Director: Simon Wincer
Synapse Films

The story of Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin and his influence over Russian Tsar Nicholas II have been adapted to the silver screen on a number of occasions with an array of distinguished actors attempting to embody the notable monk. Lionel Barrymore took on the role for MGM in 1932’s RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS as did Christopher Lee who played the mysterious medium in Don Sharp’s RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK to memorable effect. Unique from its predecessors, DARK FORCES updates the familiar tale trading Tsars for modern day politicians and monks for faith healers in tight leather pants with sparkling eyeliner.

Senator Rast’s (David Hemmings, BARBARELLA, DEEP RED) star is on the rise, as the recent mysterious disappearance of deputy governor Eli Steele has left a powerful political position open. Under the guidance of Doc Wheelan (Broderick Crawford, BORN YESTERDAY), the senator is posed to fill the elite position but the sudden appearance of a powerful mystic and healer threatens to throw his political plans asunder. Gregory Wolfe (Robert Powell, ASYLUM, THE ASPHYX) claims to have knowledge of powers that are best described as magic and doesn’t shy away from displaying his unique abilities. After curing the Senator's only son Alex (Mark Spain) of a disease that had left the boy with little hope of seeing his next birthday, Gregory moves into the Rast home, much to the delight of Mrs. Rast (Carmen Duncan). While Gregory’s methods are questionable at best, going so far as to hang Alex over a cliff in order to help the young boy confront the inevitability of death, the results are indeed astonishing. Not only is Alex’s condition in remission, his hair and complexion are returning and he is acquiring the ability to control objects with his mind. And while Mrs. Rast could not be more thrilled with the results, and the beguiling Mr. Wolfe, Senator Rast can’t quite shake the feeling that Gregory’s powers, be they parlor trick or definitive proof of the supernatural, are less hospitable than they may outwardly seem.

While retaining the most familiar elements of the story of Rasputin, DARK FORCES stands apart by modernizing the tale into a thriller that brings the proceedings into a period and setting that are more recognizable, allowing the fantastical elements to strike a stronger cord. The idea of a self proclaimed faith healer, who can drive away a deadly condition by the simple laying of hands, is a common and shared swindle across the globe, with those desperate to find some form of relief sucked into promises of such claims everyday. DARK FORCES does a brilliant job, thanks in part to a strong script and capable acting, in showcasing both sides of such an incredible claim. After curing her son, Mrs. Rast gives herself over to Gregory, body and soul, relying on him as an advisor and confidant. Senator Rast is however not as easily persuaded, yet finds it hard to deny anything that he sees with his own eyes. While peppered with several flaws of logic, DARK FORCES proves an intriguing take on a historical account whose accuracy is still somewhat up for debate.

Originally titled HARLEQUIN, DARK FORCES is an Australian production that upon its initial theatrical release was nominated for several awards both within its homeland and abroad. Shortly after filming, director Simon Wincer would make the move to Hollywood where he helmed the original "Lonesome Dove" miniseries and such notable family fare as D.A.R.Y.L. and FREE WILLY. Everett De Roche does an impressive job adapting the tale of Rasputin into a contemporary setting, but there are several lines, such as Mrs. Rast’s suggestion that her and her husband indulge in game of strip poker with Gregory after dinner, that feel laughably misplaced. It is also unclear why Gregory is allowed to continue to look after and tutor young Alex after dangling him over a cliff but then again a man being able to shoot lighting out of his mouth doesn’t make much sense either. Everett’s other impressive writing credits include PATRICK and LONG WEEKEND, both titles available on DVD from Synapse. Robert Powell’s performance of Mr. Wolfe is definitely a memorable one, even when he’s not dressed like a cast off from Cirque du Soleil. Surrounded by a strong cast, particularly Mark Spain who plays a challenged and impressionable youth without becoming annoying (not an easy feat), Powell’s very presence in a scene draws your attention as you are never quite sure what his character might do next.

Released by Elite Entertainment in 2004 and currently out of print, Synapse is reissuing DARK FORCES, along with several other titles from Elite’s past catalogue, including THIRST and STRANGE BEHAVOIR. Maintaining the level of quality that fans have grown accustom to from Synapse, DARK FORCES is presented in anamorphic widescreen transfer that maintains the films original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film looks fantastic, presenting a clean picture with barely even a hint of debris. Colors are pronounced and detail is sharp, almost to a fault as they tend to highlight many of the dated, but nostalgic, effects work. Audio is available in Dolby Digital Mono in English, French and Spanish language tracks and like the picture quality, is clean and clear with an isolated music score accessible though an Audio Setup menu.

An audio commentary track with director Simon Wincer and producer Antony I. Ginnane covers close to every aspect of filming short of the brand of coffee craft services served. The two have a vivid recollection of the production and of the Australian film industry at the time and I was particular surprised to learn that Mel Gibson was turned down for a role as a security guard as it was deemed to small for the actor having just completed MAD MAX. A theatrical trailer, under its original title HARLEQUIN, is included alongside trailers for THIRST, STRANGE BEHAVOIR, PATRICK and SYNGENOR, all of which, save for SYNGENOR where produced by Antony I. Ginnane. Selected filmographies for the main cast and crew, along with a behind-the-scenes photo gallery round out an impressive package and another home run for Synapse. (Jason McElreath)