Before viewing HARLEQUIN (a.k.a. DARK FORCES in the U.S.), it’s best to set aside the old-fashioned notions of “good” and “bad.” They just don’t apply here. I’ve watched the film twice now, and I still have no idea if it’s a “good” film or not. But it is flat-out crazily entertaining, and I love it.
It’s probably best for the viewer to be at least slightly familiar with the true story of Grigori Rasputin because the film is a modern spin on that. Rasputin was a self-proclaimed Russian healer who around 1905 began a close relationship with Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. Nicholas and Alexandra’s son, Alexei, suffered from hemophilia, and the couple came to believe that Rasputin could cure him. Quite quickly, Rasputin was able to wield an unusual level of power over the family — until he was assassinated in 1916 by a group of noblemen who were concerned about his influence.
Apparently, it’s quite difficult to nail down too much about the real Rasputin’s early life — there are plenty of rumors, but they’re difficult to separate from facts. By all accounts, however, he had a magnetic personality, which was lucky for him because he wasn’t exactly a looker. He’s been the subject of a number of period-set films, the most memorable of which is probably Hammer’s RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK, starring Christopher Lee in the title role.
HARLEQUIN takes place in a weird nowhere in what was then the present day of 1980. It’s difficult to determine exactly where the events of the film are supposed to be happening. The setting comes across as a mix of the U.S. (ALL THE KING’S MEN’s Broderick Crawford playing “Doc” Wheelan, a powerful behind-the-scenes political mover, is about as American as you can get), the U.K. (BLOW-UP’s David Hemmings is up-and-coming senator Nick Rast — yes, that’s “tsar” spelled backwards!; Jesus of Nazareth’s Jesus, Robert Powell, is charismatic charmer Gregory Wolfe, our Rasputin stand-in), and Australia, where the film was shot. This mix of accents is as disorienting as the voice of the grown-up woman who apparently relooped all the lines of Alex, the 9-year-old son of Rast and his frustrated wife, Sandra. (At least in American prints — the version I saw carried the American DARK FORCES title.)
Wolfe first appears at Alex’s birthday party, performing as a clown and visibly moved at the child’s plight — Alex is suffering from leukemia, and the prognosis is negative. That night, Wolfe appears at the child’s window — which looks to be on the second floor of the house — invites himself in, and informs the Rasts that Alex is cured after briefly touching his face. The next morning, Alex is much improved, which his doctor can’t account for to Sandra’s satisfaction.
Before you know it, Wolfe has practically moved in and bonds with Alex, giving him life advice while dangling him over the side of a steep cliff. (“Always remember the feel of death, and he’ll never be able to take you by surprise.”) Wolfe and Sandra grow closer, and she points out that he’s basically Terence Stamp in TEORAMA: “I think I know who you are and what you want. To Alex, you’re his playmate and mentor, so you assume that role. To Nicky, you’re an itch he can’t scratch. To [the head of Rast’s security], a security risk. To [the housekeeper], the mysterious guest. You’re different things to different people, and you play each role separately. The thundering faith healer, the political innocent, the parlor magician.”
After a disastrous appearance at a party hosted by the Rasts — among other events, a magically floating cymbal decapitates a bird that Wolfe has made appear out of thin air, splattering guests with blood — Wheelan gives Rast a damning file that suggests Wolfe is a big old faker, causing a confrontation, with perhaps predictable, if dramatic, results.
If this sounds merely sort of crazy, then I’m underselling it. Because this is seriously crazy. Directed by Australian Simon Wincer — probably best known for Lonesome Dove, the hit American miniseries — the film keeps the viewer feeling off-kilter at all times. It was included in NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, the doc about “Ozploitation,” but I’d hesitate to call this an exploitation film at all. It’s a bit too staid for that label — violence is fairly minimal and there’s only fleeting nudity. You’d have to cut about five seconds to get this ready for broadcast TV. (I’ll offer this as a caveat, however — as stated earlier, I watched an American print; it’s possible the original Australian release might have pushed more boundaries.) I suspect that’s why HARLEQUIN doesn’t quite have the cult following that it deserves.
HARLEQUIN is included with Amazon Prime under its American moniker, DARK FORCES, which is how I saw it. Sadly, the print is pretty bad, soft and smeary, especially whenever there’s a camera pan. A better bet would be Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray, under the original HARLEQUIN title. Buy it here: