Wednesday, November 23, 2011

DVD Review: DARK AGE (1987)

DARK AGE (1987)
Label: Umbrella Entertainment
Rating: MA 15+
Region Code: ALL NTSC
Duration: 90mins
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Video:16:9 Widescreen (1.77:1)
Director:Arch Nicholson
Cast: John Jarratt, Nikki Coghill, Max Phipps, Burnam Burnam, David Gulpilil, Ray Meager
Tagline: Death is only one bite away.

It was director Mark Hartley's insanely fun Ozploitation documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2009) where I first caught a glimpse of the killer croc feature DARK AGES (1987) and it's 20ft. plastic man-eating crocodile, it's since been on my radar. I love bad cinema, creature features and Ozploitation films and this looked to be all three in one so I knew straight away that I must watch this film sooner than later. Well, it turned out it would be quite a bit later before I would actually catch up with the film and not through my own volition either. As luck would have it the film practically fell into my lap this week when Aussie film distributor Umbrella Entertainment were kind enough to send along a screener of their recently released DVD edition for review. Very cool, but was it worth the wait?
Well, I'm not the only one that's been waiting to see this Aussie eco-horror gem either, until quite recently, the film has never enjoyed a theatrical or DVD release in it's homeland. The delay stems from a rights issues. It seems the film's original Aussie distributor Avco Embassy went belly-up just prior to the film's initial release and the rights holder wanted a ton o' cash to free it up for distro, so the Aussie's have been waiting 14 freaking years for it. Whom better to bring the film to the Aussies than Umbrella Entertainment, a very cool Australian genre film distributor. If you haven't heard of 'em, I've reviewed a handful of their titles on the blog and I highly recommend their OZPLOITATION boxsets, they have three volumes and each is packed with cult Ozploitation horror and genre film oddness.

In the film John Jarratt (WOLF CREEK) portrays Northern Territory wildlife ranger Steve Harris, a real eco-friendly kinda guy with aims to conserve the land down under's dwindling crocodile population from the threat of poachers. One poacher in particular proves to be a thorn in Steve's arse, a guy named John Besser (Max Phipps, MAD MAX 2). When Besser and a group of illicit hunters fail to heed warnings of a large croc in the area the hunters become the hunted and are attacked by the fearsome reptile, only Besser survives. With the threat of a killer croc in the area Steve sets out to relocate the man-eating croc despite public outcry to exterminate the beast. Steve is aided on his mission by two Aboriginees; the mystic Oondabund (Burnam Burnam, HOWLING III) and tracker Adjaral (David Gulpilil, THE LAST WAVE) whom view the creature as a mystical keystone to their people's past.

Throughout the film the giant croc, or Numunwari as it's known to the Aboriginees, savages the poacher Besser again, apparently not having learned his lesson the first time around, this time he loses an arm for his troubles. The injury spurs him to take on an Ahab type obsession against the creature making it all the more difficult for the trio to recover the croc without incident, add to that Steve's superior further laying on the pressure to kill the creature. Mixed into the carnage is a hamfisted subplot wherein Steve is reunited with his former girlfriend Cathy (Nikki Coghill, THE TIME GUARDIAN), it's a pointless exercise but does result in the film's lone instance of nudity so it ain't all bad.  Jarrat (ROGUE) as conservationist Steve is imminently more likable than his sadistic character Mick from the later-day Ozploitation classic WOLF CREEK (2005). As usual David Gulpilil steals every frame of film, he's just so magnetic on screen, the camera loves this guys face, definitely the most recognizable Aboriginal actor of all time.

The glimpse I caught of the croc in NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD was actually pretty terrible, it appeared quite the hideous construct. So how's the giant saltwater croc stack-up now that I've had a good look at it? Not too shabby for the most part all things considered with some notable exceptions. There's definitely a Spielbergian less is more approach to the film, that's just one of many among other JAWS-esque ideas floating around this flick; from the decision not to kill the creature, the boat being pulled along by the force of the creature, etc - it's just expected and not at all alarming in my opinion, pretty much every creature feature riffs on JAWS and it's certainly no different here. The creature effects are decent when kept to a minimum, once the croc gets on dry land during the final few minutes it's get pretty bad fast, but it's only momentarily awful.The kills are pretty fun if not particularly amazing. When poachers and fisherman run afoul of the menace it's usually a bloody affair, not too much gore but it's to nice effect, even a toddler gets snatched from the end of a dock which was pretty surprising, didn't expect that one.

Director Arch Nicholson keeps the thrills coming at a pretty good clip and the film has good production value and looks pretty great. The Northern territories of Australia make for a gorgeous backdrop and the film really showcases the land's beauty which is wonderfully captured by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who would later go onto great acclaim and Oscars after lensing Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. I've always had a fondness for the look and aesthetic of Aussie films and this proves no different, love the lighting of the night shots.

Keep in mind that this is an ozploitation film and as such their some fair amount of lunacy to be found, such as a carful of punks menacing an old man and a car chase featuring a car full of angry poachers chasing a semi rig with the croc strapped to it's bed through the outback, pure craziness but awesome just the same. All in all a pretty fun watch, perhaps not a great film but a great watch nonetheless.

DVD: The film is presented in 16:9 widescreen (1.77:1) and looks quite good. It's a grainy film with some artifacting, dirt and noise, but overall a decent image with nice robust color and a decently sharp image. The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 sounds good too, dialogue, score and effects come through clean, it's not overly dynamic and there's not much separation but quite serviceable.

The lone special feature on the disc is a newly recorded commentary with star John Jarratt and ozploitation producer extraordinaire Antony I.Ginnane (PATRICK, THIRST), which is pretty relaxed and not really alive with energy but enjoyable as Ginnane recalls why the film never received Australian distribution prior to this DVD release and Jarratt recalls working with the cast and filming a few scenes specifically. Would have loved at least a few trailers but the commentary certainly sweetens the deal.

Verdict: DARK AGE is pretty great and underseen       B-movie creature feature that's perfect for a Saturday night on the couch with some frosty beers and a few good friends, it's definitely worth seeking out, particularly if you crave ozploitation cinema and have a predilection for giant killer croc and gator flicks like ROGUE, BLACK WATER and LAKE PLACID. it's a fun JAWS riff and a good watch, enjoy! 3.5 outta 5