Dueling Blus: Harlequin a.k.a. Dark Forces

Harlequin's a pretty puzzling little film, though you'll feel on more familiar footing if you're versed in the history of RasputinDavid Hemmings (Deep Red) plays a rising political star who seems to have it all: wealth, influence, a beautiful and devoted family.  But all that fortune is overshadowed by the fact that his young and only son is dying of leukemia, and no doctor can save him.  Enter Robert Powell (Mahler, Tommy), a mysterious man who claims to be a magician able to cure the boy.  He's swiftly welcomed into their home, but it could be a dangerous problem if this powerful figure's motivations prove to be less than purely altruistic.
I'd hesitate to even file it under horror, though it's certainly horror adjacent, at least at times.  Harlequin's as much a drama or even a bizarre political thriller as it is anything else.  There's some tension at the end, but I wouldn't say this film is ever trying to scare you.  It's probably easiest to just call it Ozploitation.  It's another 80s import penned by screenwriter Everett De Roche, the man behind of the biggest and best Ozploitation titles like Patrick, Long Weekend, Razorback one of my favorites: Fortress, but it's not almost not even fair to the "exploitation" half of the "Ozploitation" label.  I mean, it has its moments of brief nudity and a more than satisfying amount of unnatural spectacle.  It's certainly fun and weird, but its meter leans more towards Classy than Trashy.  It's smartly assembled and very well acted; you could almost pass it off as a classic Dennis Potter teleplay for the BBC except maybe for what happens to the maid.  If you can imagine a combination of The Visitor and Brimstone and Treacle, you've pretty much arrived at this movie.
In the special features they talk about how they originally wanted David Bowie for the lead role, which makes perfect sense... but they might've actually been better off with Powell.  Well at least in terms of artistic product, maybe not box office.  And speaking of performances, he might've had these types of roles on speed dial by now, but Oscar winner Broderick Crawford (All the King's Men, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover) is still pretty unforgettable as the political heavy who'd grown used to pulling everyone's strings.  Even the kid is pretty good.  I just saw A Simple Favor yesterday, and boy, was that a rough reminder of how child performances can be a serious sand trap even for the major Hollywood players.  This isn't one for the gore hounds, but if you get this movie and don't dig it, try showing it to your parents.
This film's seen a couple of interesting releases, all sort of half special editions.  Image first put it out on DVD here in the US, with a nice widescreen transfer and audio commentary in 2004.  And naturally Umbrella/ Shock put it out in Australia shortly after.  Then Synapse re-released it as a special edition in 2008, albeit with no new features or anything.  Scorpion Releasing finally gave it its HD debut in 2013 with their limited edition blu-ray, which still basically just had the commentary and little else to demarcate it a special edition.  But now 88 Films aims to top them all with their limited and more genuinely special edition blu next week.  Have they pulled it off?
2013 US Scorpion blu on top; 2018 UK 88 Films blu bottom.
Scorpion left; 88 right. Also, I had this exact Godzilla toy growing up!
Well, here's what they didn't do: come up with a new transfer.  But I don't mean to sound too disappointed because I can't say I was counting on one - if they'd paid for a new scan, they'd've been spelling it out in the marketing.  No, I was expecting something pretty close, and this is nothing if not close to the Scorpion blu.  I was able to match very slow-moving frame grabs by spotting identical flecks; they're virtually identical.  And the original transfer wasn't exactly showroom floor material in the first place.  But I'm not sure that's so much anything the labels are doing wrong so much as just the source material being a little dodgy.  Like, look at how smeary the letters are on the title card, with the whites of the small print bleed into each other.
2013 US Scorpion blu on top; 2018 UK 88 Films blu bottom.
This isn't a cutting edge Sony 4k new release, that's for sure.  But maybe that's just the way the filmmakers made that optical.  There's a softness to the photography throughout, which is clearly intrinsic to the film.  I guess our first question really should be, what are we even looking at here?  Well, Scorpion's packaging describes the transfer as "Brand New 16 x 9 (2.35:1) Widescreen Master in HD from Original Vault Elements," which leaves things leaves things a bit vague.  Interestingly, 88 get a bit bolder, touting "Restored HD master from the Original Negatives."  Anyway, it looks like old 35mm film.  Grain is evident, and light damage is persistent but never to the point of distraction.  Colors look a little faded.  And that brings us to the only real distinction between the two blus.  88's is a shade darker, which I prefer, because again, the film looks a bit faded.  It's a minor distinction you'd never notice outside of a direct comparison like this, and certainly not a reason to double-dip, but the slim edge so far goes to 88.

Audio-wise, both discs seem to have the same mix, the original mono track, in DTS-HD 2.0 on Scorpion and LPCM on 88.  But here's where 88 takes a bigger step forward.  They include English subtitles where Scorpion had none.
The real competition takes place in the special features department, though.  So let's start with Scorpion.  Their main feature is the same audio commentary that's been around since the Image days with director Simon Wincer and producer Anthony I. Ginnane.  It's quite good, though.  They're very involved and have a lot to say.  The other bits are mainly hold-overs from the DVDs, too.  There's an isolated musical score track, and the original theatrical trailer under the alternate title, Dark Forces.  Scorpion adds one thing, though, a Katrina featurette where she gives her usual overview on the film details, and even dresses up in a harlequin costume for some, uh, interpretive dance?  There's also a couple bonus trailers and some cool interior artwork showcasing Harlequin's many colorful posters.
Now, I wasn't expecting 88 to mess with the Katrina skit, but I'm a little surprised they dropped the isolated music track, since that's also been a staple of all the past DVD releases.  But they got the important thing - the commentary.  And most importantly, they got a bunch more that no previous release has ever had.  They have a new, on-camera interview with everyone's favorite critic Kim Newman, who mostly gives a general overview of Ozploitation in general, but does touch on Harlequin specifically as well.  And there's a brief, vintage television interview with Hemmings and Powell, which is rather silly.  The host keeps talking about how she's so taken with the two of them and doesn't ask them much about the film except how it must be hard to shoot a film out of sequence.  But I'm glad 88 uncovered it; it's fun.

Most significantly, however, is a roughly hour long collection of on-camera interviews with Wincer, Ginnane, De Roche and actor Gus Mercurio.  Now, the interviews start with a bit of disclaimer that, "[t]he following interviews were conducted by director Mark Hartley for his documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008)."  It's been a long time since I've watched that film, but to be clear, while these interviews were surely for that doc as described, I'm fairly certain these are not just clips lifted from that film (or its many DVD special features).  These are in-depth interviews all about Harlequin, not just Australian horror in general, and really just what a Harlequin special edition calls for.  They're very forthcoming about everything from the commercial aspects of making this film for an international market to working around some of the cast members' alcoholism.  Also, instead of the Dark Forces trailer, they have a Harlequin-titled trailer.  88's blu comes with reversible artwork, the other side matching Scorpion's.  And limited initial pressings also include an 8-page full color booklet with notes by Calum Waddell and some cool poster art, plus an attractive slipcover.
Just back from The Phantom Zone, apparently.
So I'm a fan of this film and was excited to double-dip for the new special features.  And now that I've got it here, I don't regret it at all.  Sure, it's the same old master, but we pretty much knew that going in.  It is a little bit of a shame to lose the isolated music track, just because it's frustrating to ever take any step backwards.  But I'll happily trade it for all the new stuff.  With that said, though, if you're not a big extras person, and don't have a use for subtitles, these releases are pretty interchangeable.

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