Friday, 13 November 2009

Harlequin (1980)

Never trust a clown

Yep, another Australian horror/thriller produced by Anthony Ginnane. I can't get enough of the damn things. The plot is a mixture of political intrigue and the supernatural, basically a clever reworking of the Rasputin story. It's written by Everett De Roche who like always manages to inject some depth and ambiguity into the script, putting enough twists on the historical tale to make things mysterious even for those intimately familiar with the story. He does gloss over some of the more ribald and potentially entertaining aspects of the Rasputin legend but I guess this isn't that kind of film. It's directed by Simon Wincer, who also directed the De Roche penned thriller Snapshot and went on to do a lot of American TV and a few movies including, uh, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. Well, they can't all be winners.

David Hemmings (Thirst) plays up-and-coming politician Senator Nicholas Rast (I see what you did there). When Deputy Governor Eli Steele disappears under mysterious circumstances while swimming in the ocean, Rast is thrust into the shady world of high-stakes politics. His long working hours add considerable tension to his relationship with his wife Sandra (Carmen Duncan), a marriage also strained by their son Alex's terminal illness. Late one night they are visited by a mysterious faith healer/magician named Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell, who spends most of the film dressed like an extra from Star Trek) and the next day their son makes a miraculous recovery.

Sandra and Alex immediately become enchanted by Wolfe, who becomes a constant presence in the Rasts' life. Nicholas becomes increasingly creeped out by Wolfe's influence over his wife and son. Can't really blame him; Wolfe's weird dress and habit of dangling his son over a cliff is positively Michael-Jackson-ish. Plus there's his relationship with Sandra which starts like a gay-best-friend kind of deal ("Everybody should have their own Gregory" she says) but soon turns uncomfortably amorous. Nick also has to deal with his political rivals and the machinations of the slimy chief political advisor Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford). What are Wolfe's motivations for helping his family, are his powers genuine and who is playing whom?

It's a great premise for a film but I've got to admit that it drags a little at times. The scenes of political intrigue in particular can get a bit tedious. However, when this film is good it is very good. There's a great score by Brian May (I think it would be easier for me to note when an awesome score for an Australian film is not by Brian May) and great performances that manage to sell the film even when it gets a bit silly and melodramatic. Early in the film Sandra Rast is preparing her terminally-ill son for bed and he asks whether the clown can come to his birthday party next year; the look on her face is just heartbreaking. Of course special attention must be paid to Robert Powell's fantastic performance. Wolfe is a character that could have easily been overplayed but Powell makes him charismatic, enigmatic and subtle.

This is one of Ginnane's films that was made specifically for international distribution. It was shot in Perth (the exterior of the Rasts' home is actually that of famed/disgraced Australian businessman Alan Bond) but in the end the film was scrubbed clean of any traces of Australia-ness, dubbing over several actors and sound effects to give it a more American feel. Unfortunately they did a really lousy job. About half the cast have Australian accents and there are many weird incongruities, such as cars with Western Australian license plates, cars driving on the right hand side of the road and so on. There's also the subplot about the drowned Deputy Governor, which seems to mirror the death of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt. It could have been a uniquely Australian film but the half-assed Americanisation only makes it awkward and confusing. Out of national pride, I'm going to have to take a few points off.

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