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Friday, April 23, 2010

Harlequin (1980)

(A.K.A Dark Forces)

Australian cinema wasn’t of interest to me until recently, sure I’m a fan of the current crop of new wave films such as Wolf Creek, Coffin Rock, The Proposition, Van Deimen’s Land and the like; but films from the yesteryear of Ozploitation really hasn’t appealed to me. Films like Stone and Felicity have entertained me greatly, yet I didn’t feel the need to actively search for further viewing, that was until I watched Not Quite Hollywood, which is essential viewing for anyone interested in exploitation cinema from around the globe. It’s an eye-opening experience that has left me kicking myself for not picking up the slack at the earliest opportunity as there is a goldmine of Ozploitation treasure to be found! One such treasure is Harlequin (Dark Forces) directed by Simon Wincer.

Basically a modern re-telling of the Rasputin story, the film stars David Hemmings as Nick Rast, a senator with friends in the right places and a shot at furthering his career. However, things aren’t all rosy for Nick as his wife, Sandra (Carmen Duncan) no longer loves him and their son is terminally-ill with leukaemia. When a mysterious faith healer named Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell) shows up at the family home promising to cure the boy, Sandy accepts his proposal much to Nick’s objection. The boy shows signs of improvement and is soon on the road to recovery, Sandy soon falls for Wolfe and Nick’s friends start to worry that their poster boy’s image is going to be tarnished by these recent events. Wolfe is seen as a threat, and has to be removed, by any means.

Harlequin is a slow-burning pleasure from start to finish. The opening birthday party sequence features Powell in the most arresting of clown costumes, one that will surely send a shiver down the spine of the most hardened of horror fans. The most intriguing aspect to the film is the mystery that surrounds the characters, who is Wolfe? Why are Nick and Sandra in this loveless relationship? Just who are Nick’s friends and how much clout to they have? The film keeps your attention for 90 minutes of solid entertainment. I came into the film expecting an exploitation movie, but this is assured filmmaking with a great cast and was clearly a product of love. Granted the effect work is dated and now add a camp charm to the proceedings but the film still remains an engrossing piece regardless of its surface flaws.

Robert Powell gives a great performance as Wolfe; he’s clearly engaged in the role and delivers the goods as the mysterious, but loveable, stranger. He also rivals Tim Curry for the most sinister looking cinematic clown. David Hemmings also provides us with a likeable performance as Nick, he’s a flawed man but determined, as his life begins to crumble around him it becomes clear that maybe he isn’t the great man he’s told he is. Carmen Duncan also shines as the suffering housewife longing for some genuine affection and attention. They are three complex characters, who could have come across as complete arseholes, but thanks to the three main stars it’s a pleasure to get involved in their situation, seeing it play out and watching them feed off one another.

There’s also an alarming message for viewers in the films climax, I don’t want to give it away but it’s certainly as relevant and frightening now as it was back in 1980. Harlequin is quite the gem, it’s engrossing, well acted, well directed and well photographed, it’s let down by a few ‘signs of the time’ in regards to the not so special effects work, but other than that there is very little to the film that I can see spoiling the viewing experience. Definitely a great film to settle down with on a Sunday evening with a nice cold beer.

Purchase the British DVD here.
Purchase the superior R1 DVD here.

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