by Marc Kandel
This film is a Sword and Sorcery staple of mine, viewed and reviewed endlessly on Saturday afternoons on HBO as a child. I was delighted to see its release on DVD at long last and hope it finds success in this medium. For S & S/Fantasy fans, it is an absolute must, and for its time, was the closest thing to D&D on screen. That said Iím sure there are a lot of fanboys and modern day cinema viewers looking at these statements with a furrowed brow of skepticism and doubt, so letís take a trip through time and let me show you what I mean...Forget 2003 for a moment. It is 1981. Dungeons and Dragons rule the minds and hearts of the basement dwelling virgins of the world. Sci-Fi is undergoing a Renaissance in the form of the Star Wars movies, Alien and just under a billion knockoffs of the two. Lord of the Rings is 20 years away from claiming the high crown of sword and sorcery genre in film (unless you count those Ralph Bakshi items of questionable repute- I just canít). CGI is nonexistent, and the best we can expect effects-wise is some barely passable animatronics and Ray Harryhausen clay/model tech, which though fun hardly screams realism. Conan the Barbarian and The Dark Crystal are unknown heroes on the cinematic horizon, but right now, multitudes of S&S fans, appetites tantalized and whetted by Excalibur, Time Bandits, and Clash of the Titans are craving more. Particularly more hack ní slash with big beasts and bigger breasts. Put down the 20-sided dice kids, and letís head to the theatre to see Dragonslayer.
"Tits, Man-Ass, Reptile MutilationsÖ A Walt Disney Classic"
Dragonslayer. Good title- no convoluted metaphors or flowery wordplays- just a succinct encapsulation of the gist of the film. A kingdom under siege by a fire-breathing nightmare, and some down ní dirty fighting and slaughter is what we are about here. Oh yeah, and thereís some search for a hero stuff, heroís doubts, Gandalf resurrection rip-offs, frustrating bureaucracy, the fall of magic/rise of religion and love-triangle stuff thrown in too. As you can see, nothing we havenít seen or heard of before, but there is a spirit of real fun here, and the movie isnít afraid to get very, very nasty to really punctuate the seriousness of the dragon. There are immolations, murders, political injustice and best of all, bone-cracking, sinew-tearing messy dragon consumptions of chicks (and no, Iím not a misogynist, but címon- dragons eat maidens). Oh yes and a priest gets fried- wonderful.
The plot is as follows- Galen, a befuddled sorcererís apprentice, is desperately trying to fill his masterís shoes after his wizard boss Ulric (played by a wonderfully understated and humorous Sir Ralph Richardson) is killed during his recruitment to slay the dragon. You see, not everyone actually wants the dragon attacked. Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre as the king), has struck a demonic bargain with the creature whereby his lands are spared as long as the dragon gets a tasty young virgin every so often (so should we all), drawn by a corrupted lottery which allows for the wealthy to omit their daughters. The king and his men would rather keep this inequitable status quo than risk pissing the monster off and owning 100 square miles of charcoal briquettes. The townspeople, low on bribe funds, see different, and a group of them recruit Ulric to end the terror. Ulric is killed and Galen must not only battle the dragon, but find the magic within him necessary to do so while defying a pragmatic political structure that would rather see him dead than disruptive.
Okay, enough buildup, now back down to Earth. The film has its flaws. The pacing is stupor-inducing once and awhile, and the blue screen can be obvious as is the stop animation to todayís effects-laden mindset. There is even a scene where our hero is toe to toe with the beast that cuts straightaway to his girlfriend finding his unconscious form, singed around the edges but alive and well and safe- what the fuck? Hell, even the aforementioned boobies are glimpsed for the briefest moments and far, far too much time is spent on MacNicholís bare buttocks, but you know what? I donít care. The film is done with guts, Marines. And guts are enough.
Our hero is not struck from the same mold as Paul ďWho?Ē Walker, Heath ď15 minutes almost upĒ Ledger, Vin ďBouncer with Throat CancerĒ Diesel, or even that Ur-Twit Freddie Prinze Jr. Nope, none of that- you Ally Mc Beal fans (thatís right, take the bags off your heads) just might recognize Peter MacNicol, the bag of neuroses from that David E. Kelly lawyers-for-idiots series, if you look hard enough (man, heís young in this one). Galen is not a capable, commanding presence. He is barely more masculine than the female lead and probably a few octaves higher. He struggles to pull off the most amateurish rabbit-out-the-hat tricks much less work effective, powerful magic. The kid fights like old people fuck. And it all works. How many of us given immediate notice, would find ourselves ready to go out into the world and battle giant lizards and trained soldiers? Nobody reading this column, I think. That is the charm of Dragonslayer- we have a real person asked to do the unreal, and when he does, as in real life, there are complications and fuck-ups. I can count three fuck-ups, to be exact, each of them costing lives and pain. That in the end is what sells the film- the humanity in the face of the fantastic. And donít get me wrong, the dragon is pretty damn fantastic too.
The film takes a wise ďless is moreĒ approach to the dragon with POV shots, echoing underground roars and tremors, a giant claw, and the spiny top of its head- all done to great effect, as the threat and horror of the beast are conveyed through reactions to its presence and the threat of its coming rather than showing its actual visage. In fact, one of the best laughs in the film is when the villagers give Ulric a forearm-sized tooth found near the creatureís lair and he responds with ďYou want me to do battle with THAT?Ē Trust me, I havenít spoiled anything- Sir Ralphís delivery makes the moment.
When we do see the beast in its full glory, there is little disappointment. Industrial Light and Magic saves the day with a fully realized, living, breathing monster, every bit the magnificent, glistening ancient terror we have come to expect through some great buildup. Yes, there is evident blue-screen and stop animation (refined technically as go-animation giving the beast more fluid, natural movements- but still a bit jerky), but for the most part, more care is taken in these moments through lighting and angles than most monster films then and now, and what you get is a pretty spectacular beast with age, weight and presence- far more than I can say for most of the CGI foolery making up the great beasts of the screen today (ironically also done often by Industrial Light and Magic). This dragon has personality and gravity (and the best name ever, Vermithrax Perjorative- better than Smaug even), courtesy of some master craftsmanship from the best of the best. There is one moment where we might even feel a twinge of pity for Vermithrax as the film actually has it reacting sorrowfully to something Galen has done (I wonít spoil it). Reactions shots for monsters: Brilliant.
Overall, Dragonslayer is a thoroughly enjoyable journey into the world of fantasy. We get to see a visceral, satisfying face-off between man and monster- quite a feat in and of itself, especially since it is done with primitive weapons and puppets rather than guns and CGI. There is tension, palpable dread, and realism in the characters of the story (even if the romance subplot leaves us a bit dry), and a mature approach to the consequences of tangling with a monster, which we donít often see these days, as most fantasy films prefer bloodless engagements for a wider audience (which typically means you get a shitty film- there has got to be a cost to fighting- more blood please, otherwise you donít learn nuthiní). Also, the film gives a powerful sense of the end of an era- the Dragon is old and dying and sorcerers are replaced by priests, heroes by politicians- there is a transition here which makes for some classic storytelling as it is the last story of an Age, a la Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, Star Wars, The Wild Bunch- you get the point. Plus, making a fireproof shield out of dragon scales is really fucking cool.
I love the early 80ís. PG ratings encompassed a whole helluva lot of territory allowing for much more enjoyment of the female body and violence, leads were cast because they fit the role rather than capitalizing on one actorís popularity in a vain sans-story star vehicle, production companies spread a lot of dough around the filmscape without really examining what the content of their films would be, and special effects were still in most cases, used to move the story along, rather than become the focal point with some hastily written plot scribbled in to get to the money shot.Dragonslayer is still a relevant film and should be credited the respect it deserves as a fulfilling, worthy addition to the fantasy genre.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2588&reviewer=358
originally posted: 01/03/04 05:51:12