Dark Age (1987)

MARCH 29, 2016


When John Jarratt appared in Rogue, I figured it was just Greg McLean recruiting his Wolf Creek star for a bit role, something to amuse fans of that film since he was such a vicious killer in Creek and then in Rogue he was probably the sweetest character in it (he was the guy who wanted to leave his wife's ashes on the river). However, I now realize that while that may have been part of it, it was probably McLean tipping his hand to Dark Age, an Australian killer croc movie that preceded HIS Australian killer croc movie by twenty years. Jarratt (looking a bit like Simon Cowell, right down to the white t-shirt) is the star here, playing a hybrid of Brody and Hooper as he works to stop a giant "Numunwari" from killing any more people.

And in case you weren't sure of the Jaws influence, like that film it offs someone a bit older in the opening scene (a couple of poachers, in fact) before setting its sights on someone smaller - MUCH smaller. Alex Kintner comparatively lived a full and well-rounded life compared to the little toddler that gets munched in the first 15 minutes, and director Arch Nicholson doesn't risk anything crazy like ambiguity or subtlety - we get a shot of the croc's giant mouth crushing the little boy, which was horrifying enough for me but made worse by the audience laughing/cheering it on (it WAS a grindhouse night, so I can't fault them or be high and mighty - two years ago I would have been cheering the loudest). Nicholson then twists the knife, showing the kid's little toy boat floating in the water nearby, now sans its tiny little owner. I mean it wasn't exactly Pet Sematary, but good lord, that one was rough for me (you can see it on Youtube if you like, though it cuts out before the boat "coda").

But in a way, this horrifying (to me) sequence makes the movie's 2nd half even more insane/kind of incredible, as Jarratt joins forces with some local Aborigines to SAVE the baby-eating killing machine, because it's a rare animal and the Aborigines respect it as some sort of god. The plan is to tranquilize it and bring it to an isolated lake where it can eat the fish or whatever and not bother anyone, so the movie switches from Jaws to Free Willy and we kind of go along with it. It's a lot easier to do this when you consider the evil poachers, including one who survives the opening scene attack AND another one later (though he loses his arm that time), as him and his drunken fellow poachers spend the whole movie drinking, shooting every croc they see (and some of these shots seem pretty realistic to me - if they were all puppets/animatronics then the FX team was terrific) and also terrorizing our human heroes for good measure. Without them, you might just think Jarratt is insane and that the creature should be killed, but these guys are all mustache-twirling evil bastards, making it a lot easier to just side with whoever or WHATEVER they're against (it helps that we never meet the family of the little boy who was killed - no slaps in the face from a grieving mother here).

Because of this switcheroo, the movie kind of loses steam as a monster movie and feels like more of an action thriller in its 3rd act, with Jarratt and his Aborigine friends driving a truck with the (tranquilized) croc through some swamps and such, the poachers in pursuit. It's got shootouts, car wrecks, even a goofy bit where they stop to weigh the thing at a highway weigh station (complete with nailbiting suspense as the weigh station employee nearly discovers what they're really hauling). The evil poacher guy finally gets his just desserts in the closing minutes, but otherwise there's probably a solid half hour where it's easy to forget that the movie was once traditional Jaws-y fare. Such genre-swapping isn't uncommon in "Ozploitation" fare, but I certainly didn't expect any of our heroes to get shot to death in this giant crocodile movie.

Then again, by that point the movie had offered a little bit of everything; there's a pretty sizable amount of screentime given to Jarratt and his on/off girlfriend's relationship struggles, with possible infidelity, her housekeeping skills, his workaholic ways, etc. all given their due, to the point where it could have turned into a romantic film just as easily as a Free Willy precursor. The local assholes (there are more than the poachers; Jarratt has a wino buddy who gets chased by a trio of standard punks) give the movie some Mad Max flavor as well, and then the Aborigines offer the genuine Aussie flavor that I don't recall being much of a part of Rogue. And I hope none of this sounds like a complaint - on the contrary, it made the movie quite delightful (seeing as it was part of a double feature with Alligator, it could have looked terrible by comparison if it didn't follow its own playbook), not to mention more engaging - you were never quite sure where it would end up next. At one point Jarratt, the asshole poacher, and about ten other guys go off to look for the best, making me think it might turn into a Dirty Dozen kinda deal where they'd be offed one by one as they try to take it down, but it ends up being a fairly quick sequence where they kill pretty much every croc BUT the one they want. I only point out all of the plot turns for those who might be expecting wall to wall carnage, since the first 15 minutes don't hold back at all - it's just one of the script's many examples of setting up familiar beats only to go off on a different path.

As for the croc itself, it looks pretty great. It's a silent, slower stalker - often floating just high enough to break the surface of the water with its tail scales or maybe the top of its head, and making its fuller appearances count. After just seeing Alligator on the big screen for the first time, I was happy that they didn't go with any miniatures - Alligator is a great goddamn movie (and even better with a crowd), but man those miniature shots are painfully bad at times, so seeing more in a movie that presumably had less money to work with would have been a bit too much to bear. So yeah, he doesn't DO much in a lot of his shots (especially near the end when they're bringing him back to the water - he had woken up by that point but it sure didn't look like it), but when he does I never doubted they were dealing with a real animal. As much as I love Alligator, I can see all the tricks on display (miniatures, forced perspective, etc.) but here, for all I know it was a real giant croc.

All in all, a terrific double feature. It's been a long damn time since I was able to go to the Bev for a Grindhouse night (and I don't think I was able to stay for both movies last time), and I'm not sure if I've ever (yes, EVER) stayed awake throughout both movies in their entirety. Usually I'm fine for the first one but by the 2nd or 3rd reel in the second movie I'm fighting off sleep (and often losing that battle), but I was totally alert throughout, likely a mixture of the high brought on by a big-screen viewing of Alligator (seriously, that movie is infinitely more entertaining and well-written than it has any right to be; I wish John Sayles had stuck around in the horror genre forever) and the coffee I drank in between the two movies that kept me awake until 2 am (I didn't have any in the morning, so my system probably let the caffeine work as intended for a change). But also, I suspect it's because the movies, while seeming very similar on the surface (Jaws wannabes with very similar creatures - to this day I can't tell a croc from a gator at a glance), were textbook examples on how to take a basic story and make it your own. It's always saddened me how similar all those Syfy movies are, because there is clearly a lot of ways you can go about writing/directing the parts in between the giant monster eating people. Look to these films, monster movie makers - Jaws may be the king of such fare, but that's not the only one that can inspire how you make yours.

What say you?


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