Dark Forces (1980)

Also known as: Harlequin
Director: Simon Wincer
Tagline: “Magic. Murder. Mystery… Nothing is what it seems!”
Plot: David Hemmings plays a senator, and to understand the true oddness of Dark Forces, we have to pause there. Though the film was obviously made in Australia, which does have a senate, Hemmings makes no attempt to hide his English accent. Australian actress Carmen Duncan co-stars as his wife, which would suggest Australia as a possible setting. But aging, extra-jowly, Philadelphia-born Broderick Crawford co-stars as Hemmings’ character’s closest advisor, Doc Wheelan, a longtime puppetmaster in whatever government Hemmings serves. Maybe it’s best not to think too hard about it.

Anyway, Hemmings plays a character named Senator Rast, whose busy career and occasional affairs don’t stop him from worrying about his leukemia-stricken son Alex (Mark Spain). What kind of name is “Rast”? The kind that lends itself to being unscrambled into “Tsar” by screenwriters drawing on bizarre chapters in Russian history for strange political horror movies. Into the Rasts’ lives comes Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell), a fey fellow fond of parlor tricks and with a habit of appearing out of thin air.

Wolfe quickly insinuates himself into the Rasts’ lives, thanks to his apparent ability to heal Alex, but faster than you can say “inspired by the true story of mad monk Grigori Rasputin,” trouble sets in. A meticulous search of the most thorough computer records that 1980’s green-letters-on-a-black-screen technology has to offer reveals Wolfe’s sketchy past. Still, the Rast kid doesn’t just start getting better, he also develops some new skills, like making Chinese checkers float with his mind. 

Could Wolfe be for real? And will Doc Wheelan stand for his growing influence on Senator Rast’s career?

Key scenes: Quick answer: “No.” But Wolfe plans to have fun before he gets shown the door. This involves seducing Mrs. Rast and forcing himself on a maid, the latter of whom is silenced when she “accidentally” uses a powerful cleaning solution as shampoo. Wolfe also spends a lot of time imparting wisdom to young Alex Rast, sometimes in terrifying ways.

But is it the wind, our invisible friend, who also helps young Alex control birds with his mind? 

Or is it magic? Certainly Wolfe has some skills in that department as well. Later in the film, a dinner party takes a weird turn when Wolfe, attending in what looks like a rejected costume concept for the Aladdin Sane cover shoot, decides to wow the crowd with a demonstration of… well, it’s only a magic show, right, Mr. Wolfe?

Can easily be distinguished by: Is there another retelling of the Rasputin story involving an indiscernible stew of internationally recognized but cheaply available actors willing to work in Australia for a few weeks?

Sign that it was made in 1980: To confirm Wheelan’s status as a next-level power player, director Simon Wincer—later to helm Free Willy, The Phantom, and Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles—shows Crawford’s character wielding the ultimate political weapon: a rotary-dial car phone.

Timeless message: Don’t trust mysterious faith healers who show up out of thin air. Or maybe do trust them. Some confusing late-film twists suggest that Wolfe might have had the Rasts’ best interests in mind all along. Or maybe not. It’s all fairly confusing. Speaking of confusing, did we ever figure out what country this was set in?

Memorable quotes: In attempting to heal an elderly matron’s abscessed tooth, Wolfe offers this: “Just like power, pain… is an illusion.” Whoa.