthony Buckley, the film's editor. It was well worth the wait. The trippy blandishments of the era that produced it – panpipes and theremin on the soundtrack, fade outs into humming electrical appliances – add to an overall sense of unease.
Pleasence's overbearing host pitches somewhere between Father Ted's Mrs Doyle and Fear and Loathing's Gonzo. John Grant's odyssey, for all its excesses, forms a neatly symmetrical, perfectly Kafkaesque narrative. This way madness lies . . .