On Sympathetic Movie Monsters: “Dark Age” (1987)

dark-age-1987-collageI’d read about this Australian “killer crocodile” movie years ago, but had never had the chance to see it until recently when I bought the region-free DVD from Umbrella Entertainment.

Not too expensive a purchase, (thankfully, it turns out), but I was thrilled to finally have a chance to watch a little-seen B picture whose cinematic greatness Quentin Tarantino had raved about in the 2008 documentary on Australian exploitation cinema, Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation (2008), one of my favorite showbiz documentaries EVER.

So here’s the synopsis for Dark Age, taken from Blumhouse.com’s intro for its interview with the film’s leading man, John Jarratt, in 2015:

“Somewhere in the Australian Outback a giant salt-water crocodile of historical proportions hunts down the white man like a vengeful spirit of Australia’s past. It’s up to a park ranger to find the creature and move it to where it can’t be found and killed by the hunters.”

Maybe the racial component for the croc’s motivation is what tripped Tarantino’s trigger. It certainly isn’t because the movie’s suspenseful or entertaining as an exploitation flick.

It’s not that I don’t find crocodiles scary. The 2007 Australian Horror flick Black Water —

–remains one of my favorite Killer Croc/Alligator pictures, taking a close second only to Lewis Teague’s 1980 Alligator.

Dark Age‘s mystical/touchy-feely, AKA “compassionate”, response to the beast was  a large part of what turned me off about the film.

Following a fatal attack on a wailing toddler, the park rangers, as well as the Australian public, want the croc killed. The local aboriginals refuse to cooperate, believing the 25-foot-long killer is a “dreaming croc”, imbued with mystical qualities, therefore sacred.

Uh-huh.

(sigh)

Man, do I hate it when New Age crackpots venture into B-picture Exploitation territory. The list is long and my gripes are wide. Don’t get me started. Another time, perhaps.

Some of the ‘good guys’ in this movie (well, characters viewed sympathetically by the filmmakers) seemed about as cold-blooded as the crocodile.

The film’s lead ranger (John Jarratt) is unable to locate the 25-foot-long croc without the aboriginals’ assistance, so he agrees to their plan of merely capturing the crocodile and transporting it back to its original habitat area where, they assure him, it won’t eat anyone else.

But, of course, every story needs dramatic conflict, so the plot includes a gaggle of Aussie rednecks, led by Max Phipps (The Toadie from Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior), who antagonize Jarratt and attempt to hunt down and kill the croc in spite of warnings to back off.

The main character, Jarratt’s ranger, argues with the aboriginals that crocs are fine until they start eating people. The film’s aboriginal elder remains unimpressed, telling Jarratt that this “dreaming croc” only eats people who somehow deserve it. The beast can somehow see into their souls, or some such nonsense.

The white men it attacked and ate were hunting it, the elder explains, much like the original white settlers who drove off the land’s aboriginal people years before. The aboriginal toddler the croc dined on had health problems, “always sick, always in hospital” with respiratory problems, the elder shrugs, so the monstrous beast actually did the boy a favor by killing him.

Mind you, the kid is shown wailing while clamped inside the crocodile’s jaws. Just before the beast takes the child under the water, the filmmakers insert the sound of crushing bones on the movie’s soundtrack. It’s truly awful and so sickening that the aboriginal elder’s later dismissal of the boy’s death had me wanting to hurl something at my TV’s screen.

I guess one could enjoy the scene for its taboo shock value alone if you didn’t have kids of your own, but I do. As graphic as the scene is, it doesn’t just ‘cross the line’, it revels in it. And then tells us, essentially, that it’s no big deal.

Native mysticism aside, the elder’s blithe rationalization of that particular death did not endear me to him…nor to his precious “dreaming croc”…yet, from the way the rest of the story unfolds, it seemed pretty clear the filmmakers meant for the audience to understand and feel sympathy for the aboriginal perspective, even if not, by extension, for its beloved killer crocodile.

Didn’t work for me. The child’s death was disturbing, but the subsequent dismissal of that death was where I tuned out completely. Oh, I finished watching the movie, out of a sense of twisted curiosity, I guess, but my emotional investment in the characters was nil.

The story seemed to be making an argument for eugenics, via aboriginal mysticism and a supernaturally-endowed reptile, and it really put me off. I just can’t get behind such blatant nihilism…

…or the ends-justifies-the-means SJW mentality this movie seems tailored to appeal to (“See, the crocodile only kills bad people, so it’s all good! Really!”…What elitist BS).

It reminded me in many ways of Michael Wadleigh’s 1981 thriller Wolfen, where mystical, super-smart wolves in New York City stalk, attack and devour those humans whose activities threaten the wolfen, either directly or indirectly.

More significantly, the wolfen, we are told, by the NYC Native Americans who ‘understand’ the creatures– because their tribes coexisted peacefully until the evil white men came to steal their territory and exterminate those unwilling to leave— prey on society’s unwanted, weak and diseased members (i.e., homeless winos and junkies) inhabiting the South Bronx wasteland the wolfen call home.

Like Dark Age, Wolfen ends on a note of sympathetic understanding from the main characters as the film’s carnivorous beasts are allowed to live.

On a superficial level, I enjoyed Wolfen: the acting, the cinematography, the score, the editing, everything works beautifully…but in the service of a story which says that it’s okay for rich people and homeless people to be EATEN BY WOLVES.

That aspect of the film has always troubled me. It’s a very dark view of humanity.

Which is ironic, since I’m sure the filmmakers (as well as the folks who made Dark Age a few years later) considered themselves good-hearted, well-meaning liberals while concocting a “message movie” that, essentially, advocates selective genocide based on social justice and compassion.

Humanity 1 Wolfen 0 WM matte

So…was there anything about Dark Age I enjoyed?

The performances of lead John Jarratt and character actor Max Phipps. Their combined presence onscreen significantly elevated the material.

The Australian locations were quite beautiful and stunningly photographed.

Otherwise?

The synth-laden score stunk. Canned, late-’80s blandness of the highest order. Razorback had a better score, which ain’t saying much.

The film had very little suspense, but a whole lotta melodrama (which, to be honest, gave the story a dose of much-needed comic relief, albeit unintentional, methinks).

SIDEWINDER POSTSCRIPT

There was one particular bit of character motivation that boggled the hell out of me. After witnessing the child’s death, the ranger’s ex-girlfriend (soon to become his love interest, of course) demands he kill the crocodile. When he resists the idea, she’s furious with him.

Next time we see her, she’s glowing as she shows him her newly-purchased aboriginal rendering of a ‘dreaming croc’, explaining the concept to him, her behavior reminding me of somebody who just smoked a big, fat joint. It’s almost as if just gazing upon this newfound artwork had suddenly transformed her into a different character altogether.

“I know I just watched a cute little kid get eaten by a crocodile, and I was really traumatized by it…but then I found this cool piece of native art and now I think crocs are WONDERFUL!”

Her sudden, unexplained shift in attitude made no sense whatsoever. It made her look like a myopic a-hole, almost as cold-hearted as the ‘wise’ and ‘spiritual’ aboriginals who value the life of a reptile over that of an innocent child.

Advertisements