Newly restored by the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia, Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 “Wake in Fright” — released here many moons ago as “Outback” — arrives for a week at Film Forum in New York before a series of national openings, with some impressive endorsements: “Deeply — and I mean deeply —u nsettling” (Martin Scorsese), “genuinely shocking” (Roger Ebert)” and the “most terrifying film about Australia in existence” (Nick Cave).
Despite these, not inapt, descriptions, as well the movie’s title and the presence of sometime bogy man Donald Pleasence, “Wake in Fright” is not exactly a horror film. Nor is it, as its distributor suggests, the precise Australian correlative to contemporary movies like “Deliverance” or “Straw Dogs.” Visceral as it can be, “Wake in Fright” is a richer sort of allegory. The cautionary tale of a snooty school teacher from the most out back of outback settlements who attempts to make a travel connection in a somewhat larger, wide-open town known as the Yabba — a place populated by drunks, gamblers, and macho morons given to mindless brawling and wanton destruction, is something like a scrofulous version of “The Lost Weekend” crossed with “Lord of the Flies.” (Roger Greenspan had it right when he wrote in the New York Times that “the crisp snap of a pull-tab aluminum beer can may never replace the creaking door as a clue to horror, but in [“Wake in Fright”] it makes a reasonable try.”)
The teacher goes asking for a lesson and, as human as he turns out to be, he gets it — not so much at the hands of the rampaging Yabbanians but because, over the course of a very few days, he devolves into one of them. It’s the spectacle of regression that is so appalling. The savage fun of a nighttime kangaroo shoot is not something to be easily forgotten, as much as one might want to. Take this as a recommendation. The kangaroo slaughter is crucial. Mapping the territory between nowhere and hell, “Wake in Fright” is a classic of the Australian uncanny to set beside the far more genteel “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “Walkabout.”
“Wake in Fright” is also a credit to Kotcheff, more sardonic than his debut feature “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” and fiercer than his world-historical Rambo saga “First Blood”; it further burnishes the Pleasance resume as well. The actor imbues the part of the Yabba’s dissolute doctor and resident intellectual with intimations of Harold Pinter that one might also call “deeply unsettling.”