Australian politics take a turn for the weird in 1980′s Harlequin (aka Dark Forces), a stylish and intermittently campy supernatural thriller based on the Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin’s unusual relationship with Tsar Nicholas II and Nicholas’ wife and son. Senator Nick Rast (Tsar spelled backward, just in case you missed it,) played by David Hemmings, is on his way up in government, but his home life sucks. His son Alex is dying of leukemia; his neglected wife Sandra is brittle and distant. Into this situation comes Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell,) a faith-healer, magician, and possible film-flam man whose first trick is causing an apparent remission of Alex’s disease. Wolfe subsequently forms an odd mentor relationship with the boy and seduces his mother. This presents a problem for the ambitious Nick and his political fixer Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford) since the Rast’s silky Svengali is bad for Nick’s image and therefore his career.
Dark Forces is slowly paced and relies more on atmosphere and dread than gore, and so it might not satisfy those looking for something salty. But the film is–mostly–creepy and unsettling, similar to The Omen, or the first six hours of The Exorcist; screenwriter Everett De Roche and director Simon Wincer resist the urge to wrap up the films many mysteries and ambiguities too neatly, and the result is a pleasantly surprising intellectual horror movie. It’s heavily implied that Wolfe’s powers are real, yet there is ample evidence to suggest that he’s really a major-league con man and not a sorcerer; Doc Wheelan is portrayed as being just as much a threat to Nick’s soul as Wolfe, if not more insidious; there is nobody in the film that we can feel comfortable calling the hero. It is the exploration of this moral and situational murkiness that is the film’s greatest strength, and what keeps the campier and more dated elements from undercutting the story as a whole.
And those elements aren’t even so bad: The effects are less than special (the mouth-lightning in particular) but other than that the film looks great. Wolfe’s New Age Ziggy Stardust outfits are a little painful, and there is an occasional line of dialogue that gave me a giggle (“I deny nothing!”) but on balance Dark Forces is fun. Strange, mind-bending fun, but fun.