Synapse // 1980 // 95 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // November 14th, 2008
He'll Take You to the Brink of Reality
When the ruling governor grows gravely ill, he looks to Senator Rast (David Hemmings, Equilibrium) as a possible replacement. Unfortunately, the lifelong politico has problems of his own. His wife (Carmen Duncan) is cold and distant, her passions tied up by their terminally ill son Alex. But when a surreal stranger named Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell, Asylum) magically appears on their balcony one night, he brings a warning -- and a cure. Soon, the couple's child is feeling fine, and Mrs. Rast has a renewed vigor -- and eyes for the newcomer. When political mover and shaker Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford, Born Yesterday) discovers Wolfe's newfound place in the Senator's household, he gets his crack staff to start discrediting the man. Soon, he has a dossier loaded with unflattering "facts" about what Wolfe may or may not be. In the meantime, the enigmatic outsider becomes so important to Mrs. Rast and the boy that they can't imagine life without him. But the Senator sees things differently. Wolfe is either a con man or a demon, and either explanation dooms himself, his family, and his future.
Dark Forces (originally released under the far more appropriate title Harlequin) is one fudged-up film. It plays like the byproduct of some paranormal prank on the standard '70s political thriller while clearly tracing its roots back to one of the era's major supernatural statements: The Omen. In fact, one could argue that this movie twists the aforementioned movie's narrative to show a rather benevolent otherworldly being trying to change the course of a corrupt and quite evil governmental authority. It's the anti-Antichrist, so to speak. Staying reverent to the classic Commedia dell'arte character, even though many won't recognize it at first, director Simon Wincer uses our natural suspiciousness and post-modern cynicism to make us see healing as harmful, compassion as cruelty, and the insidious nature of a potentially Satanic interloper as something akin to the Second Coming. In fact, this movie throws its audience for so many unexpected, unanticipated loops that it's often impossible to get one's bearings. Until the last few minutes, when the various conspiracies come together and expose themselves, it's one weird, whacked-out ride.
This is due mostly to the amazing performance of Robert Powell. He's mostly forgotten by contemporary audiences, but in his day, this dapper Englishman was one of the medium's best. While many remember his turn as Christ in Franco Zeffirelli's TV movie love letter to God, Jesus of Nazareth, Powell was comfortable working in modern stories, period pieces, and genre efforts. As Wolfe, he defies easy description. The script requires him to walk a very fine line between evil and saintly, and every time he does, the screen practically crackled with electricity. It's safe to say that without Powell as the lead, the film would fail more times than not. Of course, this is not to say that David Hemmings is some kind of slouch. But the icon behind Dario Argento's Profundo Rosso and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up is given one basic beat here -- sullen and drunk. Naturally, he plays it to the hilt, but we want Senator Rast to be something more...proactive. Hemmings just sticks with the scripted description, leaving a minor void in the implied heroics department.
Elsewhere, the rest of the cast come up trumps. Broderick Crawford could do craggy and irascible in his sleep, and here he is a perfect representation of both. As Sandra, the Senator's wife, Carmen Duncan is acceptable, if slightly shrewish. Once she gets obsessed with Powell's Wolfe, she's almost inconsolable. And little Mark Spain isn't bad as the dying son, but for some reason all his dialogue is dubbed. He winds up sounding like a middle-aged lady acting like a nine-year-old. Wincer is solid behind the lens, making the often talky material come to life, and when we learn that screenwriter Everett De Roche -- who also wrote the remarkable Aussie thriller Long Weekend -- used the story of the fall of the Russian Czar (go back over the character names for clues) as the basis for this narrative, things become even more interesting. Indeed, Dark Forces is an extremely engaging film. While not always 100 percent entertaining, it definitely deserves a bigger broader reputation.
Thanks to Synapse Films, that might just happen. The tech specs here are stellar, beginning with an almost pristine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The colors are controlled with great care and the contrasts and details are also kept in check. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital Mono is crisp and clean, with the dialogue easily discernible. As for bonus features, we are treated to a wonderful full-length audio commentary from director Wincer and producer Antony Ginnane. Together, they take an insightful trip back to the movie's making. Add in an isolated film score option (provided by none other than Queen's Brian May), a set of filmographies and behind-the-scenes stills, and a collection of trailers, and you've got a solid selection of supplements. Indeed, Synapse always manages to complement its releases quite well.
If you're looking for something reminiscent of David Lynch on Quaaludes, and you're not afraid to take a chance on a fright flick that's more thought-provoking than spine-tingling, then Dark Forces is right up your idiosyncratic alley. It may not always make sense, and sometimes slips into dated Me Decade dimensions, but overall, this is wonderful lost gem. Here's hoping the contemporary genre maven cottons to its complicated joys. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Audio Commentary
* Behind-The-Scenes Photo Gallery
* Trailer Gallery
* Isolated Music Score