Horror Film Review: Wake In Fright (dir by Ted Kotcheff)

To be honest, it’s probably open for debate whether or not Wake In Fright is actually a horror film.

This 1971 Australian film, which tells the story of a school teacher who becomes stranded in a small town in the outback, doesn’t feature any ghosts or werewolves or vampires or zombies or anything else of a supernatural nature.  The school teacher meets a large number of people in town, the majority of whom are technically quite friendly.  They teach him how to gamble.  They take him on a hunt.  They give him shelter when he doesn’t have anywhere else to stay.  The word “mate” is tossed around so frequently that it soon becomes clear that every man — significantly, there’s only two women in the film and one of them only appears in the teacher’s memories — in the outback is considered to be one.

The people of town of Bundanyabba — or “The Yabba,” as they call it — are also very generous with their beer.  If they meet you for the first time, they expect you to have a beer with them.  If they see you for the first, second, or third time during the day, they expect you to have a beer with them.  They wake up in the morning drinking and they go to bed drunk.  When John Grant (Gary Bond) first shows up in the Yabba, he can barely handle two beers.  By the end of his stay, he’s drinking nonstop.

However, John also discovers that it dangerous to turn down those offers of beer.  Turn down a beer and you might get a strange look, if you’re lucky.  More likely, you’ll get yelled at.  Turn down a beer from the wrong person and you might even get attacked.  Everyone in the Yabba is friendly but everyone is also always on the verge of throwing the first punch.  Refuse a beer and you might be in trouble.  Refuse to enthusiastically take part in a savage and sadistic kangaroo hunt and your mates might starts to talk.  When John first arrives, he’s a bit amused by the town and what he sees as being its backwards ways.  It’s obvious that he looks down on the people around him and one can sense that they realize that.  Perhaps that’s why everyone around him seems to take such joy in watching John slowly lose his identity.

That’s horror at the heart of Wake in Fright.  It’s not the horror of the paranormal.  Instead, it’s the horror of the isolation.  There’s no way to fight the isolation and the madness it brings.  Your only choice is to either surrender to it or be destroyed by it.  The longer John spends in the Yabba, the more the bleakness of the outback gets to him.  It’s a world dominated by brutal men, none of whom are particularly impressed when they find out that John’s teacher and that he has a suitcase full of books.  They view John as being soft and, in order to prove that he’s not, John starts to sacrifice his identity.  He starts to become just as much of a brute as Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle).

Having lost all of his money, John eventually ends up staying with Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence).  Doc really is a doctor.  He’s also, as he cheerfully explains, an alcoholic.  When John says that he’s going to find some place else to stay, Doc makes it clear that John isn’t leaving.  The film makes good use of Pleasence’s eccentric screen presence.  Is Doc simply being friendly or does Doc have more sinister motives fueling his insistence that John stay with him?  When Doc gives John advice, is it to help him or is it to further degrade John?  Like John, Doc is an educated man and obviously smarter than those around him.  And yet, Doc seems very happy in the mad world of the Yabba, drinking, hunting, and gambling.  Is John destined to become Doc or can he escape?

John discovers that leaving the Yabba isn’t easy.  Every time he tries, he ends up back in town.  All roads seems to lead back to the Yabba.  In retrospect, perhaps the most frightening thing about Wake In Fright is that no one seems to be surprised by the sight of the increasingly disheveled and unstable John.  Even when he stumbles through town while carrying a rifle, no one gives him a second look.  He’s just another part of the scenery.

No, Wake In Fright is not a traditional horror film but it’s a horror film, nonetheless.  It’s about the horror of not only losing your identity but perhaps not being quite sure what your identity was in the first place.  As played by Gary Bond, John is an often frustrating character but you never stop caring about him.  It’s frightening to watch him lose himself, even while you wonder if he ever knew who he truly was in the first place.  Bond was a stage actor who only appeared in three films.  Wake in Fright was his final film and one of the huge reasons why it’s so effective is because Gary Bond is not an actor who we recognize from other films.  We don’t seen an actor when we look at him.  Instead, we see a person who, for the first time, is discovering just how unsettling life on the fringes can be.

It’s a powerful film and a controversial one.  When John is taken on a kangaroo hunt, footage from an actual hunt was included in the film and it’s a horrific sequence, one that’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that the hunters refuse to acknowledge just how horrific and unjust it all is.  Reportedly, when Wake In Fright was first released, someone in a Sydney theater stood up and shouted at the screen, “This is not us!”  Actor Jack Thompson, who made his film debut in Wake In Fright, was in the audience and shouted back, “It is us, mate!  Sit down!”

For a long time, it was impossible to see Wake In Fright.  Only one known print was known to exist and it was a badly damaged one.  Fortunately, in 2002, another print was found in Pittsburgh and Wake In Fright was rereleased and rediscovered.  When it was first released in 1971, the film’s violence and downbeat atmosphere were both controversial and it struggled at the Australian box office.  (Many Australians, like that theatergoer in Sydney, initially viewed the film as being a bit of a personal attack.)  Rereleased in 2003 and championed by Martin Scorsese, Wake In Fright was embraced by a new generation of critics, many of whom declared it to be one of the greatest and most important Australian films ever made.

Wake In Fright is a powerful and unsettling film, a portrait of a place that seems to be fueled by toxic masculinity and self-destruction.  It’s a disturbing film and not easy to watch.  But if you do watch it, it will stick with you and leave you thinking long after the final credits roll.

4 Shots From 4 Donald Pleasence Films: Wake In Fright, The Mutations, Halloween, Phenomena

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we celebrate the life and career Donald Pleasence!  One of the greatest of all the horror icons, Pleasence was born 101 years ago today and that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Wake in Fright (1971, dir by Ted Kotcheff)

The Mutations (1974, dir by Jack Cardiff)

Halloween (1978, dir by John Carpenter)

Phenomena (1985, dir by Dario Argento)

North Dallas Forty (1979, directed by Ted Kotcheff)

Pete Gent was a college basketball star at Michigan State University who, in 1964, received a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.  Intrigued by the $500 that the team was offering to any player who attended training camp that summer, Gent accepted.  Despite the fact that Gent had never before played football, the Cowboys were impressed with his athleticism and they signed him to the team.

For five seasons, Gent played wide receiver.  During that time, he caught a lot of balls, became close friends (or so he claimed) with quarterback Don Meredith, and got under the skin of Coach Tom Landry with his nonconformist attitude.  After several injuries kept him off the field during the 1968 season, Gent was traded to the Giants who waived him before the next regular season began.

Out of work and with no other team wanting to sign him, Gent wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about his time with the Cowboys.  North Dallas Forty was published in 1973 and it immediately shot up the best seller charts.  When the book was published, football players were still regularly portrayed as being wholesome, all-American athletes and the Dallas Cowboys were still known as America’s Team.  North Dallas Forty shocked readers with its details about groupies, drugs, racism, and gruesome injuries.  The NFL, of course, claimed that Gent was just a disgruntled former player who was looking to get back at the league.  When asked about the book (which portrayed him as being a marijuana-loving good old boy), Don Meredith was reported to have said, “If I’d known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more.”

Meredith had a point, of course.  In the book, Pete Gent portrays himself as not only being the smartest man in football but also as having the best hands in the league.  Men want to be him.  Women want to be with him.  And the North Dallas Bulls (which is the book’s version of the Dallas Cowboys) don’t know what they’re losing when they release him for violating the league’s drug policy.  Today, when you read it and you’re no longer shocked by all of the drugs and the sex, North Dallas Forty comes across as mostly being a case of very sour grapes.

Luckily, the film version is better.

Nick Notle plays Phil Elliott, a broken-down receiver who wakes up most mornings with a bloody nose and who can barely walk without first popping a hundred pills.  Phil is a nonconformist and a rebel.  He loves to play the game but he hates how it’s become a business.  Mac Davis plays Seth Maxwell, the team’s quarterback and Phil’s best friend.  Seth is just as cynical as Phil but he’s better at playing politics.  G.D. Spradlin is B.A. Strother, the cold head coach who is a thinly disguised version of the legendary Tom Landry.  In the novel, B.A. Strother was portrayed as being a hypocritical dictator.  The film’s version is more sympathetic with Strother being portrayed as stern but not cruel.  Strother even tells Phil that he “can catch anything.”

Both the film and the book take place over the course of one week leading to a big game against Chicago.  In the book, Phil says that he and Seth don’t care about whether or not they win.  In the movie, they much do care but, at the same time, they know that they’re being held back by a system that cares more about whether or not they follow the rules than if they win the game.  While Phil’s teammates (including Bo Svenson as Joe Bob Priddy and John Mantuszak as O.W. Shaddock) behave like animals, Phil falls in love with Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon), who doesn’t care about football.

Pete Gent was originally hired to write the film’s screenplay but left after several disagreements with producer Frank Yablans.  (The screenplay was completed by Yablans, directed Ted Kotcheff, and an uncredited Nancy Dowd.)  The movie loosely follows the novel while dropping some of its weaker plot points.  As a result, the film version has everything that made the novel memorable but without any of Gent’s lingering bitterness over how his career ended.  The novel used football as a metaphor for everything that was going wrong in America in the 60s and 70s but the movie is more of a dark comedy about one man rebelling against the system.

There’s only a few minutes of game footage but North Dallas Forty is still one of the best football movies ever made, mostly because Nick Nolte is absolutely believable as an aging wide receiver.  He’s convincing as someone who can still make all the plays even though he’s usually in so much pain that it’s a struggle for him to get out of bed every morning.  He’s also convincing as someone who loves the game but who won’t give up his freedom just to play it.  This is a definite improvement on the novel, in which Phil seemed to hate football so much that it was hard not to wonder why he was even wasting his time with it.  Country-and-western signer Mac Davis is also convincing as Seth Maxwell and fans of great character actors will be happy to see both Charles Durning and Dabney Coleman in small roles.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, North Dallas Forty is a great film.  Coming at the tail end of the 70s, it’s a character study as much as its a sports film.  It’s also one of the few cinematic adaptations to improve on its source material.  As a book, North Dallas Forty may no longer be shocking but the movie will be scoring touchdowns forever.

Film Review: First Blood (dir by Ted Kotcheff)

First Blood was not what I was expecting.

From everything that I had heard and seen over the past few years, I was under the impression that this 1982 film was the ultimate in mindless action.  I figured that the film was basically just two hours of Sylvester Stallone hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and eventually blowing up a small, bigoted town.  It wasn’t a film that I was in any particular hurry to experience but I knew it was one that I would have to watch eventually, if just because of how many filmmakers have cited the film as an influence.  On Sunday night, First Blood aired on the Sundance Channel and, for the first time, I watched it all the way through.  What I discovered is that there’s a lot more to First Blood than I had been led to believe.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It’s definitely an action film.  Stallone spends a lot of time hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and blowing up a town.  Somewhat improbably, only one character actually dies over the course of the film, though quite a few end up getting maimed and wounded.  There’s even a close-up of Stallone stitching up a nasty gash on his arm, which totally made me cringe.  But, even with all the gunfire and explosions, First Blood has more on its mind than just carnage.  It’s a brooding film, one that angrily takes America to task for its treatment of its veterans and outsiders.  In its way, it’s an action film with a heart.

Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a troubled drifter who is still haunted by not only his experiences in Vietnam but also by the feeling that his own country doesn’t want him around.  When Rambo, with his unkempt hair and wearing a jacket with an American flag patch prominently displayed, shows up in the town of Hope, Washington, it’s not to cause trouble.  He just wants to see an old friend, a man with whom he served.  Unfortunately, his friend has died.  The man’s bitter mother says that he got cancer from “that orange stuff they were spraying around.”  Even though the war is over, it’s still killing the only people who can possibly understand how Rambo feels about both his service and his uncertain place in American society.

As Rambo walks through the town, he’s spotted by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy).  Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee and relax.  Teasle, however, views Rambo as being a stranger and, therefore, a possible threat to his town.  Teasle wants Rambo to leave.  Rambo wants to know why, after everything that he’s sacrificed for his country, he’s being told that he needs to get a haircut.  From this simple conflict — a misunderstanding really, as Teasle doesn’t know that Rambo is mourning the death of his friend and instead interprets Rambo’s sullen silence as being a threat — an undeclared and unwinnable war soon breaks out.

Technically, Teasle is the film’s villain.  He’s the one who arrests Rambo for vagrancy.  It’s his abusive deputies who cause Rambo to have the flashbacks that lead to him breaking out of jail.  It’s Teasle’s arrogance that leads to him ignore the warnings of Rambo’s former commanding office, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna).  And yet, Teasle himself is never portrayed as being an evil man.  Instead, Dennehy plays Teasle as being well-meaning but stubborn.  It’s been written that the most compelling villains are the ones who don’t realize that they’re the villain and that’s certainly true in Teasle’s case.  Teasle’s job is to protect the town and its citizens and that’s what he’s determined to do.  If his actions become extreme, it has less to do with any deliberate cruelty on his part and everything to do with the fact that, towards the end of the film, he finally figures out that he’s in way over his head.

Once Rambo has disappeared into the woods and maimed (but not killed) all of Teasle’s deputies, he only has one request and that’s to be left alone.  He simply wants to stay in the woods, hunting for food and free from a society that has nothing to offer him during peacetime.  What’s interesting is that, at the start of the film, everyone wants Rambo to just disappear.  He’s a reminder of not just the turmoil of the Vietnam era but also the fact that Vietnam was the first war that America lost.  Rambo’s presence is viewed as being like an ugly scar that you wish would just fade away.  However, once Rambo does actually vanish, people won’t stop looking for him.  As opposed to the later films in the franchise, the Rambo of First Blood doesn’t want to fight anyone.  Rambo just wants to be left alone in solitude and considering the way that he’s treated by the town of Hope, it’s hard to blame him.

And so, you end up sympathizing with this John Rambo.  Even thought he’s blowing up a town during the Christmas season and there’s a few scenes where he’s kind of scary, it’s impossible not to feel that he has a right to his anger.  You find yourself wishing that the Sheriff had just left him alone or that maybe Rambo had just taken Teasle’s earlier advice and left town.  Because, as you watch the film, you know that 1) there was no good reason why any of this had to happen and 2) things probably aren’t going to end well for either John Rambo or Will Teasle.

First Blood was based on a novel that was first published in 1972.  The film spent nearly a decade in development, as various directors, screenwriters, and actors circled around the project.  At one point, First Blood was envisioned as an anti-war film that would have been directed by Sidney Lumet and which would have featured a bearded Al Pacino lurking through the wilderness and killing not only Teasle but also several deputies and national guardsmen.  When Stallone agreed to star in the film, he also rewrote the script, transforming Rambo into a sympathetic outsider who goes out of his way not to kill anyone.  The end result was an underdog story that audiences could embrace.

Seen today, it’s interesting to see how many familiar faces pop up in First Blood.  For instance, a young and really goofy-looking David Caruso pops up and totally overacts in the role of the only sympathetic deputy.  A less sympathetic deputy is played by Chris Mulkey, who would go on to play other unsympathetic characters in a huge number of movies and TV shows.  Interestingly enough, the most sadistic of the deputies was played by Jack Starrett, who directed a several classic B-moves in the 70s.  (One of Starrett’s films was The Losers, in which a bunch of bikers were sent to Vietnam to rescue an American diplomat.)

As opposed to many of the films that it subsequently inspired, First Blood holds up surprisingly well.  It may be violent but it’s violence with a heart.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Dr. Crippen, Cul-de-sac, Wake In Fright, The Mutations

Yesterday would have been Donald Pleasence’s 96th birthday.  Pleasence is best remembered for playing Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and the obsessive Dr. Sam Loomis in the Halloween films but, over the course of his long career, he appeared in over a hundred other films.  These 4 shots come from 4 of them.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Dr. Crippen (1963, directed by Robert Lynn)

Dr. Crippen (1963, directed by Robert Lynn)

Cul-de-sac (1966, directed by Roman Polanski)

Cul-de-sac (1966, directed by Roman Polanski)

Wake in Fright (1971, directed by Ted Kotcheff)

Wake in Fright (1971, directed by Ted Kotcheff)

The Mutations (1974, directed by Jack Cardiff)

The Mutations (1974, directed by Jack Cardiff)

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #67: Split Image (dir by Ted Kotcheff)

Split_Image_VHS_coverUnlike Desperate Lives, the 1982 melodrama Split Image is available to be viewed on YouTube.  In fact, you can watch it below and I suggest that you do so.  It’s a pretty good film and, apparently, it’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray and it’ll probably never be available on Netflix either. So, if you’ve ever wanted to see Peter Fonda play a cult leader, your best bet is to watch the video below.

But before you watch the video, here’s a little information on Split Image, one of the best films that you’ve never heard of.

Essentially, the film follows the same plot as the Canadian film Ticket To Heaven.  A college athlete (played by Michael O’Keefe) starts dating a girl (Karen Allen) who is a member of a sinister religious cult.  Soon, O’Keefe is a brainwashed member of the cult and only answering to the name of Joshua.  (The head of the cult is played, in an appropriately spaced-out manner, by Peter Fonda.)  His parents (Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley) hire a cult deprogrammer (James Woods) to kidnap their son and break Fonda’s hold on him.  However, it turns out that Woods’ methods are almost as psychologically destructive as Fonda’s manipulation.

Even if it’s not quite as memorably creepy as Ticket To Heaven, Split Image is still a well-made film, featuring excellent performances from Dennehy, Woods, O’Keefe, and Fonda.  However, for me, the most interesting thing about Split Image is that it was largely filmed and set down here in Dallas.  Just watch the scene where Woods and his men attempt to kidnap Michael O’Keefe.  It was shot on the campus of Richland Community College, which is one of the places where I regularly go to run.

(Interestingly enough, 33 years after the release of Split Image, Richland still looks exactly the same!)

You can watch Split Image below!