Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Not Quite Ozploitation (and two by Polanski!)

Wake In Fright (1971; Ted Kotcheff) has all the elements of a B-movie exploitation flick—a visitor to an remote town must deal with the place’s strange and foreboding customs—but wisely never plunges into obvious horror-movie territory.
There’s nothing supernatural going on, nor any superfluous “crime” subplots that are supposed to jack up the action.

However, Wake In Fright is a vicious anthropological study of the Australian continent’s worst citizens, both rural and urban, and as such is a top-shelf entry into a specific segment of “feel-bad” Savage Cinema.

Not quite Ozploitation, the film is a definite influence on the sub-genre, being unrelenting in its intensity once it gets going. BTW, I think I prefer Wake In Fright’s alternate title “Outback:” it’s more direct and pointed, brutal.
(Interestingly enough, Wake In Fright was originally released around the same time as Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout—a different look at Australia, one that’s more spiritual-philosophical, but that’s perhaps as critical.)

Despite its obvious and overt crudity, this film is much more intellectual than you might suppose:
I think your “regular” grindhouse flick would have had its main character be much more sympathetic—
Wake In Fright shows its B-movie disinclinations by stacking the deck against the protagonist from the beginning: when we first see him he’s keeping his students in their seats in class until the final minutes—on the last day of school before the Christmas holiday! You can’t help but think, “This prick’s got something coming to him…”
Hardly an everyman, John (Gary Bond) is the snobbish and conceited schoolteacher at an isolated outback town, and he cannot wait for Xmas break to start so he can get out of the isolated place and holiday in Sydney with his sexy girlfriend (who is shown in flashbacks). He’s Australian, but hides any Aussie accent, and keeps talking about leaving for England.

To catch his flight to “the city,” John has to spend the night in the snoozeville factory and farming community of “Yabba,” and it’s here where he runs into trouble, gambling away all his money (in an attempt to get enough bread to buy himself out of his teaching contract), and stranding himself in the process.
The desert town is so low-rent that the “big game at the casino” is betting on whether the pennies come up heads or tails.

John’s contemptuousness and arrogance of the locals doesn’t really endear him to many, but their drunken hospitality (bordering on hooliganism) allows him some entry.
But even so, the “city mouse” cannot deal with the earthly, violent and carnal townsfolk (who have a staggering capacity to consume beer).
However subconsciously, John almost never misses an opportunity to slight, routinely turning down offers to drink or bond with the burly males—and when he gets a chance with a willing local nympho, he blows chunks, and burns another bridge.

Open-armed outback camaraderie, on the other hand, keeps allowing the local Alpha-males to let John join in their games—which includes slaughtering kangaroos (in what, for a film released in 1970, must have been extremely disturbing stuff—Peckinpah wouldn’t be shooting the heads off of live chickens until 1973, and Cannibal Holocaust was still a decade away).

The inevitable, ego-destroying clash of cultures occurs, and John may never leave his in-the-middle-of-nowhere outpost again…

The film is aided by an occasionally schizoid/hallucinatory editing scheme, and impressive camerawork: lots of high-speed film used, so there’s plenty of grain—always a plus! Meanwhile, the production design is perfect. The dust, grime and background details all seem right, with non-professionals as extras adding to the documentary-style realism.

Donald Pleasance is excellent as “Doc,” an educated alky medico who’s gone “native,” and the rest of the cast, all Australians, is also good, especially the townspeople who can inspire dread with a smile.
This is really one of Pleasance’s best perfs, very physical and vital (usually he gets typecast as the bloodless deskbound bureaucrat), up there with his turns in the equally offbeat/non-mainstream Cul-De-Sac in 1966*, and the ultraviolent and nasty Soldier Blue in 1970.

Wake in Fright probably really resonates with Aussies more than Yanks, what with John’s posh “non”-Oz accent: how many city-dwelling Australians pretend they have nothing to do with their country cousins and avoid them like the plague?
In that respect, the film is like John Boorman’s Deliverance, but without the Hollywood need for externalized conflict, or “plot” (someone’s out to get them!). Wake in Fright is what would happen if Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Co. had gone drinking and partying with the banjo-playing retard and his kin instead of risking the wrath of the river. (Not that some cornholing wouldn’t still happen, but under slightly different circumstances…)

Considered “lost” since initial release, Wake In Fright is back in a new print and making the art-house circuit. The mainstream press is rightfully touting this flick, but to those Ivy League-High-Brow-Echo-Chamber-Snobs, Wake In Fright is something new—but horror fans should be warned: there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
It’s still a sick, fucked-up flick, very recommended—but maybe as a rental (save your dough; times are tough)—and certainly not to be viewed as a “standard” horror film.
This film is an intellectual exercise that is willing to go the distance—like a proto-Michael Haneke movie, Wake in Fright is what would happen if Konrad Lorenz and Joseph Conrad joined forces to do a survey on Australia, circa 1970.

[And thank Cthulhu for the “Australian Invasion” of the 1980s, when Paul Hogan made all things Oz ubiquitous in the States; otherwise, I would not have understood half of what the people were saying in Wake In Fright, their accents are that thick.]

* = Regarding Cul-De-Sac
Cul-De-Sac (1966; Roman Polanski) Polanski channels Orson Welles for the visuals while the script is Samuel Beckett meets Harold Pinter at Jim Thompson’s favorite bar.
Impotent haywire Donald Pleasance is pleasantly tortured by ill-fated chanteuse Francoise Dorléac, as well as roughed up by a snarling gangster on the run.
Didn’t watch this under the best circumstances; need to give the flick another chance, I suppose.
But Kim Morgan loves it—here’s her review.

But speaking of Polanski and his films, LERNER INTERNATIONAL recently had the pleasure of screening his most recent release:
Carnage (2011; Roman Polanski) is almost perfect—it just ended too abruptly for me.
Honestly, it could’ve even used a “third act.” After being so “theatrical” (the characters do not speak like real people; but that’s okay: the dialog sparkles like shiny daggers—“Children suck the life out of you!” shrieks one character—and it is wonderful to follow the twists and trails of the insults and venom), the quasi-post-modern “blackout” ending seems unfortunate.

If the show had been a genuine improvisational comedy show, then where the story “blacks out” would have been perfect.
But it is scripted, and with the amount of excellent verbiage, I as an audience member expected just a little more. (I’m not sure what, specifically, would help—without devolving the film into something typical and trite, but I do feel something is lacking…)

Speaking of improv comedy, I swear Jodie Foster is channeling Amy Poehler for her character of an uptight mom; but the entire cast is great, thesping to the max. Meanwhile, Polanski (who cameos as a peeping neighbor) keeps the camera mobile and the editing nimble. And despite being baffled by the ending, I really enjoyed this one-location social satire taking place in real time.
[One distraction, but not really the film’s fault per se: Knowing that because of his legal problems, Polanski could not have made this film, set in a tonier part of Brooklyn, on location, whenever any character got close to a window or looked out one, I was aware that what was behind them was a highly-detail, well-crafted special effect. The visuals themselves are flawless, but the knowledge that they were illusions was distracting. In this case, old school painted backdrops would’ve been more appropriate, with the obvious artifice encouraging the suspension of disbelief.]

Meanwhile, since we’re discussing Roman P., let’s look at the other film from 1968 that Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby producer, William Castle, was working on:
Project X (1968; William Castle) is a dumb-headed, cheapo espionage flick. Set in the future, and rife with neat ideas and potential, the movie suffers from a clunky script that could’ve used about three or four rewrites and polishes: It’s a proto-Philip K. Dick tale about a comatose spy, and the government scientists playing with his sense of reality to get to the info locked in his brain.
The flick is full of groovy psychedelic imagery (courtesy of Hanna-Barbera animation), but they’re for naught as the story is so pedestrian and often nonsensical.
If anything, the exposition-heavy Project X is annoying in its mediocrity.
What’s surprising is that producer-director William Castle was in the process of producing the classic Rosemary’s Baby at the same time he was making this! Too bad he didn’t get Polanski to pitch in and improve Project X.
There is, however, a cool “brain in a jar” scene in Project X that I found amusing.

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