Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dragonslayer (1981): or, Feel the Burn


I ask you, parishioners: how did it happen?

In mythology and literature, the dragon has historically been one of the most fearsome of all monstrous beasts. Destroyers of kingdoms, devourers of maidens, guardians of treasure and remorseless hero-incinerators--dragons are the archetypal Great Enemies, the Final Bosses to end all others. Think of St. George and his most heroic of hero-quests; think the Beast of Revelation, with the Whore of Babylon riding astride him; think Tiamat and Smaug.

And yet, the movies have seldom done justice to the Terrible Fire Lizard. If the dragon *is* presented as a monster, it's often a bit character (Harry Potter), and usually with video-game styled CG, like an old-school tattoo come to life. (The less said about Reign of Fire, the better.) More often, the dragon becomes a misunderstood nice guy with a heart as golden as his hoard. Pete's Dragon. Donkey's paramour in Shrek. The powerful playful pets of How to Train Your Dragon. Sean Connery in Dragonheart. Talkative, unthreatening, a mere sidekick to the hero who by rights should be struggling with it for his life.

Not so in Dragonslayer. The dragon here is not interested in doing what's right. It does not interact with humans except to roast and/or eat them. It is not interested in conversation. It is a monster, a beast, a malevolent force of nature so powerful that even to attempt to face it is a fool's errand, a death wish it is more than happy to grant. And that's why Matthew Robbins' 1981 fantasy epic is still, for my money, the greatest dragon movie ever made.

"Stop whatca doin, cuz I'm about to ruin
the dragon-slayin' style that ya used to..."


From the beginning the movie immerses us in its fantasy medieval world, as we follow a small band of villagers trekking over swamps and craggy outcroppings, approaching the castle of the mighty sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson, who later that year would play the Supreme Being in Time Bandits). This is not a gleaming, idealized realm such as the Camelot of John Boorman's Excalibur (released the same year)--Ulrich's castle is dirty, dusty, and littered with broken alchemical contraptions, and the peasants at his gate are likewise believably gritty. Led by tough-talking young "boy" Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), the ragtag group has come to Ulrich with a desperate plea: to rid their kingdom of one of the nastiest fire-breathing dragons ever to hatch. After conferring with his clumsy but eager apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol in his film debut), the old man agrees.

However, before the show can get on the road, a group of the King's guards arrives, led by John Saxon fanclub member Tyrian (John Hallam, who made a career of acting in fantasy movies, with imdb credits for Kull the Conqueror, Ivanhoe, Arabian Nights, and others). The king has forged an uneasy peace with the beast by holding a yearly lottery in which the names of all the virgin girls in the kingdom are put in a big drum and one drawn at random. The lucky winner gets the honor of becoming that season's Vierge Flambe, which sates the dragon's appetite and keeps the hovels un-scorched. Not wanting to upset the status quo, the King has sent Tyrian to put an end to this whole dragonslaying foolishness, which he appears to do by stabbing Ulrich through the heart, killing him.

"I put on my robe and wizard hat..."

The sets Robbins uses, all locations in Wales and Scotland, are wonderful and gorgeous. Crags, fields, ruined castles and shadowy caves--this is exactly how you want your fantasy realm to look. Also the decision to film the entire movie using only natural light (well, except for the wizardry pew-pews) also gives the movie a lovely, more natural feel. In fact, even though Excalibur has less wizardry and fantasy creatures in it by many factors, its look is far less "realistic" than the world created here.

Deprived of the prospect of getting his Wizardly Diploma, Galen figures he might earn a GED by taking up the dragonslaying quest himself, and so he joins Valerian and the Peasants* in their return trip. Galen proves himself to be somewhat adept at magic--at one point making a heavy backpack float and then stripping the robes off his aged manservant Hodge (character actor Sydney Bromley, who met a much less terrifying dragon in The Neverending Story, in a small but memorable role). However, Valerian shows him an even better trick when, surprised at a wayside swimming hole, the peasant performs the storied Disappearing Penis Illusion! Yes, the "boy" is actually a girl, raised as a male by her blacksmith father in order to protect her from the Dragon Kibble Lottery. (Why Galen never proposes the obvious solution to Valerian's whole "virgin lottery" problem is beyond me--there's more than one type of lance to save you from a dragon, IYKWIMAITYD.)

*Yet another good band name.

Let me just get out my Magic Wand...

And such a fatherly impulse is more than understandable, since as I said, this dragon is not a lizard to be toyed with. In an early scene where we see the dragon collecting its yearly prize, Robbins does a fantastic job building the suspense and menace, showing us the dragon only in bits and pieces. A billowing cloud of smoke from the cave mouth, a growl like an earthquake, a spiked tail destroying a hay cart, a massive claw barring the frightened girl's escape--all of which not only emphasizes the beast's size and terror, but make the best possible use of the impressive practical effects. In fact we won't see the dragon in full flight for nearly an hour into the movie, but it is nonetheless a terrifying presence, even in the scenes in which it doesn't appear at all.

Stopping off at the dragon's lair on the way back to the kingdom, Galen tries to levitate a rock over the mouth of the cave to block the beast's egress, and ends up inadvertently causing a massive avalanche that accomplishes the same thing. Thinking themselves free of the beast's reign of terror, the villagers throw a party, at which Valerian appears in woman's dress for the first time, capturing Galen's heart and entering the sexual fantasies of 14-year-old boys everywhere, or at least in that one cinema in Little Rock.

Is it wrong that I found her hotter in her boy clothes?

Sadly the celebration is premature, as the still-alive and extremely pissed dragon erupts from its rocky tomb like a volcano, bringing its full wrath down on the shrieking villagers. The vindicated king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), has Galen thrown in jail and holds another lottery to appease the beast. But when Galen tells the virginal Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) that the king has shielded her from the lottery all these years, the virtuous girl rigs the vote and becomes the next course on the dragon's menu. The king, desperate, frees Galen in the hopes that he can save the princess, just like a hero is supposed to do.

Rewatching this movie I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the puppetry and blue-screen effects of the era, but to the director's credit the FX are still very impressive, and hold up extremely well. Part of this is the aforementioned piecemeal method of showing the beast, but even when the dragon is in full flight, there are only a couple of blue-screen gaffes, and nothing terribly distracting. Even the baby dragon puppets are lit and filmed in such a way as to be truly frightening, instead of the Muppet rejects they might have been. Best of all is how the flick engages the viewer's imagination, which makes it easier to forgive small mistakes because the whole experience is so satisfying and yes, magical. (Something modern CG-heavy movies regularly fail to do, imo.)

"I can haz virgin?"

The battles with the dragon are filmed excellently, and are pleasingly gruelling--it's no small feat to kill a dinosaur with a spear, and Galen's attempts to do so aren't made to look easy at all. They're very grueling and suspenseful, in fact--even when Ulrich reappears in Obi-Wan Kenobi mode, his incredible powers are not enough to dispel the dragon's death-dealing dangerousness. And the script even provides a nice bit of bittersweet subtext drawing a line between the death of the dragon and the death of magic and mythology in history; the group of villagers singing Christian hymns and renouncing their pagan ways once the dragon is slain foretells a new age, with different (and, I think it's implied, less fantastic) myths and legends of its own.

MacNichol does a good job as the sorcerer's apprentice, using bravado to cover his youthful lack of self-confidence. Richardson is fantastic as Ulrich the Magician, hitting just the right balance between Nicol Williamson's Merlin and Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan. (In fact I think I noticed several other Star Wars nods, from MacNichol's Luke Skywalker-ish outfit to a "lightsaber" duel with Tyrian.) Clarke is okay as Valerian, though sometimes her delivery is a bit stilted. (The actress sadly passed away of ovarian cancer in 2004.)

"Eat hot heat, cocksuckah!"

It's always great to revisit a cherished childhood movie memory and find it derserves all the adulation you've given it over the years, which was exactly my experience here. 3 thumbs for Dragonslayer--to paraphrase John Waters' sentiments about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it is simply the best dragon movie ever made, and is quite possibly better than any that will be made in the future. ;)

To intimidate his enemies, Galen employs the little-known Fellatio Elongo spell.


15 comments:

Nicole_Hadaway said...

I have to say that I just saw the recently released How To Train Your Dragon and found that it took me back to my kid days when I was highly imaginative and loved to dream up stories of dragons and unicorns. It also reminded me of what I also consider to be the best dragon movie of all-time -- this one. I love how they used 'real' dragons instead of CGI -- something that you can touch seems so much more real. The scene where the virgin is tied to the stake awaiting the dragon is positively terrifying, and the whole movie -- forging the special weapon, the battle between magic and science, Christianity vs. pagan ways -- it's just awesome. Thanks for featuring this one!

The Duke of DVD said...

A brilliant homage to a brilliant film, dearest Vicar! This movie holds a special place in my blackened heart as heavily influencing me at an early age. I remember being awed in my youth of the terrible dragon, and you are correct, the director does a great job in making it seem like a fearsome beast.

Bravo, sir!

P.S. - "Casiodorus Rex" would also make a killer band name.

Samuel Wilson said...

I remember seeing this in a theater as a kid -- it even had an intermission. It was the kind of film I was eager to see then, though I later found the likes of Conan the Barbarian to be stronger stuff. I still enjoyed Dragonslayer and remember being disappointed at learning it had been a flop. How bad a flop? Just a few days ago, someone at our newspaper office dug a 1981 paper out of an old desk. A crowd gathered as he opened this Friday edition's movie pages with their huge ads. They were awed by ads announcing the original engagements of pictures like Stripes and For Your Eyes Only, but Dragonslayer may have had the biggest ad in the section. No one had heard of it.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Nicole - I've got nothing really against the "cute" dragons, and I hear HTTYD is fairly good--however, it just seems to me the "dragon as monster" trope has received conspicuously little attention in movies, at least as the featured creature. Of course maybe it's b/c filmmakers see DRAGONSLAYER and realize they can't do better! ;)

@The Duke - Casidorus Rex would be a medieval power metal band who sang operatic tales of dragon fighting and serf-supression, while Valerian and the Peasants would be totally punk and all about changing gender role stereotypes and stickin' it to the man! "Galen & Hodge," however, would be the world's best Hall & Oates cover band. ;)

@Samuel Wilson - I assumed that DRAGONSLAYER was made after the success of EXCALIBUR in order to cash in on the perceived fantasy craze, but their releases are so close (I don't know which came first, even), this may not be the case. Still, it is strange that it didn't resonate with audiences at the time, what with D&D being the popular game/cultural bugaboo it was. At any rate, 1981's loss is our gain!

The Film Connoisseur said...

Best Dragon movie ever, no doubts about it! I keep revisiting it, to me it has aged very well. As you mentioned, the dragon effects hold up so well. It was just a very well made movie.

The Dragon feels so evil, and it does not say a word! I mean, this director did a great job of giving Vermithrax Pejorative (thats the name of the dragon!) real life. It might be a puppet, it might be stop motion, but it feels real.

Performances are good all around, my favorite is Richardson he was pitch perfect as the magician!

Honestly, I cannot believe how modern films have been completely unable to top this movie! Not even Reign of Fire which I was so looking forward to.

And how about the disaster that was Eragor...jeez! Somebody make a descent Dragon movie already!

@jonp70 said...

Loved loved loved this movie. Haven't seen it in years but remember many viewings of it when it was on Showtime back in the day.

And Vicar, I think you touched on all the things that made it magically delicious back. I really do need to seek it out because I had kind of forgoten about it.

Love me some Excalibur, too. I still remember seeing the trailer for it at LR's Cinema 150 before "The Empire Strikes Back."

evilgenius333 said...

I haven't seen this film in YEARS! but I do remember absolutely loving it - particularly for exactly what Vicar mentioned - the whole D&D craze going on. Yeah, man - why didn't this catch fire? Anyway - superb review. Thanks!

Cheers,

Jason

JamiSings said...

I have vague memories of maybe seeing this on tv. Or maybe I'm wrong. Yet there's something familiar sounding about it.

See, I like dragons and therefore don't like seeing them as monsters. (Course I was born in the year of the dragon so maybe I'm biased.) I really love the book series by Naomi Novik, Temeraire. It's the Napoleonic war, but with dragons. Highly intelligent dragons that bond with certain people. If you get any reading time between movies, I suggest you get these from the library.

But I do love me some old school pre-CGI special effects. Like in Abbot And Costello Meet The Invisible Man. When that guy first disappears and it's all slow, with his teeth being the last thing to vanish. How did they do that without computers?!

Hey, Duke, Vicar, I just thought of something. One of the librarians where I work asked me for some DVD recommendations. If you both could pick out five to ten (preferably American or UK because movies in English get added quicker with the exception of Pan's Labyrinth) classic horror movies outside of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman (he's already ordered those - and he's considering the silent version of The Phantom Of The Opera because I suggested that) that you think should adorn our library shelves it would be awesome. Especially if they're the kind of horror movies that makes Freddy Kruger look like Martha Stewart. We already have the entire Evil Dead Trilogy. (I sponsored those in our DVD drive. Along with the 70s children's educational show, The Electric Company.)

Nothing obvious like Rosemary's Baby. And he's recently added all three Omen movies. And since it's a library nothing that costs a lot - people don't realize how much the libraries need donations of brand new DVDs if we want our collections to grow. But movies that if you didn't have them in your collection and you saw them at your local library you'd scream in orgasmic-like delight that we had such a treasure. Starting with your top pick. Since he probably won't buy them all, might as well put the best of the best on top so it'll be the most likely picked.

Oh yeah, I also told him already to get the original Night Of The Living Dead.

I'd really appreciate your help with this. Our DVD collection needs to grow and it would be nice if we had more horror in there. You know what one of our latest additions is? Duece Bigalow: European Gigolo. We need about 50 good movies to make up for this crap, but I'll settle for ten.

Adam Blomquist said...

Great write-up, and so true. Just made my roommate watch this for the first time via Netflix instant watch(in HD, for those who haven't seen it in a while). He had never even heard of it. Such a sadness that greatness is relegated to relative obscurity.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks everyone for the continued comments!

Just a heads up--first commenter on this post Nicole Hadaway is giving away a DRAGONSLAYER graphic novel on her site, so check this link to enter and win a prize worthy of your hoard!

http://nicole-hadaway.blogspot.com/2010/04/manic-monday-book-giveaway-dragonslayer.html

Now on to your comments...

@Film Connoisseur--Vermithrax Pejorative, what a name! As I said over at Nicole's site, that's definitely the name of my new death metal band. I'll be on guitars and vocals, and the Duke will play the Flame Throwing Accordion! And you're absolutely right--you'd think modern movies would take up the gauntlet, but it's a testament to this film that it's yet to be topped 20+ years on.

@evilgenius333-- "Why didn't this catch fire?" I see what you did there! ;)

@Jami--thanks for the book tip! Much as I love it, I don't know if I'd hold A&C Meet the Invisible Man up as the pinnacle of practical effects, but I do understand the sentiment. ;) As to the off-topic question, feel free to mail those to the contact email on the sidebar, so as to keep the discussion on the movie at hand here!

Thanks again everyone!

J.D. said...

What an awesome tribute to this underrated film! The 1980s was a pretty good decade for fantasy films with EXCALIBUR, DRAGONSLAYER, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and LEGEND. As you point out, all of these films got by on practical effects and have a humanity and realness to them that is missing from the CGI era. At least with THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, Peter Jackson mixed practical effects with CGI, so there was the best of both worlds.

Ashton Lamont said...

I loved this film on release but recently found out that the great Eric Roberts was the original choice for the lead.....how great would that have been?
Keep up the grand work sir!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@J.D. -- Thanks! I'd be interested to see what the Jackson Approach would do with Smaug, who is a pretty scary dragon, even though he has a problem shutting his yap and just getting on with the destruction. ;)

@Ash -- I have a complicated relationship with Mr. Roberts...well, actually it's not that complicated: I hate him. Perhaps that's too strong a word though--I'm sure he's a lovely person. I just have never seen anything he was in where I *didn't* want my money back afterward, even if it was free. I call it the Casper Van Dien Effect. ;)

Also, I think MacNicol was pretty perfect in the role--it's hard to imagine Roberts's swaggery having the same effect as MacNicol's false bravado, covering his wizardly self-doubt. And as an old school D&D nerd, I know that Wizards don't start out in the Ulrich realm...they start out puny and easily killable. Pete's perfect, imo.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Also, @Adam Blomquist--who knows why some movies succeed, while others just as good or even tons better don't catch on? Timing? Zeitgeist? The fickleness of the public? I guess with movies it's the same as with bands and writers and any artists--being good is important, but not as important as being lucky. :)

MarkusWelby1 said...

Bravo sir. I just watched this with my nephews who told me they didn't think a movie about dragons could be scary. After Dragonslayer, they changed their minds. Much like "Jaws," the film works best when you don't actually see the beast. The reveal pays off in this better than Spielberg's classic.

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