Dragons Slain While You Wait

Posted Wednesday, August 27, 2014, 7:00 AM

When I think back on the movies that I enjoyed as a teenager, it's clear that my tastes were not sophisticated enough to be very discerning. To me any exciting piece of cinematic razzle dazzle was an afternoon well spent, especially in the company of friends. And yet, when I look back, though I can now recognise a dud when I see it, every one still holds a lot of joy for me.

So amongst such gems as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, ET, Goonies, and Gremlins, I still hold great affection for Popeye (Robin Williams, RIP), Condorman, Superman III, and today's reviewed movie, Dragonslayer. They each had something that made them resonate.

This post is part of the ongoing saga of reviews of 80s fantasy movies of my youth, also simul-reviewed by my mate Pete aka Jetsimian, and his mate Jamas.

Sir Ralph Richardson's performance definitely raises everyone's game.

After a band of travellers, led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) plea for the sorcerer Ulrich (a brief but beautiful performance from Ralph Richardson) to help save their village from the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative, a dickhead, Tyrian, swaggers in and ruins their plans when he somewhat accidentally (it's complicated) kills the sorcerer. Galen, the sorcerer's apprentice, steps in to take his place.

For some reason Peter MacNicol doesn't like to talk about his experiences on the set of Dragonslayer

Galen is earnestly played by Peter MacNicol. You may know him as the quirky maths mentor in Numb3rs, or the quirky lawyer in Ally McBeal, or the quirky gallery owner in Ghostbusters II. Here he is much less quirky, and, though initially cocky when he takes the mantle of Master Sorcerer, he is soon confronted with hard won responsibility, and he grows up fast.

Caitlin Clarke may be responsible for my ongoing affection for tomboyish brunettes

Valerian, a young woman masquerading as a boy to avoid being chosen as a dragon sacrifice, leads the villagers and Galen to Vermithrax's cave, where he causes half a mountain to block the entrance. Celebrations ensue, but we're only a third through the movie, so perhaps they are being a tad premature. Vermithrax soon makes his continuing existence felt. Religion fails to do anything, as a praying priest, a pre-Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid, is the next to be fed upon.

Full scale dragon limbs and heads are also judiciously used by the special effects team

This is where the artistry of ILM comes to the fore, as we catch brief glimpses of Vermithrax's grand figure as he stalks from the cave and glides across the sunset.

The American accents from the two young leads are slightly annoying

When the King's daughter (embarrassingly badly acted by Chloe Salaman) gets her turn at the sacrificial stake, things get critical, and Galen is sent into the cave, though not before he admits his love for Valerian. Though they did only meet a week earlier, and exchanged maybe three sentences together.

The weakest scene in the movie

A rather weak battle with Tyrian at the cave entrance could've been edited out entirely, as it adds very little. It's a notable weak spot in what is otherwise an excellently directed movie. Director Matthew Robbins's strengths do not lie in fight choreography.

Vermithrax moves like a stalking bat in some shots. It's quite intimidating

The imagery from this movie that sticks with me the most, that resonates in my memory the strongest and keeps it listed as one of my favourite ever fantasy films, is the incredible design and stop motion animation work of Vermithrax the dragon. And when I say "stop motion" in fact it was an early iteration of a technique coined as "go-motion" where the moving elements were artificially blurred during each frame to add realistic smoothness to the animation. It is arguably the most effective use of that technique in its history. Coupled with the masterful grasp of the organic motion of animals, it is a tour de force.

There's no more definitive a dragon design than Vermithrax Pejorative

The jeopardy portrayed in this sequence is outstanding. You really feel like Galen is risking his life in every scene, thanks to excellent direction, MacNicol's performance (often entirely against bluescreen), and menacing animation of the dragon, both miniature and full size.

Galen's first volley at the dragon is unsuccessful, and it's only later that he realises his old master was not dead at all, but magically hidden amongst his artifacts, so he could be carried along with them on the journey. And when the old Sorcerer reappears, his plan to defeat Vermithrax at last requires another sacrifice, but this time a true one, freely given. His own.

Though the visual effects are dated, they remain impressive

The storyline of Dragonslayer adheres closely to a fairy tale. Kings, Princesses, Sorcerers, a plucky Apprentice, a fair Maiden, the slaying of a dragon. You can't get more storybook, and the mix is handled as well as might be expected, especially for the time when an epic scale in movies had so recently become the new default standard. This was high adventure, beautifully realised, and taken seriously. The only thing that kept it from greatness was the cynicism of audiences at the time, not ready to view fantasy as a source of genuine drama. If they had, Dragonslayer would be well deserving of fondness and respect.

Krull To Be Kind

Posted Thursday, July 24, 2014, 5:00 AM

After the VCR and video rental boom, and during the sell-through affordable video cassette era of the 90s, I decided that I wanted to have my very own collection of ten Fantasy Films that I had enjoyed during my teenage years. These were, in chronological order of release, Dragonslayer, The Dark Crystal, Krull, The Neverending Story, Ladyhawke, Legend, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Willow, and Dragonheart. Most of them were cheesy as all get-out, but I didn't know that at the time. For each one I was the perfect age to fall for them, hook line and sinker. Dragonheart, a 90s movie, was added in to round it up to ten, and a couple of years later I decided it probably shouldn't have been included in that list, I never really felt great love for it.

When DVD came along, I was very excited as one by one each of these movies were released in high(ish) quality widescreen, with copious extras included. By 2005 I had amassed the entire collection I'd dreamed of, and more.

I hadn't seen Krull since it had last been on TV, fifteen years at least, and I eagerly lapped it up. Did it hold up? Holy crap, no it did not. And I've rewatched it again now for this, a more formal review made at the suggestion of and alongside my mate JetSimian, and also in association with his mate Jamas Enright.

It's high fantasy. It has Kings and Princesses and fantastical beasts, in a classic plot carefully following the hero's journey. It has a bombastic score by the appropriately named James Horner (he loves his brass) introduced in a scene with a giant misshapen thing flying towards the planet Krull. This is the Black Fortress, in which lives the Beast. That's about as creative as this movie gets for names.

Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa. Not pictured: Lyssa's real voice.

Meanwhile a marriage is to take place between Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa. That's a lot of Ys, maybe they're Welsh. Lyssa is played by Lysette Anthony, who I had a little crush on when she was on a British sitcom, but here has been cruelly dubbed with a horrible American accent that is incredibly distracting. Colwyn is played by Ken Marshall, a blandly attractive and charisma-free actor who has done nothing of particular note either before or since.

The Prince and Princess go through a marriage ritual that involves fire on their hands. This is IMPORTANT, though it kind of feels like it was jammed into the final draft of the script a week before shooting.

Slayers. Their single-shot weapons are like muskets with bayonets.

The Beast has sent out his soldiers, Slayers, suitably creepy creatures with an exo-skeletal carapace. They attack the wedding and kill everyone in the castle, and kidnap the princess. Why? It's never really made clear. That's just what baddies do.

But one man survived the slaughter, and no prizes for guessing it's Prince Colwyn. He is discovered by the sage Ynyr (yeah, definitely Welsh) played by Freddie Jones, who plays the role of "wise old man who provides exposition".

Remember to hold it the right way round, to avoid owies.

Colwyn must retrieve the Glaive, the fabled weapon that is in all the promotional materials, the five bladed frisbee star thingamajig, which I very much would like to have a replica of my own one day. Colwyn has to reach into the lava to get it. Why is it there? Don't know. Just is. Because. Cue slow motion, soft focus sparkles, and choral chants.

Alun Armstrong acts circles around everyone else in the movie.

As they travel they pick up a cavalcade of actors, known, unknown, and future stars, including David Battley as Ergo the Magnificent, a wizard who can turn himself into various animals and has a penchant for gooseberries; Robbie Coltrane, Alun Armstrong, Todd Carty, and most famously Liam Neeson, as a band of escaped prisoners; and Rel the Cyclops, played quite brilliantly by tall Carry On actor Bernard Bresslaw and who has more character development than almost anyone else in the whole film. It's a Wizard of Oz kind of enlistment of tag-alongs and cannon fodder.

Bernard Bresslaw couldn't see very well, yet ran full tilt through forests, swamps, and rock strewn deserts.

Because the Black Fortress appears in a different location every day (quite a cool concept, I think), they need to find someone who can tell them where it will be the next morning, so they enlist the help of a blind Seer and his young boy assistant, who take them to the murky Soundstage Swamp.

In quite an impressively spectacular battle, the Slayers attack, and here's where some of the more memorable images, which held 13 year old me transfixed, occur. The Slayers' deaths, with their carapaces cracking open and the squids inside escaping underground, are really cool! The Changeling taking over the Seer and fooling them, only for Rel to race along and save the day, was a really thrilling sequence! By far the scenes in the swamp are the most effective of all.

Not what it looks like. Depending on what you think it looks like.

After the death of the Seer everyone is very sad for about three seconds, then they shake that off and head out of the swamp, happy and laughing.

Let's pause here to count how many women have been in the movie so far: One. And she's held captive, alone, for the majority of the film, with barely any dialogue. Princess Lyssa, with her shock of Nicole Kidman curls, is having a boring time of it living inside something resembling a conch shell, with nowhere comfortable to sit down.

There are only two women of note in this movie. The damsel in distress who needs rescuing...

The Beast, meanwhile, sounds a bit bored by it all, waiting for her to capitulate to his demands that she love him. Not very seductive. Though maybe he's hampered by the fact that he seems to live in a different aspect ratio to everyone else.

"Fear me, for I live in the 4:3 anamorphic dimension!"

Without the Seer they're buggered. Or are they? Conveniently there's another way to find where the Black Fortress will be. A fancy lady, played by Francesca Annis, lives in the middle of a spiderweb, where a giant stop-motion spider guards her. So the second female character with dialogue is also imprisoned, and in her scene they mostly talk about how tragically beautiful she is. Or was. Or something. This movie fails the Bechdel Test quite badly.

...and the self-exiled Nun.

The Widow of the Web sequence has always been the scene I've disliked the most; it's too laboured, the pacing is horrible, it's far too melodramatic (which is really saying something for this film), and it has a big poorly-animated spider in it. This was also about the time I started to get annoyed at stop-motion as being too distracting and outdated (I deliberately didn't watch the original Clash of the Titans because of my attitude towards stop-motion).

The only tension in this sequence is in the threads of the web. (rimshot)

After some overwrought nonsense dialogue, Freddie Jones's character also dies, just after providing the location of the Black Fortress in his last moments. The hero must now go on alone, to the Iron Desert. This leads to the best piece of music in the whole movie: The Ride of the Fire Mares. This is the other key moment in the movie that stood out in my memory, and it is still quite fun indeed, though it also has very poor bluescreen effects.

The Fire Mare sequence probably goes on too long, but it is quite beautiful.

They reach the Black Fortress with moments to spare, where Rel the cyclops dies while holding the door open. Well, of course. Noble sacrifices seem to be two-a-penny in this tale. Robbie Coltrane's character dies in this scene, and then Liam Neeson gets an ignominious death soon after. Most of the deaths in this movie are random, motivated by bad luck. None of the characters have any discernible personality, and their only roles seem to be to fill out the crowd scenes, and be sacrificial lambs during the adventure. Not to mention the numerous anonymous red-shirts who get knocked off in each battle. This movie is very poorly written, on every level. It's one of those films where I'd think "I can write something better than this" and I'd be right, I really could.

In this magical kingdom, all spells are cast with a constipated grimace.

Finally they reach the cell where Princess Lyssa is being held, and Colwyn has a reason to use his Glaive weapon at last. Remember that? The bladed thing he got at the very start, is in all the promotional material, and was seemingly so very important? And do you know how he uses it? As a glorified circular saw, to open the prison cell door.

This is how a hero saves a Princess - with power tools.

He does then use it against the Beast, but that's a double bluff because it doesn't kill him, only wounds. The actual successful way to get him is with the fire. What fire? You remember, the flame, that was part of the marriage ritual! I told you it was important! Colwyn uses that to finally destroy the Beast!

Only a true king can set his hands on fire and not be harmed. I think that's the point of the whole movie.

Wait, Lyssa had that the whole time? She had the means to defeat the Beast, literally in the palm of her hand, and yet she did nothing? What?

The Beast defeated, they race out of the Fortress. Surviving member count: Alun Armstrong, Todd Carty, Ergo the Magnificent, the Seer's boy, the Prince and Princess. Not much to rebuild a kingdom with. But they do all live happily ever after! Probably.

Note how each actor is looking in a different direction.

In a world with no villages or towns, with people who wander about and join any travelling band of wanderers that happen along, where nothing important happens for hundreds of years until the whole planet hangs in the balance over one incident involving an ugly beast who kidnapped a Princess for no clear purpose, and loads of people die quite randomly... I don't think I'd want to live there.

This script needed another couple of drafts. We needed to see some of the Prince and Princess together before the wedding so we cared about them. We needed a better motivation for the Beast to exist and to want to kidnap the Princess. We needed some proper motivation for why the gang of misfits join the quest. Every character had to have clear personalities that motivated their actions and made them lovable so we were affected by their deaths, which needed to be for more than just convenient plot reasons. And we needed a Princess worth fighting for, someone with spunk, intelligence, resourcefulness, and a prettier accent, and she and the Prince needed to defeat the Beast together.

As cheesy fantasy movies go, this is the cheesiest in my list of ten. It does not hold up too well. I once had the idea of getting a hold of all the original footage, including alternative takes, and re-editing it to modern sensibilities, updating the visual effects, adjusting some of the scenes to be more dynamic or improve the storytelling. But it may be that this movie is beyond help. They tried, just not very hard. It's a clumsy, melodramatic, poorly acted, poorly written little adventure of no consequence.

But it's fun, and sometimes that's enough.