First, I want to put in a plug for the documentary Not Quite Hollywood. It's a history of exploitation film in Australia, and it's a gold mine for anyone into the gamut of genre film. Thanks to this documentary, I've been introduced to Turkey Shoot, a grimy, postapocalyptic take on The Most Dangerous Game; Stone, which is pretty much the Manos: The Hands of Fate of biker movies; and if I could find copies of the horror movies Patrick and Next of Kin, I'd be a happy man.
It also covers a harsh, oppressive character study called Wake in Fright.
Wake in Fright (a/k/a Outback) is the story of John Grant, a schoolteacher in the remote Outback community of Tiboonda. Well, "community" might be a bit of a stretch - Tiboonda appears to consist of a schoolhouse, a train stop, and a combination bar/boardinghouse. It's the last day before Christmas break, and everyone sits at their desks in complete silence as Grant, unsmiling, ticks away the last few minutes. He doesn't get a break, so nobody else does either. He's a bonded teacher - when he took his position, he had to post a $1000 bond to ensure completion of his teaching contract. This is presumably why he's teaching in Tiboonda and why he seems so angry about it. Every inch of him strains against his obligation.
But, it's Christmas break, and Grant is headed to Sydney to spend the break with his girlfriend. He takes the train from Tiboonda to the mining town of Bundanyabba, where he'll stay the night before catching a flight to Sydney in the morning. "The 'Yabba" is a friendly town - always someone willing to stand you to a drink, always some gambling to do. Grant just wants to have a drink in peace before heading to Sydney, but in the 'Yabba, there's not a whole lot to do, and a whole lot of people to do it with. And before it's all over, schoolteacher John Grant will be alone, broke, filthy, sitting on the floor of a shack with the barrel of a rifle in his mouth.
I watched Wake in Fright while recovering from minor surgery, so I was drifting in and out of consciousness for a few days, groggy, medicated and in diffuse discomfort. Normally not the best state in which to watch most movies, but perfect for watching this. The whole movie feels like a druggy bad dream - abrupt cuts, blasts of rapid-fire imagery, blown-out, harsh lighting, and characters who can barely communicate, stuck in emotional arrest. The quality of the print I saw was poor, so the washed-out look is especially bad - it's got that raw 1970s exploitation film look, and on top of that, pretty much any daytime scene is oppressively white, with the characters drifting in and out of visibility.
And this is what John Grant's story is - fragmentary, half-remembered moments drifting in and out of clarity, interrupted by ugly, squalid eruptions of violence and shame. It's not a horror movie, per se, but Grant's fate seems inescapable and the hospitality of the town is almost predatory (every grin is a baring of teeth). Ultimately, Grant wanders the streets, filthy and insensate, a zombie among the living.