Blu-ray Review: Wake in Fright

STUDIO: Drafthouse/RLJ | DIRECTOR: Ted Kotcheff | CAST: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle, John Meillon
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 1/15/2013 | PRICE: DVD $27.97, Blu-ray $29.97
BONUSES: commentary, featurettes, Q&A, more
SPECS: R | 114 min. | Thriller | 1.85:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 2.0 | English  subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall


Following years of searching for source elements, the subsequent restoration and legal wrangling regarding distributions rights, and a lauded revival on the film festival circuit, the 1971 cult thriller Wake in Fright, set in Australia and directed by Ted Kotcheff, finally makes its Blu-ray and DVD debut.

The story behind Wake in Fright’s re-emergence to the delight of cinephiles around the world is covered extensively in the disc’s supplemental materials. Having heard so much about this “lost” film’s triumphant return—Martin Scorsese’s raves about it over the past several years have certainly helped mint its image as one of yesteryear’s forgotten gems—I must admit that I popped it in with a bit of a “prove it to me” attitude.

Well, Wake in Fright definitely delivers.

Wake in Fright movie scene

The eyes have it in Wake in Fright.

It’s the story of a John  Grant (Gary Bond, Anne of the Thousand Days), a teacher at a  tiny school on the Australian. Outback, who finds himself hooked up with a bunch of locals in a rural mining town. After being drawn into a boozy gambling game known as “two-up”—a sort of macho version of “Truth or Dare”—Grant’s hard-drinking new buds (Breaker Morant’s Jack Thompson, Al Thomas, Peter Whittle and Donald Pleasence as a strange, unlicensed doctor) drag him deeper into the outback, where they booze it up even more and hunt down kangaroos. And then things get even nastier, more demoralizing and considerably more dangerous for the simple schoolteacher.

Canadian director Kotcheff taps into all the right testosterone for this hard-edged, violent thriller, a talent that he would use to more popular effect years later when helming such manly man films as  Uncommon Valor, First Blood and North Dallas Forty (none of which are nearly as tough as Wake in Fright). Kotcheff’s ensemble of no-nonsense Australian and British actors deliver all the right moves, particularly as the ugly story grows increasingly lurid and surreal in its final third. The saturated cinematography by Brian West and jagged editing by Antony Buckley add immeasurably to the increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere.

Wake in Fright‘s Blu-ray package of supplements is outstanding—the best I’ve seen on a vintage cult title in quite a while. But with a collection of newly produced supplements—a making-of featurette and a Q&A with Kotcheff from the Toronto Film Festival (both from 2009), and a commentary by Kotcheff and editor Buckley—comes the inevitability of a lot of repetition. That’s the case here, and though Kotcheff can’t be blamed for developing a checklist of recollections of a film he made more than forty years ago, hearing the same stories recounted in a commentary, Q&A and featurette is a bit much. That said, sifting through Kotcheff’s memories, I most enjoyed hearing what he had to say about co-star Chips Rafferty, who portrays a small-town lawman. Upset that he was forced to drink fake beer during several bar sequences, Rafferty insisted on imbibing the real thing, even though retakes of the scene resulted in him sucking down many pints over the course of a day’s shooting.

“[Rafferty] would drink at least 20 pints every day, never got inebriated, and never slurred a word,” Kotcheff laughs. “His countenance didn’t change at all, from morning to night. It was amazing! Australians drink so much, their whole system just hardens.”

Sadly, Rafferty died in 1971 at the age of 61, a few months before the film premiered in Australia (a TV tribute and obituary is also included as a supplement), leaving me to wonder about the effect those 20 pints per day may have had on his system…!


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.