Dark Age Review
The first part of what follows is revised and expanded from the DVD review of Dark Age which I wrote for this site in 2012, here.
Australia is a country with more than its share of dangerous wildlife, and that very much includes the estuarine or saltwater crocodile, found in the Northern Territory and northern Queensland. Known as “Numunwari” to the indigenous peoples, this largest of living reptiles can exceed six or (arguably) seven metres in length and humans can and sometimes do form part of its diet. Steve Harris (John Jarratt) is a wildlife ranger charged with conserving the species against the predations of hunters. Hearing rumours of a seven-metre crocodile that has already killed two people, Steve and his girlfriend Cathy Pope (Nikki Coghill) and Aboriginal trackers Oonadabund (Burnam Burnam) and Adjaral (David Gulpilil, here billed simply by his surname) go in search of it to relocate it to a breeding sanctuary. But the survivor of that attack is hunter John Besser (Max Phipps) and he is hellbent on revenge.
Director Arch Nicholson made four features, the others being Buddies, Fortress (made for HBO in America and shown there before its Australian cinema release) and Weekend with Kate. The last-named was released in 1990, the year of his death from motor neurone disease, aged just forty-eight. He also directed many TV episodes and, particularly relevant to tales of giant fauna on the rampage, second unit on Razorback. Latterly he has had some attention paid to his work, the present film especially. Much of that is due to Quentin Tarantino, who championed Dark Age in the Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Tarantino is also the owner of the only known surviving 35mm print of Dark Age.
Like many Ozploitation films, Dark Age was financed in the 10BA era, a government-backed incentive for companies to invest in films and write off 150% of the investment against tax. That didn't prove as good a deal as it sounded at first. The need for the film to be completed in the financial year of its investment caused logjams in production and the increase in demand for local crews put their prices up and hence increased the films' budgets. As many films were conceived primarily as tax losses, quality wasn't always a priority. While many films were aimed at the growing home video market, others failed to secure cinema releases and didn't see the light of day until they were put out on VHS or sold to television. Dark Age was one of these.
The film was shot in five weeks in and around Cairns with a further week in Alice Springs. Dark Age was one of a two-picture deal producer Antony Ginnane made with overseas investors RKO, the other being The Lighthorsemen, directed by Simon Wincer the same year. By the time it was completed, RKO had sold off the foreign rights and negotiations with an Australian distributor fell through. As a result, the film was not released in its native country, and didn't have a commercial release there until its 2011 DVD. (It had a UK video release, passed by the BBFC with an uncut 18 certificate in 1987. It would probably get a 15 nowadays. The Australian rating is MA 15+.)
If the label “Ozploitation” leads you to anticipate something fast and trashy and gory, then you may well be disappointed by Dark Age. Written by Sonia Borg from a novel, Numunwari by Grahame Webb, a Darwin-based crocodile expert, Dark Age is not a kill-the-monster story but a save-the-monster one. In fact, the real monster is a human – as played by Max Phipps, scary enough and just the right side of overplaying the part. The seven-metre croc may kill people (including a young child in a scene many will find upsetting) but it at least is obeying its nature. We do get moderately gory attack scenes (adroitly directed by Nicholson), a not always convincing but well disguised mechanical giant crocodile and a sex scene, but it's as if Nicholson and Borg are “smugglers” (in the Martin Scorsese filmmaking sense), slipping in eco themes into what could have been a more straightforward exploitation horror movie. Another hint is in the title, which is expanded upon by an opening caption which talks about how Aboriginals have lived in harmony with nature for 40,000 years and that most of their animals, the Numunwari included, are sacred.
The film was made in the run up to Australia's celebrations of its bicentenary in 1988, two hundred years after the arrival of the First Fleet. So suggesting that Australia as a country was a lot older than that, and not just a country for its white people, is more than a little departure from the prevailing narrative of the time. The two principal indigenous characters in the cast are treated with considerable dignity and sensitivity and, thanks to David Gulpilil's input, the Aboriginal rituals seen here are accurate. Also, the female lead has more to do than be decorative and to help demonstrate the hero's heterosexuality – maybe due to a female scriptwriter? - and the relationship between Steve and Cathy does ring true. Sonia Borg, who came to Australia from Vienna and had been a working scriptwriter for both films and television since the mid 1960s, had form in stories about connections between humanity and nature – Storm Boy being another of her scripts. She died in 2016 at the age of eighty-four.
John Jarratt has continued a career which began in the Seventies and continues to this day (best known now as Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek and its sequel and television miniseries spinoff, and another giant-croc movie, Greg McLean's 2007 Rogue). Nikki Coghill, an appealing presence here, has spent most of her career on television. Veteran Irish-Australian character actor Gerry Duggan turns up as a drunkard who becomes croc food. Andrew Lesnie's cinematography is excellent.
Early death is always tantalising, and it would be fascinating to see what Nicholson might have made if he had lived. Dark Age isn't quite what you might expect, but it deserves its cult following.
Umbrella previously released Dark Age on a NTSC-format DVD which I reviewed for Australia Day in 2012: see the link above. That disc's one extra is carried over to this new Blu-ray, with some additional ones. Incidentally, John Jarratt's name is misspelled on the extras menu.
As with the DVD, the Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the cinematic 1.85:1. Some reference sources have claimed this is a Scope film, most likely due to the “filmed in Panavision” in the end credits. However, it's clear that this film was not shot with anamorphic lenses, and the film's trailer in 4:3 shows more headroom than the equivalent shots in the feature itself. Super 35 is a possibility (used in at least two 1986 Australian films I'm aware of: Dogs in Space and Dead-End Drive-In) and, although I haven't seen Dark Age in a cinema, I'm going to suggest that 1.85:1 is indeed correct. I'm unaware of where this transfer was scanned from – the National Film and Sound Archive has no holdings for this film and, as mentioned above, only one 35mm print is known to exist. That said, the results are pretty good: for the most part solid and colourful. There's noticeable grain in some darker-lit scenes, and evidence of print damage in places, though not too distracting. At 73 mins a sequence looks to have come from a different source, as contrast and grain changes.
The DVD had a mono soundtrack, but this Blu-ray has that and a Dolby Surround track (2.0). The film was released in Dolby, though given its lack of cinema outings you have to wonder how many people heard it that way. It's not the most adventurous of sound mixes, mostly using the surround for music and ambience. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available, which wasn't the case on the DVD. There are a couple of flubs I spotted – a US “ass” for a distinctly Aussie “arse” and “douce” instead of “douse”, as in a thing you do to lights.
The extra brought forward from the DVD is a commentary by Antony Ginnane and John Jarratt, and it's a friendly and informative chat about the production and its difficulties, as well as the difficulties the film faced being shown. Ginnane also talks about Tarantino's support for the film and how he flew over with his 35mm print for the film's belated Australian premiere in 2009.
Not Quite Hollywood was mentioned above, and the next item is uncut interviews carried out for that film (16:53), with John Jarratt, who at the time had never seen the film, and Antony Ginnane. Jarratt says that on set they thought the film would be terrible, malfunctioning mechanical crocodile and all. Ginnane's contribution talks about the setting up and distribution difficulties of the production. He's glad that the film is now available.
“A Bicentenary with Bite: Revisiting Dark Age” (24:15) is a new panel discussion. It was clearly shot at the same session as the one on Umbrella's Blu-ray of Long Weekend as it features the same four participants: Sally Christie, Lee Gambin, Emma Westwood and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the difference being that this time Westwood moderates. The talk discusses the film's themes, including issues such as the alternative view of Australian history the film presents just before the Bicentennial, and plenty of background on Arch Nicholson and Sonia Borg.
Grahame Webb, writer of the original novel, appears in “Living with Crocodiles” (48:58), a documentary from 1986, transferred from what looks like a video source. This is a piece about the keeping, breeding and conservation of the beasts, interesting enough in itself though very little to do with the film itself.
The on-disc extras are completed by the theatrical trailer (2:03), two US homevideo trailers (1:41 and 2:02) and a self-navigating image gallery (18:03). The latter includes cover artwork for Webb's novel, press materials, production notes, extracts from the shooting script, VHS sleeves from several countries, and publicity stills.