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Dark Age

Year: 1988
Production Co: F G Film Productions
Director: Arch Nicholson
Writer: Sonia Borg/Stephen Cross/Tony Morphett
Cast: John Jarratt, Nikki Coghill, Burnham Burnham, David Gulpilil, Ray Meagher, Max Phipps

Another Australian exploitation era movie I'd had on my Must See list for years along with Frenchman's Farm. The reason I wanted to watch it was because I expected it to be a delightfully schlocky homegrown monster movie complete with dodgy effects, bad acting and bad synth rock music in the score (it was 1988, after all).

But it's a pleasant surprise to see that it actually contains so much more. A giant crocodile has been menacing the small aboriginal community of Malparinga in far north Queensland, and elder Oondabund (aboriginal activist Burnham Burnham, who's on the Australian $2 coin to this day), his son Adjaral (David Gulpilil, fresh off global fame thanks to his role in Crocodile Dundee) and park ranger Steve (a ridiculously young John Jarratt) are all trying to figure out why it's come so far from home and how to get it to go back while it picks off locals. So far, so Alien clone.

But when the croc comes closer to town – Cairns, even though it's never mentioned in the film – some local yobbos led by thug Besser (Max Phipps) and the hilariously no nonsense mayor (Ray Meagher, who gets all the choice campy lines) want none of the native mumbo jumbo, they just want the monster gone.

And that's where the story goes in a different direction than you expect. Rather than a man versus nature war movie, Steve and his comically short shorts team up with Oondabund and Adjaral to capture the croc and return it to the remote watering hole Oondabund says it's come from. The croc, he says, is scared and far from home, and as its steward among the people, he has to show it the way back.

The movie didn't only reference aboriginal culture before it was politically correct to do so, it made it an integral part of the (admittedly uneven and simplistic) plot, especially during the climax where it enters real dreamtime territory. The final showdown isn't between man and animal but the men who want to protect the animal and the men who want to destroy it.

I don't know if the filmmakers at the time were canny enough to be planning on pulling the rug out from under an audience who were expecting a B-movie creature feature straight out of the 1950s, but it gave it an appeal that endures to this day.

All of the above is not to say there aren't some serious clangers. Hot soapie star of the day Nikki Coghill as Steve's on again/off again ex fills out the love interest role with glaring late 80s fashions, and the editing during her and Steve's sex scene is funnier than any comedy.

It was also an early step in the road for a cinematographer who'd started as a camera assistant on grindhouse favourite Patrick and would go places in years to come – the late Andrew Lesnie.

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