When I was a kid, I was too scared to watch horror movies. In my imagination, horror movies were truly uncomfortable experiences, featuring awful situations and real-life violence. When I finally watched my first horror movie—it was one of the Friday the 13th movies; I don't remember which—I was disappointed. There was no real horror, just gore. And instead of a creeping sense of dread, they were mostly a string of attacks, powered with jumpy scares. I watched more horror movies and found them to be mostly the same formula: Part action movie, part comedy, but always wiling to upend its own scares in a wink to readers. I've seen some very good ones—The Descent is still one of the scariest things I've seen in a theater—but I had never seen a movie that lived up to my childhood fears.
Until two nights ago. Wake in Fright, an Australian movie from 1971, is probably the closest thing to the movies that I imagined as a child that I'll ever see. There are no cartoonish monsters, no jump-in-your-seat moments, and no serial killers. But the Outback residents that our protagonist gets to know are more memorably terrifying than Freddy or Jason have ever been. Fright stars Gary Bond as a schoolteacher whose student loans force him to be assigned to a tiny Outback town. As he tries to make his way back to Sydney for Christmas break, he gets sidetracked in a slightly larger Outback town, where he falls in with the locals and their lifestyle, which includes a lot of gambling, drinking, and violence.
There are only a few movies about benders that really capture the gonzo spirit of a person who has entirely given up on sobriety. Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one, Withnail and I is another. Unlike those two, Fright doesn't play itself off as a comedy. There are some laugh-out-loud moments, but the film mostly keeps a dispassionate eye on the disaster as it slowly unfolds. (Most notably, one scene features footage from a real-life Australian kangaroo hunt, and if you can't handle the sight of kangaroo bodies whipping through the air as bullets rip through them, you should skip this movie.) Wake in Fright is a horror story in the same way that Lord of the Flies is a horror story. It will leave you feeling uneasy, awed, and just a little bit sick. You've never seen a movie quite like it, except maybe in your imagination.