Posted October 4, 2018 by Chris Hick in Film Reviews

Harlequin (1980) Blu-ray Review

Harlequin (1980) is no less, no more weird than any other Australian film made in the 1970s and 80s. Ever since Gary Bond played the teacher suffering from the heat in the outback in the cult Wake in Fright (1971) and, most significantly Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Australian cinema has had a quirky edge. Even when the country has made such mainstream romcom’s as Muriel’s Wedding (1993) there is something off-beat about an Oz film. Even today Aussie films continue to have an edge to them. At the time these films were misleadingly categorised as Ozploitation, suggesting that they are exploiting other trends in cinema; they are generally out there and stood alone. If we think of such dystopian films as Mad Max (1979) or Razorback (1984) they pretty much stand up in their own right.

At the core of this quirky Australian horror thriller is a Rasputin type story. This was the genesis of this story according to screenwriter Everett de Roche on a 2008 recorded extra on the disc (de Roche sadly passed away in 2014, a great loss to Australian cinema). The film is not really set anywhere particular, Nowhere particular land if you like. The suggestion is that this could be the USA given that David Hemmings’ character is a Senator and the setting resembles coastal California. It opens with a child’s party for the sick son of Senator Rast (geddit, Tsar spelt backwards. You know where this story is going). Rast has some political shenanigans going on keeping him away from his terminally ill son’s birthday. The party is being hosted by Rast’s wife, Sandy (Carmen Duncan) while their weird terminally ill son is disengaged but mildly entertained by the party entertainer, a clown who amuses him with some tricks. Let’s get this clear the kid isn’t weird because he’s ill, he’s weird because he’s weird. Even when his health miraculously improves, he is still weird.

As the couple realise their son is losing his fight to leukemia, a man appears in the bedroom. The couple are shocked, but the stranger introduces himself as Gregory Wolfe and claims to be a faith healer as well as the clown from his son’s birthday party. After his unorthodox methods do indeed improve the child’s health, mum Carmen grows close to Wolfe and inevitably she begins an affair with this odd but enigmatic faith healer cum magician. Although Senator Rast is not jealous of his wife’s new infatuation, he wants the man out of the way. At a dinner party Wolfe pulls every rabbit out of the hat, almost literally. He levitates, makes objects disappear and cures a guest’s tooth abscess. This sets him on a collision course with the power behind the Senator (namely Hollywood veteran Broderick Crawford) and Wolfe turning his occult like powers against them.

On an appreciation extra on the film, horror critic and historian Kim Newman mentions that he does not recall seeing this one on its release and watched most things that came during this period. I do remember it coming out for the fact it starred Robert Powell who I recalled having seen playing the definitive Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth, the 1976 mini TV series and had, as a 10-year-old seen Powell on the big screen play Richard Hannay in the remake of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1978). Indeed back in the 1980s, an old work colleague claimed that this was her favourite film. Therefore, at the time having an actor as popular and as good as Powell in the film was sure to bring it some success and indeed it did do very well at the box-office in certain territories. The other big names in the film are Crawford, seemingly repeating his greatest role in All the King’s Men (1949) from some 30 years ago and of course Hemmings as Senator Rast. Although Hemmings was a big name having appeared in Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1977) for horror fans and of course as the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) he had become something of a bloated alcoholic by the time this film was made. Nevertheless, Powell does the film proud in a convincing story as he ridiculously hovers as a party trick and dresses up as a harlequin for the final showdown.

As with just about all the releases on 88 Films, there are plenty of extras on the disc, the 9th title in their Vault series and a good choice it is too. As well as a humorous archived interview with Hemmings and Powell aired on Australian TV, there are also 50 minutes worth of interviews dating from 2008 including with late actor Gus Mercurio, director Simon Wincer, producer Anthony I. Ginnane and an all too short interview with the film’s writer, de Roche. It can’t be underestimated what a leading light de Roche was on Australian cinema, particularly its quirkier films. His writing credits include Patrick, the grossly underrated The Long Weekend (both 1978), Road Games (1981) and Razorback. It would be great to see restored versions of all of these any time soon. As already mentioned, there is also an engaging appreciation with knowledgeable Kim Newman and a commentary track with Ginnane and Wincer. While this HD transfer film has been restored, the image is still very grainy, but does give the film that vintage look.

Chris Hick

Chris Hick