WAKE IN FRIGHT (Ted Kotcheff). 109 minutes. Opens Friday (March 29) at TIFF Bell Lightbox. See listing. Rating: NNN
Originally released in North America as Outback!, Ted Kotcheff's long-lost 1971 debut, Wake In Fright, falls somewhere between grindhouse fodder and sun-baked psychodrama.
An unassuming schoolteacher (Gary Bond, a dead ringer for Peter O'Toole) sees his stopover in a tiny Australian town turn into a nightmarish five-day bender thanks to the insistently hospitable locals. Things get even worse when our hero is befriended by a chatty doctor (Donald Pleasence) whose gregariousness can't quite hide a desperation fuelled by alcohol and rage.
Wake In Fright's corrosive take on masculinity makes the film feel well ahead of its time, though other elements keep it rooted in the past. Pleasence's capering, pop-eyed turn comes straight out of the 60s, and there's horrific footage of a real kangaroo hunt that simply wouldn't be tolerated by audiences today. (Yes, it's necessary to the story, but that sequence instantly reduces an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent picture to the repugnant, exploitative level of Make Them Die Slowly.)
Kotcheff's merciless commitment to his story keeps us engaged, if only just, as Bond's hapless protagonist falls apart in slow motion.