Dark Forces (aka Harlequin) Review

Nick Rast (David Hemmings) is an up-and-coming Senator being groomed for the role of deputy governor. Bit Nick and his wife Sandra (Carmen Duncan) are facing tragedy: their nine-year-old son Alex (Mark Spain) has leukaemia and doctors have given up on him. Enter the mysterious Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell), a faith healer who seems to have cured Alex. The Rasts take Wolfe into their home, but Nick soon becomes suspicious of Wolfe's hold over his wife and son...

Harlequin (to give it its original title) originated with screenwriter Everett de Roche (who had written the scripts for Patrick, Long Weekend and Snapshot, which was director Simon Wincer's feature debut. De Roche had the idea of updating the Rasputin story to the present day (though religious overtones were toned down to avoid problems with American audiences). The producer was Antony I. Ginnane, who had produced the first and third of the films referred to above. Originating from Melbourne, Ginnane throughout the Seventies was intent on making genre films for international audiences, rather than the period pieces and arthouse films that he and others saw characterising the Australian film revival. The results were rarely popular with critics, but worked with audiences, and the best of them stand up well today. However, his habit of importing foreign stars led to run-ins with Australian Equity, and in the early Eighties shifted his operations to New Zealand with productions and co-productions such as Race for the Yankee Zephyr and Dead Kids (also known as Strange Behavior amongst other titles). Although Harlequin was shot in Western Australia, in and around Perth, it goes out of its way to hide its origins. It's set in America, has mainly British and American actors in principal roles (including Broderick Crawford in one of his last films) with some of the Australian supporting cast dubbed. Phone ringtones are American, though cars still drive on the right and the number plates are Western Australian.

Simon Wincer began his career on television, with work on shows such as Homicide (the Aussie one), The Sullivans, Chopper Squad and Prisoner (which went without the Cell Block H in its native country). He had made his debut in 1979 on Snapshot, a suspense thriller, before going on to Harlequin. Wincer has continued to work to this day, with some notable work mixed in with a lot of anonymous, if workmanlike, product. Working with a first-class DP (Gary Hansen, whose early death in 1982 in a helicopter crash was a great loss to the industry), he does a good job with Harlequin. In 1979 it was still possible to compose across the entire width of the Scope frame without regard of how the film would look on television, but a few years later, with the rise of homevideo as a dominating ancillary market, compositions such as the ones Wincer and Hansen use in this film were no longer feasible and shots which could be easily cropped to 4:3 without losing vital information would become the norm. They pull off some genuinely unsettling sequences, aided no end by Robert Powell's spooky charisma in the leading role. The score by Brian May (not the Queen guitarist) plays a big contribution.

There are some logical problems in the storyline, particularly why Rast's security man Bergier (Gus Mercurio) doesn't report the incident when Wolfe holds Alex over a cliff – except that there would be no story if he had. The film is a slow-burner, but remains intriguing up to the end. However the very end is now a horror cliché. And there's something you can't quite put your finger on that doesn't quite raise the film to the level you feel it should be at. Still well worth watching though.

Harlequin (or Dark Forces as it became in the USA) was a success, selling worldwide and picking up awards at fantasy-specialist film festivals. It received five nominations at the AFI Awards (direction, Carmen Duncan as Best Actress, and for production design, costume design and editing), losing to Breaker Morant in four of them. In the commentary, Ginnane reckons that, relative to budget (which was high for its time) it was one of the most commercially successful Australian films ever.


Synapse's DVD release is under the US title of Dark Forces. It is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 0. The PG rating is the MPAA's rather lenient one. In Australia Harlequin was a M, permitting accompanied children under fifteen. In the UK it carried a X certificate, restricting the film to the over-eighteens: presumably for the acid-bath sequence, although that isn't graphic. (Harlequin was later recertified 15 for video release.)

The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 2.35:1 and widescreen-enhanced. Given the filmstocks available at the time and the use of anamorphic lenses, it's not a surprise that Harlequin looks a little soft in places with some noticeable grain, and skin tones tend towards the reddish. That said, colours are vibrant and blacks solid, and this is generally what late-70s Australian Scope movies tend to look like. A comparison follows: Synapse first, then the Region 0 Australian release from Umbrella.

The soundtrack is mono, in English and with dubbed versions in French and Spanish. There's little to be said here: dialogue is clear (just as well, as there are no subtitles available) and well balanced with the music and sound effects. Another track enables you to listen to May's isolated score.

The commentary is the work of Simon Wincer and Antony Ginnane. Although the two men were recorded together, there's not a huge amount of give-and-take between them. Wincer says most, handing over to Ginnane on details of the film's promotion and marketing. Both of them extol the virtues of the Scope format and regret that until now most people have seen this film panned-and-scanned. The same commentary appears on the Australian disc from Umbrella, despite Wincer referring to the film as Dark Forces throughout.

A trailer gallery features those for Dark Forces, Syngenor, Strange Behavior, Thirst and Patrick, with a Play All option. The extras are concluded with a stills gallery and filmographies for the principal cast and crew. (By comparison, the Umbrella release of Harlequin contains the commentary, the Australian trailer, and trailers for other Umbrella DVDs: The Survivor, Thirst, Road Games and Long Weekend. A stills gallery is listed on the back of the case but is not actually on the disc. The US and Australian trailers are identical except for the title cards. despite Voiceover Guy referring to "Harlequin" several times throughout.)

7 out of 10
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