I came to this realization recently while watching Harlequin (aka Dark Forces, dir. Simon Wincer), an entertaining and thoroughly MAD slice of Ozploitation from the far reaches of 1980. Displaying hints of the skill that he would later put to good use in blockbusters like Free Willy (1993), The Phantom (1996), and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001), director Wincer delivers a fun fantasy flick mixing mysticism, cutthroat politics, charlatanry, a healthy dollop of that good ol' razzle dazzle.
We start on the coastline of an unnamed city-state, where the deputy governor is going for an afternoon snorkel while his cadre of bodyguards look on. But even dozens of vigilant servicemen cannot keep the wetsuited politician safe--he disappears in the murky depths, sparking a media frenzy that it falls to Senator Nick Rast (David Hemmings) to deal with.
This is unfortunate, as Rast has plenty of his own problems to deal with. His son Alex (Mark Spain) is suffering from late-stage leukemia, putting bored trophy wife Sandra (Carmen Duncan) on the edge of a complete emotional breakdown. She puts on a brave face for Alex's 8th birthday party, however, showing the sick kid the time of his shortened life--complete with circus rides, balloons, and the creepiest skinny mute clown money can buy!
Say what you will about the creep factor, though, you can't deny the clown has madd sleight-of-hand skillz. He pulls cards out of thin air, turns handkerchiefs into doves, materializes a big slab o' cake for the sickly guest of to nom upon, and at one point even seems to bring down a crash of thunder from the heavens! They don't teach that at clown college! It's such a great show that even Dad's late arrival can't spoil it for the lovable little tyke--though it does put the senator in serious dutch with the missus.
All good things must come to an end, and the close of the party day sees Alex coughing up blood in the sink and falling into a near coma. The family doctor warns them to prepare for the worst. "It may sound a bit callous," says Nick, just having been informed he's next in line to the deputy governorship, "but it couldn't possibly have come at a worse time!" Say, you're right! That does sound a bit callous. Bastard.
Just when things look their darkest, though, a strange, puppet-like bird appears at Alex's window. Within moments the animatronic avian transforms into...a WEE-ZARD!
|You know what they say about guys with big sleeves|
Yes, it's the clown from the party, having shed his floppy shoes and make-up for a more elegant but equally ridiculous outfit. The stranger introduces himself as Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell), and announces he has come to help Alex. Though Nick objects vociferously, desperate mom Sandra begs the stranger to do whatever he can for her dying son. Sure enough, within moments the kid is on his feet, demanding a sammich. Before Mom can thank him properly (and Dad can call his security goons), Wolfe has vanished again, seemingly into thin air.
He's not gone long, though--soon the charismatic magick-man is a daily visitor to the Rast estate, making cozy with Sandra while Nick is occupied in tense meetings with backroom political kingmaker Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford, Acadamy Award Winner! But not for this film). While Wheelan molds Rast for office like putty in his fat, tobacco-stained hands, Sandra finds herself drawn to Wolfe like a chickadee to a snake's hypnotic stare. But Gregory, ever the gentleman, rejects her carnal advances at first, a circumstance Sandra takes with the grace and decorum one would expect.
|"EAT PLATE, asswipe!"|
While he's getting in good with the lady of the house, Gregory is also spending a great deal of time with young Alex, taking him out on long seaside walks (accompanied by Nick's chief of security) to teach him the ways of wizardry. Lesson one? Dangling the recently moribund youngster over a cliff with one hand, so he can experience the fear of death! "Always remember the feel of Death, Alex," he tells his young pupil, setting him down safely while the security man changes his underwear, "and he'll never be able to take you by surprise!" Lesson two: never stand on a cliff with a man dressed like Rue McClanahan at a lingerie party.
|"Sure, it looks silly, but the bollock-cooling factor is incredible!"|
As the more erudite among you may have already tumbled, writer Everett De Roche's script is a modern-day retelling of the story of Grigori Rasputin, the Infamous Mad Monk of the Russian Court. (Wikipedia article here, for those who want to brush up.) The Rast family share name-analogs with the Romanovs, and even their surname is "Tsar" spelled backwards. Clever, huh? Certain historical happenings are mimicked here, such as Rasputin allegedly curing Tsarevich Alex of hemophilia, exerting a powerful influence over Tsarina Alexandra, and another famous bit of lore that would be spoilerish to reveal here. Suffice to say, the only thing missing is the Russian's Epic Fuck-Off Beard.
|Maybe He's Born With It|
Things heat to the boiling point when Wolfe starts hinting he knows what happened to the former deputy governor, and points his black-shellacked fingers at Doc Wheelan's merciless machine. "You're being groomed Nick, by magicians, to suit their purpose," he warns, indicating that Wheelan's political powers, though not as mystical, are no less formidable, and perhaps even more deadly. In his role as rival sorceror, Wheelan scryes his all-knowing TRS-80 to discredit Wolfe, uncovering seemingly ironclad evidence that the wizard is a fake and has been snookering the Rasts through hypnosis, adrenocortical steroids, and old fashioned show-biz.
That explanation is dealt a bit of a blow, though, when Wolfe crashes one of the senator's fundraisers--in SERIOUS LEATHER--and turns the place into a magical Fantasia! And not the kind where the hippos are dancing either; the kind where the basement gets flooded and the brooms all try to kill you. Looking like a cross between David Bowie's Goblin King and Slim Goodbody, Wolfe levitates a piano, cuts a dove in half with a flying cymbal, and magically extracts an elderly matron's abcessed tooth--a process apparently MUCH more complicated than simply curing leukemia.
|"Do I make you horny? I make *me* horny."|
Having gone a bit too far, Wolfe is imprisoned by Wheelan's stooges, only to escape and return to Rast's estate with a view toward ruining the announcement of his appointment. What follows is a battle of science versus magic, as Wolfe thwarts the house's high-tech security systems in order to plead with Rast to reject the Wheelans of the world and embrace...I dunno, a return to private law practice? The details are fuzzy, but it doesn't matter: the stage is set for a showdown, with the fate of the Rast family and
Harlequin is a wild ride, and one that fans of crazy-ass movies like the ones we celebrate here would do well to seek out. It has everything you want and more--historical pedigree, wild fantasy fx, histrionics galore, random Sigmund Freud impersonations, a fleeting boob sighting, and, as is only appropriate for a movie based on Russian history, strict adherence to the Chekov Rule ("If you show an ill-placed bottle of ammonia acids in Act One..."). Acting is good from top to bottom, the standouts being Crawford as the gruff, no-nonsense Doc Wheelan, and Powell of course carrying the film's top spot.
|Ain't Nothin' Funny About a Clown with a Cricket Bat|
A few more images from Harlequin (1980):
|"They're still bigger than yours."|
|Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not this time.|
|It's cymbalic, of course|
|State of the Art|
|"Oy! Fancy a shag?"|
|"Just one more question, kid--what the hell IS that thing?!"|
|"And that's the story of how Mercedes McCambridge and I killed a hobo one time. More punch?"|
|I don't know what I love more--the spray of blood on the middle dude's face, or how completely blase the guy beside him is. "Oh, this is nothing. You should see what David Copperfield can do to a baby penguin!"|
|"My God, Vicar--it's HUGE!"|