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Originally published Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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'Wake in Fright': Restored outback drama hasn't lost chilling effect

A movie review of "Wake in Fright," one of the seminal Australian films of the 1970s. Ted Kotcheff's disturbing outback drama stars Gary Bond as a schoolteacher who spends his Christmas holidays gambling, drinking and hunting kangaroos.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Wake in Fright,' with Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Sylvia Kay. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, from a screenplay by Evan Jones, based on a novel by Kenneth Cook. 114 minutes. Rated R for language, nudity, smoking, kangaroo abuse. SIFF Cinema at the Film Center.

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The "Mad Max" series and Peter Weir's eerie films established the international reputation of the Australian New Wave in the late 1970s, but an argument could be made that a couple of 1971 films, "Walkabout" and "Wake in Fright," represented the genre's true beginnings.

While the aborigine nature drama "Walkabout" enjoyed some art-house success, the more existential and disturbing "Wake in Fright" was released as grindhouse fodder and given a blander American title ("Outback"). Critics championed it (Pauline Kael praised its "talent and intelligence" as well as its "sense of epic horror"), but until recently it was in danger of becoming a lost film.

Now that a gorgeous digital restoration has rescued "Wake in Fright" from almost-certain disintegration, it's possible to see how it complements and reflects the concerns of other films of the period. It's clearly a seminal piece of work.

The hero (played by the always-interesting Gary Bond) is a handsome, uncertain schoolteacher stuck in the outback. Although he had other plans, he spends his Christmas holidays gambling and drinking in a male-dominated community.

He loses all his money, turns off the one apparently available woman (the wonderfully dry Sylvia Kay), goes on a brutal hunt for kangaroos and spends an ambiguous night with another man (Donald Pleasence at his most menacing). The story ends where it begins, with nothing essential changed except for the memories of the characters.

"Wake in Fright" was originally released around the same time as "The Last Picture Show," which used startlingly similar camerawork to capture the hero's desolate surroundings, and "Straw Dogs," which took a similarly nihilistic approach to backwoods mayhem.

In 1971, The New York Times' Roger Greenspun thought it had "a particular terror ... that is not quite like anything else I can remember feeling at the movies." Several decades later, it still chills.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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