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The Nostalgic Attic: Dragonslayer (1981)

23 April 2014

Dragonslayer (1981)

"When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!"

Despite a reputation for making 'safe' kids films for all the family to enjoy, there was a point in the late 70's and early 80's when Disney pushed the envelope for what many would consider to be 'children's entertainment'. It was an unusual time for it, too, as in the USA at this point the important 'PG-13' rating had yet to be invented, and would only come into existence after Spielberg terrified one-too-many children with the likes of Poltergeist, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the UK, there were similar issues, with films either receiving the rating of 'PG' or '15'. It's important enough to understand that the difference between a 'PG' in the UK and USA mean quite different things; in the States, "Parental guidance strongly suggested – most material may not be suitable for children". Whereas in the UK, " This means a film is suitable for general viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children". So basically, it meant that there were tougher guidelines for what could be shown in a PG film in the UK, resulting in many films getting a re-classification to a 15 cert (such as Poltergeist, Sixteen Candles and Gremlins getting bumped up to a '15') or else they got cut by distributors to omit offending imagines to maintain the important 'PG' rating.

With Dragonslayer falling into the latter category, it probably just goes to show how much credit the filmmakers were willing to give kids to enjoy a work that featured some fairly adult themes and a bleak premise, despite the inclusion of wizards and dragons. Around this time Disney put its name to the likes of The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Return to Oz, and you know what? As a kid, I loved them all. Sure, some of them gave me sleepless nights, but they helped shape my love and enjoyment of the horror genre in ways that is hard to explain unless you grew up watching these films. I miss the times when kids could have their scares too, in films that were tailored for them but giving them enough respect to not delve into 'kiddie' territory.

Dragonslayer opens in the grim, barren, 6th century land of Urland. A group of travellers, led by the brave lad Valerian (Caitlin Clarke; Crocodile Dundee, Blown Away) are in search of a wizard. The men arrive at the castle Craggenmor, home of Ulrich (Ralph Richardson; Time Bandits, Rollerball) and his apprentice wizard, Galen (Peter MacNicol; HouseSitter, Ghostbusters II). It seems that a cruel, vicious dragon named 'Vermithrax Pejorative' has a grip on the land, and the only one who can stop him is a sorcerer. The king demands two human sacrifices to the terrible beast a year, to sate his hunger, and the villagers are sick of being the pawns of the hierarchy. Unfortunately for the group of travellers, one of the kings brutes, Tyrian, (John Hallam; The Wicker Man, Lifeforce, Flash Gordon) has followed them to the castle. He confronts Ulrich, questioning his powers. In a shocking early move, Ulrich dies with a knife through the heart at his own request.

Young Galen decides he will take Ulrich's place, and journey to the far end of Urland where the dragon dwells. Armed with nothing more than a magical amulet and a jar of Ulrich's ashes, he sets off with Valerian. After a bout of bare-arsed skinny dipping, he makes an important discovery: Valerian is really a girl. Her father, fearing the rigged lottery of the king for human sacrifices, hid her gender from the villagers to spare her certain death before the dragon.

After arriving in at the dragons lair, Galen attempts to bury the dragon in his cave with a landslide. Tyrian takes this opportunity to step in and seizes Galen, delivering him to the king in shackles. The king has a particular disliking for wizards, especially for those that meddle with dragons. Fearing that Vermithrax may now be just angered at the attempt to seal him in his lair, the king strips Galen of his magical amulet, and has him imprisoned in the castle. unsurprisingly, Vermithrax escapes his stone dungeon and reeks havoc on the village. Galen manages to escape from the castle and hides out in the home of Valerian's blacksmith father. Meanwhile, the king decides it's time for another human sacrifice, but who's name should pop out of the hat? None other than his own daughter. Fearing that he will lose her, the king returns the amulet to Galen, urging him to finish what he has started. Will Galen be able to conquer such a mighty monster? Will he figure out the riddles his old master has left for him? Will he get it on with Valerian?

The great news is; Dragonslayer holds up surprisingly well considering its age. The film has a grim, 'real-world' vibe to it, beyond what you might expect considering the subject matter. Most of the inhabitants of Urland seem poor, living in dirty huts, whilst even the wealthy live in relative squalor. There is nothing pretty or picturesque about the world created here, no softly lit moments of the princess emerging from behind blowing sheets, or heroes on horseback riding valiantly into battle. Even when our hero triumphs, he is given no glory or praise, but instead shunned by those he has helped and the king takes the title of 'dragonslayer' and claims it for himself. The film is also set against the arrival of Christianity, with the dragon being seen as the devil from the God-fearing types. Times are changing, as with the death of the dragon comes a severing of the links to the old, dark, 'superstitious' ways and an embracing of the future: light and God. 

Mixed with the heavy themes are plenty of gritty deaths and violence. Many characters die in horrible ways, inlcuding; arrows through the chest, burnt alive by the dragon, even the princess has her foot chewed off and is eaten by baby dragons. The sacrifice scenes are dark and creepy, building up great tension to their climaxes, and are, unsurprisingly, quite brutal too. Chains tear at wrists as the screaming girls struggle to escape their impending doom. For most of the film, the dragon is portrayed in close up shots of claws, tail and neck, and it helps build the tension nicely. Fear not, though, as by the time we hit the 3/4 mark we get more than enough full-on dragon action to keep everyone happy.

The effects themselves are incredible, be they full-scale models of Vermithrax, or the excellent 'go motion' shots used to show him moving in wide shots in the climax. The design is excellent, and full of character. Some of the composite shots look a tad weak now (you can see through Valerian's head in a shot near the end) but a restoration from the original negative would definitely make Dragonslayer look a whole lot better. Overall, though, the chaps in ILM did a great job, and managed to hone those skills before moving on to Return of the Jedi.

The cast, for the most part, is great, with plenty of British (the film was shot on location in Wales) character actors making an appearance. John Hallam in particular shines out, as does Sydney Bromley (Night of the Big Heat, The NeverEnding Story) as poor old Hodge. Peter MacNicol makes a strange leading man, and is definitely there to help lighten the tone, somewhat. Many despise him in this film, but I think he does just fine. Caitlin Clarke does a good job as a tomboy, and makes a refreshing lead female who doesn't have perfect hair, big tits and covered in make-up. Keep your eyes open for an early role for Ian McDiarmid as the preacher who meets a fiery death.

The score is also worthy of note, as it is composed by Alex North, and allegedly made up of tracks that were discarded by Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey. They work surprisingly well here, and is a real highlight of the film. The film was directed by Mathew Robbins, who went on to direct The Legend of Billie Jean and Batteries Not Included. Maybe the lack of financial success on Dragonslayer put him in the doldrums with Paramount (who co-produced with Disney) but his directing career seems to be sadly short-lived. It's a pity as he does a terrific job here, suitably building tension and mounting horror as the film progresses, and handling the multitude of effects shots like an old pro.

I can imagine most modern parents would shudder at the thoughts of giving what I've described to their little 'uns to view in this day-and-age, which is a pity. The film is full of great movie magic, the kind of thing we geeked out over when we were under the age of ten. If you live in the UK, be advised that the DVD is still cut, and non-anamorphic. Still, it's worth seeking out if you haven't seen it, and hey, even if you aren't going to let your kids watch it, at least treat that eternal kid inside you by giving it a shot.

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At 23 April 2014 at 11:33 , Blogger Grimm said...

I remember this movie! Holy crap it's been so long since I've seen it, I've all but forgot about it. Such a classic! I'm gonna head over to amazon now and see if I can get it (laugh). Great write up, man.

At 23 April 2014 at 11:49 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Awesome, you should be able to get your hands on it handy enough. Hope you enjoy it as much as you remember it!

At 24 April 2014 at 00:53 , Blogger Wes M said...

Brilliant stuff John, another great wildcard selection ! This post really transports me back to the 80's and seeing all those great fantasy films - I remember well seeing Return of the Jedi, Legend, Ghostbusters, Goonies, Labyrinth, Lady Hawke, Never-ending Story in the pictures and yes, they were absolutely crucial in laying down the path that led me to Horror films a little later on. Interesting side discussion too on the PG rating - I caught Gremlins on TV over Christmas and y'know it probably deserves its 15-rating – it’s a much more nastier film than I remembered and much more edgier than say Ghostbusters. I thought the BBFC might have downgraded it to PG (The Terminator went incredibly from an 18 to 15) but nope, it's still a 15... But back to Dragonslayer - I haven't seen the film in its entirety in years, but it's been a regular fixture on BBC weekend afternoons for a few years now so I'm determined to catch the whole film again next time it’s on. I just watched the lo-fi trailer over at youtube and it's totally put me in the mood for some dark fantasy, so next time I get a free slot, I might just grab The Dark Crystal, Legend or Conquest. I know the general consensus is that Fulci's film is a bit of a dog, but I really like it. I might just have a slightly skewed sensibility on fantasy films - I happily sat down to watch Conan the Barbarian a few weeks ago (it seems to be on heavy rotation on TV at the moment) and I had to switch the film off after 40mins - I just couldn't stand it, and it was disappointing because I hadn't seen the film in years and was psyched about re-visiting it again. Incidentally, I love the name Vermithrax Pejorative, it's like a name David Cronenberg would dream up for one of his characters, or for some sinister organization...

At 24 April 2014 at 01:14 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Absolutely, Wes, those were the films of my childhood, without them I don't think I would be the horror junky I am today.

Regarding Gremlins, I checked it yesterday when writing, and according to the BBFC the film is now '12A'? I think it is still 15 cert over here, as no doubt the distributors didn't want to re-submit for a lower rating from the original DVD release. Time definitely has lessened the blow for some films (The Terminator definitely has less on-screen violence than, say, 'Django Unchained', though technically I believe The Terminator is a much more violent film. BBFC logic for you!)

Definitely check out Dragonslayer when you get a chance, though try and see it uncut if you can, one scene has been reduced down considerably. I definitely will be getting to all the others you mentioned here at some point on this blog, they also all had great VHS covers!

Really, surprised at your reaction to Conan, as I only re-watched it before Christmas and I loved it as much as I always have. The film takes a pretty hardline approach in what it 'means to be a man', and I love it for that fact. We really get very few films in which the core philosophy of the character is spelled out as bluntly as "crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women". I also love the minimalist dialogue and the truly epic feel to the whole thing. Plus, the action and violence is terrific!

I can definitely see what you mean with the Cronenberg comment, in fact, the author George RR Martin has said it was the coolest dragon name he has ever heard, it was even referenced in the TV show.

At 24 April 2014 at 01:51 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, you're right, Gremlins was shifted to a 12A back in November 2012...Yeah, Conan, I know.... I mean I liked this film at some stage, I was even a fan of Red Sonja, but after a really strong opening act, I just lost patience with the film, and knocked it on the head. Maybe I'll catch it again when I'm in a more receptive mood. That's the unpredictable thing with films you haven't seen in years - sometimes they're completely rehabilitated by the passage of time - in my case, The Gate, and other times stuff you were reared with as a kid lose all meaning – I used to love Bond films when I was a youngster but now I can’t stand them. Y'know, I’m sort of not wanting to see The Last Starfighter again in case it’s a dud ! Another film I loved when I was a kid, but have not seen it in years (somehow I've never owned it on DVD) is Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and I hope the film still works its charms on me - the US Blu has been languishing in my Amazon cart for a while now... Oh by the way, that Dragonslayer quad is a stunner, what a poster !

At 24 April 2014 at 02:18 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Oh, I totally agree. What used to thrill me can sometimes completely misfire or I find it cringe-worthy now, and it can all depend on my mood. I have a feeling I'm a tad more forgiving than you might be, and willing to overlook certain flaws that might drag others down... Which leads perfectly into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Annually I watch both Mad Max 1&2, but never part 3. Last year I decided to break from tradition and stuck it on, as i hadn't seen it in probably 20 years. Oh man, did I hate it. It felt like the worst kind of bastardisation of a series, gone was all the elements that I loved, and replaced with a cartoon version of everything, all toned down and marketed for children. I understand the character of Max has gone through his arc over the course of the 3 films, but did the 3rd have to be so family friendly? the climax is well handled, though even that feels like a watered down re-hash of the ending of part 2. Be curious to hear your thoughts on it when you do get around to watching it again, as I was especially hard on it.

Agreed full on the quad, it's beautiful, that's why I went with it over the not-so-hot VHS cover!

P.S, The Last Starfighter is still good fun, I plan on getting to it some time in the next few months!

At 28 June 2014 at 19:54 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I missed seeing this one in the theater - then proceeded to miss it on home video and cable for years. I think I finally saw it on VHS in the early 90's - but if I did it was so dark I could barely make out what was going on. I will wait for this one on Blu-Ray - surely it will be chosen for release sometime soon - and I will finally see it first frame to last the way it was meant to be seen. I will also chime in with love for Mad Max and The Road Warrior - and much less for Thunderdome - though I too should be seeing that one again sometime when the disc crawls up the To Watch stack in the video vault.

At 30 June 2014 at 00:46 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, I will be delighted when this one drops on BLu Ray, and I hope it gets the attention and love it deserves in the restoration. Currently the DVD is non anamorphic, with what looks like a low bit rate, and detail, especially in the dark scenes is a noisy mess. The film is very well loved at this point, so hopefully it gets treated decently.


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