Virtually unavailable since its 1971 release, "Wake in Fright" has acquired a cult reputation as Australia's great lost film. A sinister, atmospheric thriller about a civilized man's disintegration, it's no masterpiece, but it eats at one's nerves for its entire running time. Combining the sun-blasted wastelands of a Sergio Leone Western with the claustrophobic hopelessness of a Kafka novella, it's a powerful experience if you let it work its insidious magic.

Gary Bond plays Grant, a citified  new teacher posted to an Outback rail stop. An eloquent opening shot, with the camera slow-panning through 360 degrees of desolate desert surrounding Grant's schoolhouse establishes a sense of doom even before the action begins. The students don't have much use for Grant and the feeling is mutual. He bolts for Sydney during Christmas break, stopping en route at Bundanyabba ("The Yabba" to the locals). The blighted town is a hubbub of gambling dens and pubs packed wall to wall with braying drunks and guttersnipes. 

The toffee-nosed Grant scorns "the arrogance of the stupid who expect you to be as stupid as them," yet he yields to the aggressive mateship of the local constable. The lawman insists that the snobbish stranger take a drink with him, then several more, to prove he's a good bloke. Soon Grant is plastered, feverishly wagering away his savings. Stranded, he falls in with a dissolute alcoholic doctor and a pair of brawling redneck hunters who draw him into a dream world of booze, violence and debauchery. 

While this strange, disturbing film lacks complex characterizations, director Ted Kotcheff compensates with edge-of-your-seat tension. The narrative is ambiguous and laden with allegory, the casting spot-on. Bond, an English Stage actor with vulnerable good looks, has just the right blend of condescension and impotence to play the weak-spined schoolmaster. You feel you're losing your grip and spiraling into oblivion right along with him. Donald Pleasence gives an eerie, riveting performance as the physician, offering a premonition of who Grant might become if he surrenders to his lowest instincts. 

The film's nightmares climax in a nighttime kangaroo hunt of unflinching realism and brutality. The scene will make many stomachs lurch. It's so upsetting that the producers added an end note explaining the details of its filming, which helps a bit. But only a bit. The film stays with you like a bad hangover.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186