Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Random Movie Report #78: Dragonslayer
The early Eighties were a vibrant period for sci-fi and fantasy movies. After decades (arguably the life of the film industry) of being relegated to the B-slot, they were now major summer and winter tentpoles, and despite a few down periods that’s been the case for a long time since. What’s interesting is that the craze was so hot that, for a brief and foolish period, studios were not only backing genre films, but wholly original genre films. No well-known source material, or even big stars were necessary; everyone was on the hunt for the next STAR WARS, and after Disney’s BLACK HOLE failed to fit the bill, they went the medieval route, teaming up with Paramount for DRAGONSLAYER.
That it didn’t work at the box-office is a shame, but almost thirty years on and that doesn’t matter so much. We’re left with a really surprisingly good little movie; it has a cult following but has never really gotten its due as one of the few really good pure fantasy pictures to come out of this period. Not only does it deliver some of the spectacle that hundreds of cheap barbarian epics and van murals could only hint at, but it’s downright subversive and way more intelligent than it needed to be.
It’s sometime in the dark ages in England; hints of civilization are starting to creep in, Christianity is starting to spread, and the older beliefs are starting to fade. But there are still dragons in the Earth, and one of them, technically known as Vermithrax Pejorative, has been holding a town in its grasp for centuries, demanding virgin sacrifices on a regular basis. Some of the townsfolk head out to the lair of the wizard Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson), but he dies letting them test his powers, and leaves the job to his apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol). Heading to the dragon’s lair, he seems to seal in the monster with a giant rockslide, but that’s not enough to kill the beast, and now it needs to be appeased again with another sacrifice. Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), who has been spared from the unlucky lottery in the past because, well, she’s the king’s daughter, rigs it so that her name is chosen, while Galen and village girl Valerian (Caitlin Clark) seek to find a way to put the dragon down for good.
The main draw for this movie at the time was its monster; bringing a flying, firebreathing leviathan to life in live action was no easy feat in 1981, and Industrial Light & Magic had to resort to every technique available, from stop-motion animation, to puppetry, to the occasional full-size prop. Vermithrax Pejorative is unveiled slowly, with glimpses of claws and tail in early scenes, but at about the 2/3rds mark the film delivers exactly what it promised. The effects hold up really well; the monster looks great, and has an interesting personality conveyed in birdlike body movements and a tendency to light everything in the immediate vicinity on fire. Only the blue screen work is distracting, and that’s unavoidable.
At the same time the film gets to work early subverting the conventions associated with fairy tales like this. The town being saved is something of a dump, ruled over by a corrupt king who made a pact with the dragon years ago, hence the virgin sacrifices. The princess is never really a serious love interest for Galen, despite Valerian briefly thinking so. Subverting fairy tale clichés is almost hackneyed by now, but it’s not overdone and we’re still able to enjoy the battle of good against evil while smirking at the hypocrites in the supporting cast. The whole business with the church is a bit allegorical, especially given the cynical twist near the end, but this isn’t explored too much as the priests are basically impotent against dragons and that old black magic. (You do get to see a pre-RETURN OF THE JEDI Ian McDiarmid get roasted, though.)
Though slow at points, the film eventually kicks into high gear and delivers some really thrilling scenes of swords and sorcery. MacNicol is an interesting choice for the young hero; he has the look and the attitude, but he’s not a conventional lead actor by any measure, nor is the crossdressing Clark a conventional female love interest. Their presence ups the quirky attitude that the movie has, as does Richardson’s subtly comic turn.
All the various twists in the film (many of which I feel like I shouldn’t reveal) and the general defiance of convention may have contributed to DRAGONSLAYER getting lost in the shuffle during a busy summer for fantastic adventure (though I have seen some notes in old issues of Film Comment suggesting the marketing campaign was misguided as well.) But I have to admire that something this offbeat was made as a big summer movie, and that it in fact works as a grand fantasy adventure alongside the more transgressive elements. DRAGONSLAYER is an example of using the power of effects-driven cinema for good, and modern filmmakers would do well to learn from it.
Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins
Directed by Matthew Robbins