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Tabula Rasa

Dark Age

Directed by Arch Nicholson, 1987

A review by David Carroll, 2001

Dark Age"Stuff me arm -- get me into the bloody boat!"

Here's an oddity -- a proud and potentially important Australian movie, never released in Australia. Perhaps giant monster movies are never going to be high art (I have a friend who will disagree with that), but they can be accessible and fun and cover some pretty interesting ground. It's also a genre that is strangely rare here, the only obvious example being Razorback (does In the Winter Dark count, I wonder -- and let's not go near Welcome to Woop Woop). Dark Age is an attempt at a giant crocodile movie, and a lot more besides.

It is based on the novel Numunwari by Grahame Webb. I'm not sure if Dark Age was the production title, or just used for the Americans, but it's a pretty strange choice, never referenced in the film (there is a comment at one point about the stone age, which may be meant to fit thematically together -- somehow). The plot involves a big croc haunting a river somewhere in the Northern Territory, which soon heads toward the nearest big (but otherwise unspecified) town, putting it into conflict not only with the people who want to stop the killing, but those who don't want the tourist dollar to be harmed by any undue panic. Comparisons with Jaws are obviously strong, but only go so far. In this version, the hero of the piece is a ranger who has been working to protect the species, and must try to walk the line between the white fellas who want the beast destroyed, and the black fellas who view it with veneration. It is this conflict that is centre screen, punctuated nicely by the various attacks, plus some sexual byplay along the way.

The hero is played by John Jarratt, who has been in pretty much everything it seems, from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Blue Murder, joined by Nikki Coghill as the other half of a fractious relationship. There are a lot of familiar faces that pop up, but the most notable are David Gulpilil, perhaps our most recognisable Aboriginal actor this side of Ernie Dingo, and Burnam Burnam himself. The director, Arch Nicholson, hasn't been quite as prolific, although did second unit duties on Razorback a few years earlier, and has a number of other movies to his credit. The exec producer, Antony Ginnane, has been a staunch supporter of genre movies with all sorts of interesting things in his filmography (and Burnam Burnam was in Howling III -- but that's not important right now).

So it's got a good cast, and some talent behind the camera. Why did it never get to cinemas, let alone video release in its own country? To see it you have to somehow grab it from the US, where it has not exactly made much of a stir. What happened?

I suspect that somewhere along the line, somebody had a crisis of confidence. Just whether that crisis was justified could be debated. The portrayal of indigenous affairs is a matter of some sensitivity in our own Godless and judgemental culture, and here we have a group of aborigines actually siding with the monster -- even when it takes one of their own. These natives are of the mystic type, spiritual beings without many defining characteristics other than their strange pidgin and wise sayings. So is this portrayal too derogatory, too awe-struck, too patronising or just too unrealistic? Somewhere in these questions is the reason you've probably never heard of this movie. Which is a shame, because it's actually pretty good, and more than worth tracking down.

Technically, everything flows along pretty well, with enough tension, blood and strangeness for most. There are some jarring moments, usually due to the over-enthusiastic composer. The croc itself looks realistic enough through most of it, and after some stilted dialogue at the beginning, Jarratt finds his pacing and delivers a fine leading performance. I liked all the bits with his girlfriend, and I liked the fact that the writers never forgot exactly what sort of man he was (the weigh-station is special). Most everybody else is a bit of an enigma, white and black alike. Jarratt's boss is just there to frustrate events as much as possible, and the rest of the Caucasians are as stereotyped a bunch of hard-drinking, shoot-first yobbos as you'll ever hope to meet.

But in the end it is a giant monster movie, so we have to ask -- is the monster scary? The answer is yes, although not in the expected way. On screen, the monster is not exactly the archetypal sum of mankind's fears that these critters usually are. It doesn't seem particularly intelligent, or have bizarre resistances to weapons and tranqs. Off-screen it is a little more impressive, as we are told of its long journeys and longer life. But in the end it is the aboriginal mythos that gives the creature its power, and it is a subject approached with serious intent. The movie does not shy away from posing difficult questions, the sort of questions that give the horror genre its power. It certainly does not tempt you with the questions and then retreat to safer ground. It is thought-provoking and scary -- but is it accurate? Although I'm willing to believe Burnam Burnam (activist and author, as well as actor) wouldn't swing too far wrong, I'm really not in a position to say. Certainly there are oddities of geography and history throughout the picture, noticeable to those who know the area. On its own terms, the movie is a success, but perhaps in the glare of national exposure, it would not have fared as well.

 

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