“All the little devils are proud of hell”
When you hear the term “Australian horror” not much usually comes to mind. Maybe Wolf Creek, The Babadook, Rogue and potentially even Picnic at Hanging Rock. And while these films have their merits, I truly believe there is one that constantly flies under the rug. It is a film that I have never stopped talking about since I was 16. A film that Martin Scorsese himself raves about. A film that makes you feel so uneasy and uncomfortable it is almost hard to recommend – Wake in Fright.
Since most people reading this haven’t heard of Wake in Fright, I will give a small recap (I would honestly go watch it first though). Wake in Fright is a horror/ thriller directed by Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. It is about John Grant, an English school teacher living in a small town in 1970s Australia. On the holidays, he attempts to leave the town to visit Sydney. However, he gets stuck in Yabba – a tiny mining town – after gambling and drinking away his money.
Now hearing that may make you think that this film does not belong in the horror genre. But I think that’s exactly what makes it so special. It is not your stereotypical horror story about a killer or monster. Instead, the horror lies in the town, the people, and the situation.
Upon John’s arrival at ‘the Yabba’, it is very clear how much of an influence gambling has over this town. From the two up games to the obsession with the pokies, Kotcheff displays this horrifying hold that gambling has over people. Like a ghost, it possesses this small town and keeps them hooked. And soon enough, it grabs John and takes a complete hold of him. John forgets his ambitions and dreams of making some quick money. But with any gambling addiction, the end is never pretty. John loses all the money he has worked so hard for and can no longer visit his girlfriend.
One of the smartest parts of this movie is the use of climate. In particular, the focus on Australia’s harsh and unforgiving heat. Every scene makes you feel like you are profusely sweating. The sun constantly beating down on our protagonist is draining both on John Grant and us. It effectively makes the audience constantly uncomfortable from the moment this movie starts.
Wake in Fright reveals one of the most fundamental flaws of Australian culture – toxic masculinity. As John starts talking to Jannette, a man around the table says, “he would rather talk to a woman than drink?” Every woman in this movie is either insulted, used for sex, or abused. It reveals to us this dangerous but very realistic misogynistic attitude that exists deep down in Australian culture. A deep-rooted and horrifying perspective of women being inferior.
But perhaps the greatest horror of Wake in Fright is the portrayal of alcoholism. From John’s arrival in Yabba till the end of the film, he is force fed this poison. Declining alcohol in this town is the equivalent of slapping someone in the face. The physical queasiness this had on me was something I don’t often feel in films. It was such an accurate portrayal of the Australian drinking culture that I completely understand why this movie didn’t do well – people don’t want to see the truth. They don’t want to see an outsider expose their country’s biggest faults.
The Yabba is not simply a small outback Australian town. Instead, it is a hell. All these themes display a horrible and dangerous outlook on life. John Grant is trapped in a place that has drained him of any ambitions. A place that has transformed him into what he once hated most. John has been infected with this nihilistic perspective on life. What Kotcheff shows the audience is that this way of life is the horror. These views and substance abuse can lead to a wasted and toxic life, whether you realise it or not.