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After a short break where I attempted to catch up on all my studio Blu-ray release reviews, I’m back to Synapse Films’ re-releases of classic ‘70s-‘80s Australian horror movies. This week’s release is Dark Forces (also known as Harlequin), which was, like Patrick, Thirst and Strange Behavior, produced by Antony Ginnane, who has rather accurately been compared to Roger Corman. Dark Forces concerns the rather convoluted tale of a powerful senator who is visited by a seemingly ancient and powerful magician. The ‘Harlequin’ infiltrates the senator’s household by ‘curing’ his son’s leukaemia. Soon he’s alone with the senator’s family for days on end, seducing his wife, and teaching his son the intricacies of his powers. But the Harlequin’s true intensions are never clear, and his actions rarely outwardly hostile, so the senator is forced to sit and watch his world crumble.

Dark Forces
Up until this point (1980) director Simon Wincer had been known almost exclusively for directing television episodes, and his roots definitely show, but not in what I’d call a bad way. There’s a sort of direct and simple nature to the staging, and given the very un-television ratio of 2.35:1, this efficient direction becomes quite interesting. This mix of fast and cheap, and wide and theatrical creates a strange concoction, one beyond the already odd looking late ‘70s Aussie horror productions.

Besides a vaguely bizarre look, one can almost always depend on a better than average cast out of an Aussie horror flick. This cast includes high enders like David Hemmings (who was also seen in Ginnane’s Thirst), American soap star Carmen Duncan, and Aussie heavy for hire Broderick Crawford. The seriousness which the cast brings to the production could open the film up to a lot of ridicule, but this particular production pulls it all off with a straight face. We can laugh at the dated costumes and set decoration, however.

Dark Forces
But when it comes down to it, Dark Forces is neither impressive looking enough or superbly acted enough to overcome a weak script, so my recommendation comes from a story standpoint. There’s a slightly intangible strangeness to the script that matches the uncanny look. The plot is an odd amalgamation of The Omen, various paranoid political thrillers, and the Rasputin myth, with sprinkles of larger than life dialogue worth of Hammer Studios. There are plenty of stolen elements, and most audiences will guess where the stories getting before it gets there, but the stew is pretty novel, and last act comes as a potent surprise.

Video


It appears that once again, Synapse Films has directly ported the old Elite Entertainment release, including its anamorphic widescreen presentation. The print is relatively clean, with less grain than some of the other Elite re-releases (except for special effects scenes, which were produced through layering processes), but just as much small scale print damage (mostly flecks of dirt). The whole of the print is a bit yellowed (a common side effect of age), which doesn’t rob many of the bright (or gaudy) colours, but does cause a lightening of the blacks. Details are plenty sharp for a standard definition catalogue release, though some sections seem to have been over sharpened, and produce some ugly edge-enhancement.

Dark Forces

Audio


Just like Patrick and Thirst, Dark Forces is made a little extra special with a Brian May score. May (not the guitarist from Queen, by the way) is more or less the go to guy for Australian film scores. This particular score features the composer’s usual mix of traditional string and wacky electronics. A surround mix would only be valuable for the sake of the score, and that sounds plenty nice on its own. The mono mix isn’t terribly deep or dynamic, but there isn’t a lot of effort put into the film’s sounds anyway (it appears that almost everything concerning sound was done in post). The dialogue and sound effects are clean, if not a bit lacking in the bass department, and don’t feature a lot of the usual high end distortion that often plagues B-movie mono tracks.

The isolated score track does not appear to have many advantages over the non-isolated track, but is a nice addition to the set, and should make Brian May fans very happy. A direct comparison between the isolated track and the group track is nearly impossible because the disc locks the possibility of changing audio tracks while watching the film, and there is no ‘resume’ option.

Dark Forces

Extras


The special features begin with an intelligent, interesting, and very consistent commentary track. The track features director Simon Wincer and producer Antony Ginnane (who offered his commentary services for some of the other releases as well), who run us through all the technical details, the behind the scenes stories, and tell us the abridged life stories of almost every cast and crew member, no matter how miniscule their addition to the film (I believe they mention that the construction supervisor went on to win an Oscar for his work on The Matrix).

Finishing off the disc is a list of filmographies, a collection of trailers, and a behind the scenes photo gallery.

Dark Forces

Overall


Dark Forces isn’t a bizarro must-see like Synapse’s Strange Behavior, but it’s a pretty classy production, and not quite like all the other stuff flooding the market. This DVD release is, like the other films in this release selection, a direct port of the older Elite release. The only new feature is the cover art (which is pretty cool), so don’t bother with a re-purchase if you already own that old version.


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