"Drink up."

That's the constant refrain, at once friendly, taunting, and menacing, directed at John Grant, the antihero of Wake in Fright, a stunning, deeply disturbing psychological thriller set in the Australian Outback.

An arthouse Oz-ploitation flick of immense power, from 1971 and now rereleased in a restored edition, Ted Kotcheff's film is a confrontational deconstruction of the frontier masculinity that pervades so much of Australian and American cinema.  

Grant is a schoolteacher stuck in the one-horse town of Tiboonda. He becomes embroiled in a nightmarish odyssey of alcohol, violence, and self-loathing when he tries to flee his backwater burg.

Wake in Fright opens with an aerial view of Tiboonda, a depressing, dusty village of a few buildings in the middle of a vast nowhere. It's Christmas break at the one-room school, and Grant is eager to join his girlfriend Robyn in Sydney.

His journey goes no farther than the small mining town of Bundanyabba (called "the Yabba" by locals) where he was supposed to spend a night before catching his flight.

Stopping at a bar, he's accosted by the local men - there are virtually no women or children in town - whose ferocious, aggressive hospitality and amity put Grant on the defensive. They buy him drink after drink and extol the Yabba's many virtues. By night's end, Grant is too drunk to walk and penniless, having dropped his cash in an absurd game that has folks bet their paychecks on the toss of a coin.

Grant meets a series of odd-and-odder characters, including Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) and a disgraced alcoholic former doctor named "Doc" Tydon, who is played by a brilliantly deranged Donald Pleasence. Each is plunged in despair, yet pretends happiness.

For fun, the guys drink and goad one another into feats of masculine prowess, and they suck Grant deeper into their collective psychosis.

Things go from bad to worse when Grant is taken on a kangaroo hunt. In a sequence that is difficult to watch, Kotcheff masterfully intercuts footage of actual hunters shooting and stabbing the animals.

Bloodlust is an apt term for what we see next, as the group's ecstasy of violence slides uncomfortably into the sexual.

Wake in Fright is essential viewing for anyone interested in the roots of male violence.


Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.