Dark Age Review
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 Aboriginals, this largest of living reptiles can exceed six or (arguably) seven metres in length and humans can 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 as “Gulpilil”) 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 and Weekend with Kate, the last-named released in 1990, the year of his death, aged just forty-eight, from motor neurone disease. 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. It was ahot 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 Dark Age was completed, RKO had sold off the foreign rights to Embassy and negotiations with an Australian distributor fell through. As a result, the film was not released in its native country, and the present DVD marks the first time it has been commercially available there. (It appears to have had a UK video release: at least, there's a record of its being passed in 1987 for an 18 certificate – it would probably get a 15 nowadays – on the BBFC website.)
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 Scorsese filmmaking sense), slipping in eco themes into what could have been a more straightforward exploitation horror movie. In addition, the two principal Aboriginals 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. John Jarratt has continued a career which began in the Seventies to this day (including a memorable villain in Wolf Creek 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 Entertainment have released Dark Age on a single-layered DVD encoded for all regions. Unusually for an Australian DVD, it's in NTSC format.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 and is widescreen-enhanced. This begs a question. Every reference source from the IMDB onwards says that the film was shot with Panavision anamorphic lenses and is in Scope. It does say “Panavision” in the end credits. Aspect ratios are not usually something that Umbrella get wrong, and a close examination shows that the film was not shot anamorphically. (A giveaway are closeups shot with telephoto lenses: in an anamorphic shoot, lights in out-of-focus backgrounds are distorted into vertical oval shapes, while in films shot with spherical lenses they remain circular.) For further evidence, see the trailer – not on the disc but viewable in 4:3 here - spot the large amount of headroom in most shots, which is not present in the equivalent shots in the film itself. It is possible that the film was shot in Super 35 and could still have been projected in Scope in what few cinemas showed it, but I'm going to suggest that the correct aspect ratio looks like 1.85:1 to me. If anyone can confirm this one way or the other, please comment below.
As for the transfer itself, it's colourful and blacks are strong, and in motion the transfer looks fine, but less forgiving monitors may have issues with it. There's noticeable ghosting in some shots involving motion, especially when I fastforwarded it. I don't think it's a standards conversion as its running time matches that normally given for this film, of 91 minutes. (The running time on the BBFC website is consistent with PAL speedup.)
Dark Age had a Dolby Stereo soundtrack according to the end credits, but the DVD's 2.0 soundtrack plays back as mono. That said, it's clear and well-balanced, and given the film's distribution situation over the years, you have to wonder if a stereo soundtrack could be located. Unfortunately there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles, as is Umbrella's policy on English-language releases.
The only extra 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. This is worth listening to.