***½/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, Chloe Salaman
screenplay by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
directed by Matthew Robbins
by Walter Chaw Dragonslayer is epoch-slaying, a final salvo for the courageously nihilistic films of the Seventies that is surprisingly literal about the changing of the guard from the filmmaker-driven individualism of the American new wave to the banality of the big-budget formula mentality. Its tale is best taken in the context of the idea that an individual artist--a practitioner of arcane magics that have fallen out of favour in a contemporary environment--can still affect change even if credit of the work will ultimately be hijacked by monolithic organizations. The thread of melancholy that runs through the picture springs from the idea that what we witness is an end to dragons and wizards, the battle between apprentice and beast unfolding with a doomed resignation (something like the wild stallion wrangling in The Misfits) as compared against the neutering of the individual voice within the studio system. (Dragons and warriors, the death of Robert Evans and Francis Ford Coppola alike.) With The Empire Strikes Back and Raging Bull, Dragonslayer completes a troika of early-Eighties tales of unimaginable losses and swiftly tilting identities--pictures poised tremulously at the moment of decline and, as it happens, horribly self-aware.
Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson) is probably the last wizard and he's asked by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) to kill what is probably the last dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative, the beast responsible for terrorizing the kingdom of Urland by demanding an annual obeisance of a virgin girl. When the princess (Chloe Salaman) discovers that her father the king has rigged the lottery to keep her safe, she volunteers to be the dragon's next victim, making Ulrich's task all the more urgent. A shame that he's died and left his bumbling apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol) the land's only hope.
Shot with an eye for the monumental in a Scottish landscape draped in a mist that feels like liminal sadness, Dragonslayer is a fairy tale in the traditional sense of the term, a dark story with a firm moral resolution that nonetheless traverses the dark wood, trailing psychosexual unease like a rash of toad stools. The revelation that Valerian is a girl dressed as a boy by her peasant father to escape Vermithrax's lottery lends the attraction between she and Galen another layer of doom. The death of Ulrich is as difficult as his inevitable resurrection (following the Merlin cycle, as it happens, and the Gandalf), a cause for great despair and a symbol of the power of hope springing eternal, however briefly. And through it all, there is a feeling that the struggles of man and wyrm are on the verge of being consumed by the advancing tide of Christianity--a fire far more destructive than the dragon's breath found in abundance during the film's conclusion.
Created by ILM's Phil Tippett with "Go-Motion," the same process revolutionized in The Empire Strikes Back (a stop-motion animation routine that incorporates a slight blurring to masque the unnaturalness inherent in the process), Dragonslayer's marvel of a beast caused an eight-year-old me to hide under the seat. The real purpose of Vermithrax's requirement, however, is the true stuff of nightmare--all the more so for the fact that it humanizes the monster in a disquieting way, transforming Galen's mission of extermination into an act that renders the princess's sacrifice disturbingly moot. There's a slyness about the film in identifying the creature's ambition with Galen's, dreams of constancy in a world bent on entropy, making mockery of minor victories and calling into question, in the process, the legitimacy of the picture's ambivalent ending. It reminds me of the melancholy undercurrent of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy--that knowledge that a happy ending in the film means the death of everything magical in the films. It's tinged here with the subversive hope that as magic passes from Urland, so might Christianity one day pass in its turn.
Dragonslayer is a dank film, owing as much to the utilitarian industrialization of Ridley Scott's Alien (DP Derek Vanlint performed the same function on Scott's film) as it does to the popular mythmaking of Star Wars (for all the debt the film owes to George Lucas's picture, it's curious that the death of the Rancor monster in Return of the Jedi seems something of a ripper of the final confrontation between Galen and the monster) and predicting, in a way, the fabulous decay of The Dark Crystal and Blade Runner. An early scene as one of the dragon's victims struggles at her shackles is shocking first for the sight of her wrists terribly chafed, then for the realization that she escapes her doom, but briefly, by the lubrication that her blood offers her. The world of the picture is a cruel one, its idyllic beauty eternally at conflict with hearts of darkness and intimations of change: a quick dip in a green-rimmed pool is punctuated by the murder of charming Hodge (Sydney Bromley), a wedding banquet is interrupted by a resumption of a contest thought moot--even the human villain's death against a post (skewered through by a bisecting spear in rough parody of Christ's Passion) is followed by the film's single most shocking moment. Dragonslayer is shot through with a comprehensive pessimism, a feeling of hopelessness complete with corrupt governments, fanatical zealots, and the world falling into darkness unfamiliar.
Paramount brings Dragonslayer to DVD at last in an impossibly beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer that preserves the picture's original aspect ratio. Having only ever owned a succession of VHS copies of the film, the last bought online just last year, I must confess the curious thing about having this film now in this incarnation is that the dragon effects are actually better served by a less distinct transfer. The film, with backlit shots of pilgrims strolling across twilit hillsides exhibiting amazing detail, has never looked brighter, so the few instances that the dragon is inserted into the frame betray the sort of sharp lines that James Cameron would finally address in Terminator 2 with his own animation blurring techniques, replicating the imperfections of the human eye at a distance and while observing motion. On a grainy, well-loved VHS tape, Vermithrax is utterly convincing; on this DVD, which you'd still have to pry from my cold fingers, it's less so.
Remixed into a bright, booming Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation, Dragonslayer boasts of a surprisingly rich aural field. Dialogue is replicated with clarity and the final confrontation in the dragon's lair pleases from all channels. No extras decorate the disc, a product, I think, of Paramount misunderstanding exactly this film's influence on a small, but devoted, following--an oversight that suggests to me that a special edition of the feature may still be a possibility somewhere down the line. (I, for one, would love to hear first hand how Steven Spielberg seized co-writer/director Matthew Robbins's screenplay for Close Encounters of the Third Kind for his own.) Until that day, Paramount's Dragonslayer is a must-have for fans of fantasy and film historians just now beginning to understand that, in spite of its lapses, the Eighties as a decade produced a lion's share of seminal fantasies (not mentioned are perhaps the two best--Back to the Future and Predator): genre pictures home to artful dissent, outrage, and no surfeit of sorrow. Originally published: November 13, 2003.