“The mystery of Rasputin is impenetrable. That he was a singularly low character is beyond question, but if he did not also have strange powers he was singularly successful at seeming to do so. Among his effects was a letter written days before his death. It was addressed to ‘the Russian people, to Papa [his name for the tsar], to the Russian Mother and to the Children, to the land of Russia.’ In it he predicted that he would not live to see the new year, which was only days away when he wrote, and offered a warning. ‘Tsar of the land of Russia,’ he wrote, ‘if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Grigori has been killed, you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death then no one of your family, that is to say none of your children or relations, will remain alive for more than two years. They will all be killed by the Russian people.’” – G.J. Meyer, A World Undone
WARNING: Contains spoilers
Review Date: October 22, 2009
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 10/28/2008
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
We open with several cleverly intercut scenes detailing the life of the Rast political family. While Senator Nick Rast (David Hemmings
) arrives home from the capitol, his wife Sandra (Carmen Duncan
) is shown throwing a birthday party for their terminally ill son Alex (Mark Spain
), who is suffering from leukemia. Senator Rast is hassled by hordes of reporters at the airport haranguing him with questions. The state’s deputy governor has just disappeared and is thought to have drowned, and it is rumored that Rast will be appointed to take over the job. Meanwhile, a clown at the birthday party tries to lighten Alex’s spirits with an impressive array of magic tricks.
When Senator Rast finally arrives home he is scolded by Sandra for his lateness in getting to the party, and that night Alex starts bleeding from his mouth while brushing his teeth. His panicked mother calls the doctor, who informs her that there is nothing more he can do for the dying boy and leaves. Not long after, as Sandra holds her unconscious son’s hand, a strange and mysterious man in a robe who identifies himself as Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell
) appears in the room as if by magic (the Rast estate has very tight security which the intruder clearly found a way to bypass). To the astonishment of both parents he appears to heal Alex and then disappears again into the night. Alex, who just that afternoon was so weak that he had to spend his entire birthday party in a wheelchair, now has energy and asks for food.
Alex gets stronger and stronger as the days go by, and Gregory Wolfe returns to the house again and again, befriending the little boy and his mother. Wolfe and Sandra become increasingly close and intimate, while Rast looks on mostly with disinterest. His and Sandra’s marriage is a loveless one arranged for political expediency, and with Alex healed his wife now has someone else to devote her energies to. But Wolfe seems to have a sinister side to his personality and his increasing closeness with the family has alarmed Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford
), the local political boss who is grooming Rast to become the next deputy governor. Wheelan presents Rast with a file about the mysterious Wolfe, alleging that he entered the country illegally, that he infiltrated Alex’s birthday party disguised as the clown and gave him steroids to give the illusion of his recovery from cancer, and that his seemingly magical powers are the result of trickery. But Rast knows that with his own eyes he has seen Wolfe do things that he cannot explain away so logically, and now he must figure out for himself whether Wolfe is his friend or his foe, and whether Wheelan and his political handlers are right about the mysterious stranger or just trying to manipulate him.
, also known as Harlequin
in its native Australia, is a unique and skillful film that tries to be part thriller and part historical parable, and succeeds at both. The script is essentially a modern retelling of the story of Grigori Rasputin, the Russian monk who was said to be a mystic, and who gained unprecedented influence over the Russian royal family in the years leading up to their assassinations.
Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) was the last king of Russia, and by most historical accounts he was an often well-meaning but thoroughly ineffectual ruler. The Russian government he oversaw functioned passably enough in peacetime, but the strains of World War I proved too much for his regime and its incompetent, corrupt officials to manage. By 1917 stocks of ammunition were not getting to the troops at the front, coal and food were not getting to the cities and financial aid from his European allies was being stolen. Yet Nicholas was so passive that when government officials visited him and pleaded for him to appoint a new cabinet – competent administration of the government being the only thing that could plausibly head off the impending revolution – he was remembered by them as simply smiling at their pleas, refusing to do anything or even to say anything. Nicholas’ father had died at an unexpectedly young age and had never seriously prepared his son for the duty of ruling the world’s largest country. Like poor Nicholas, the character of Senator Rast seems to have come from a background of wealth and privilege. Rast has been groomed for politics his entire life, without having actually been taught anything about the responsibilities of power. His marriage to Sandra – an apparent reference to the days before the World Wars when royal marriages were often arranged for political or strategic reasons – was handled and proposed by other men who thought that Sandra, daughter of a prominent ambassador, would make a politically appealing spouse for the up and coming Rast. The character is written to be passive like Nicholas, and David Hemmings plays the character as written, though this is not always a good thing for the story. Rast never loved his wife, but it doesn’t even seem like he loves his son either. He is so passive that he spends the entirety of the movie being jerked around by others. Even at the end, when he finally mans up and does the right thing, he still comes across as weak and ineffectual.
What enabled the real Rasputin to worm his way into the royal family was his apparent ability to heal Nicholas’ ailing son Alexei, who suffered from terrible hemophilia. What Rasputin actually did to help the boy is not fully agreed upon, although there is credible evidence to suggest he gave some lucky medical advice to the family and did not possess any supernatural abilities as a healer. But the Tsarina Alexandra was convinced he had done something miraculous, thus beginning the process by which the monk gained the confidence of her and the royal family. Dark Forces
takes this part of the legend and modifies it a bit with Rast’s son given leukemia (hemophilia having become a much less serious medical condition by 1980). Unlike the Tsar’s son it appears that Wolfe really does heal him. The true extent of Wolfe’s powers are left ambiguous, as evidenced by a scene in which he appears to float in the air in front of Rast, while Rast’s security chief watches the scene through a security camera and never sees Wolfe leave the ground. Whatever the case may be, Gregory Wolfe still possesses abilities that are beyond conventional explanation – or at least appear to be. As Wolfe, Robert Powell is an absolute joy to watch and hits almost all then right notes. At times masculine, at other times effeminate, Wolfe takes great delight in amusing and perplexing characters around him, and Powell is clearly taking great delight in being given the chance to play him. His performance, accompanied by some outrageous costumes, is the highlight of the film.
Towards the end Dark Forces
becomes somewhat less of a fantasy and more of a standard horror film as Rast and his security chief find themselves alone in the house with Wolfe on the loose, and with Doc Wheelan’s men en route to kill Wolfe. Shot multiple times, Wolfe falls to the floor, apparently dead. One of the assassins puts his head to Wolfe’s chest to hear if he still has a heartbeat, and Wolfe springs to life and attacks him. But even this shock moment – so common in modern horror films – fits in with the Rasputin legend. When he was murdered in 1916 one of his killers is reported to have done the exact same thing, and with the exact same results.
is an excellent example of how to use real events to make an engaging genre film. It is a movie that features several excellent performances (Robert Powell and Broderick Crawford), a number of above average ones (David Hemmings and Carmen Duncan), some very tense direction and some excellent production values. What’s even even better is that it shows imagination and care, two qualities that would prove to be sorely lacking in many future genre films.
is presented in its full widescreen anamorphic format of 2.35:1, and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. Without having seen any previous video versions I can’t judge how much of an improvement this release is, but on the commentary track the director and producer seem quite thrilled at being able to view it in widescreen again after years of panning and scanning for home viewing. This is not the first time that Dark Forces
has gotten an American DVD release, as there was a disc from Elite Entertainment that came out in 2004, although it is out of print.
Overall image quality is pretty good for an older film, with strong (if very slightly faded) colors and an excellent level of clarity and sharpness that brings out some breathtaking details in the widescreen photography, particularly of the rocky coastlines around Perth, Australia, where the film was shot. Blacks are deep and there is a fairly good level of shadow detail. There are very few instances of damage to the film elements except during the optical effects, some of which have an extremely beat-up look to them.
The film is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono. There is little in the way distortion or background noise, and dialogue is clear and crisp – unless people are talking while the score is being played, in which case it starts to become borderline unintelligible
There are French and Spanish language tracks also available, both in 2.0 Mono.
The best and biggest extra here is the aforementioned running audio commentary with director Simon Wincer and producer Antony I. Ginnane, which is apparently ported over from the Elite DVD. The two men have fairly clear recollections about the movie and go into some detail about how the special effects were created, about the shooting schedule, about the actors and technicians, and about many of the locations that we see onscreen. Some of the more surprising revelations are that almost all the interiors were sets (the Rast house looks completely authentic on the inside, even though only one room was an actual location) and that the film, while performing reasonably well in its native Australia, was actually quite a large hit overseas.
Other extras include a lengthy behind-the-scenes photo gallery, an isolated music track showcasing Brian May’s excellent score, a series of lengthy filmographies and a trailer for the film, along with trailers for Syngenor
, Strange Behavior
, all of which have been released by Synapse and all of which they seem to have acquired from the same licensor.
A good looking transfer and entertaining commentary track add value to this release of a very effective and relatively unknown thriller. Despite its color cinematography, and a smattering of nudity and violence, Dark Forces
still seems very much like the kind of low key horror film that was more common a generation or two before it was made. And that’s very appropriate for a movie inspired by events that took place almost a hundred years ago.
Movie – B+
Image Quality – B+
Sound – C+
Supplements – B
- Running Time – 1 hour 35 minutes
- Rated PG
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono
- Spanish 2.0 Mono
- French 2.0 Mono
- Audio commentary with director Simon Wincer and producer Antony I. Ginnane
- Isolated music score
- Photo gallery