Note: all framegrabs were sourced from the 4K UHD disc
****/**** Image B- Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, Chloe Salaman
screenplay by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
directed by Matthew Robbins
by Walter Chaw When I first reviewed Matthew Robbins's Dragonslayer upon its DVD release 20 years ago, I said the picture could be read as an allegory for the passing of the 1970s and, with it, the auteur-driven New American Cinema, which was losing favour to the blockbuster mentality that dominates Hollywood production to this day. The directors were the wizards, tied to their decrepit and pain-ridden dragons, and they were, in 1981, up against the reality of an administration perpetuated by a myth of American exceptionalism that would serve as a course correction from the predominantly downbeat, paranoid films of the previous decade. I don't know that I've gotten any smarter in the years following my initial assessment of a work that has been dear to me since I saw it as a terrified eight-year-old, cowering beneath my seat in the long-defunct and paved-over Lakeside Twin, but I do know I've gotten measurably more pessimistic about our prospects. I think you can know things are broken when you're young (and 29 didn't seem so young at the time, but it is) without knowing how irreparably broken they are. And you can feel hopeless without knowing just how hopeless. When I watch Dragonslayer in 2023, I see a work about the rise of Christofascism and the prosperity gospel, about governments we trust to protect us making deals with monsters to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of the people who rely on them, and about the steady eradication of belief that there are any heroes left with the will or the wherewithal to save us.
All the disillusionment of the greatest period in movie history is a lot of baggage for one film to carry, it's true. Group Dragonslayer with 1981's other great fantasies of anguish--The Empire Strikes Back and Raging Bull, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Road Warrior, Body Heat and Blow Out, Time Bandits and Possession and even The Fox and the Hound--and you'll find the paranoid decade ended not with a whimper, but a cry of despair. Pictures about corruption, the triumph of (literally, in one case) evil, and the irreconcilable differences that divide us and keep us in perpetual failure, each is a facet of the same bureaucratic nightmare leading to discord and divorce. "You can't make a shameful peace with dragons," Dragonslayer's hero, Galen (Peter MacNicol), says to ineffectual, feckless King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre), and here we are in a broken country watching the "good" guys make deals with white supremacists, foreign agents, and frothing insurrectionists. I wonder if the reason we're so addicted to the nepenthe of nostalgia is that there is no other drug quite as effective as hiraeth in treating the black sickness in our hearts. How interesting, then, that Dragonslayer, which is as intimate an object of nostalgia for me as Star Wars and Back to the Future, is, at its essence, a diary of weariness detailing a collective loss of innocence. Robert Greenwald's Xanadu appeared the year before Dragonslayer, promising that if "you believe in magic, nothing can stand in your way," and Dragonslayer says if you believe in magic, you may be interested to hear the Good News about this groovy cat named "Jesus." Magic died with every one of the progressive leaders assassinated for their ability to threaten the plutocracy at the end of the 1960s. In its place, the "shining city on the hill" of Harlan Ellison's "lizard men in ice cream suits selling salvation in the life of a sheep." Their plan, started there, is coming to fruition today: authoritarianism, wealth disparity, fanatical fundamentalist religiosity, a doctrine of ignorance riding the hoary backs of the violently incurious.
Galen is the apprentice of aging wizard Ulrich (Ralph Richardson). Though Galen believes he is ready to take over for his doddering master, he isn't. One day, a group of villagers, led by brave Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), enlists Ulrich to kill the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative, who has made a deal with their king to leave them in peace in exchange for an annual tribute of a female virgin selected via lottery. Not merely a metaphor for the devil's pacts we make when we trade morality for convenience, this arrangement is specifically an assault on female sexuality that invites an analysis of the film along gendered lines, undermining the sexual fantasies associated with a beautiful woman in bondage, helpless before the attentions of a demon lover, when it shows, explicitly, the harm that comes to these women--how they are just "things" the powerful exploit to remain in power. The lessons here about female sexuality and its oppression in authoritarian states is stark. Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) rejects her father's efforts to "rig" the draft, denying her "fortunate son" status by volunteering herself for a war from which her station has, to this point, shielded her. The picture further undermines the damsel-in-distress archetype by allowing Elspeth's sacrifice to be genuine while having Galen confess his love not for the lady fair, but for Valerian, whom he first meets while she's passing as a man. His choice surprises Valerian as much as it surprised me as a kid, already indoctrinated by the Disneyfied romantic calculus of how the princess is the prize, a grail for the filling--and no less pretty or insensible. One of the great tragedies of Dragonslayer lies in how the only decent person in government, the only one who isn't using religion as a shield for their disgusting venality, is fed to the dragon pups for her act of selflessness and fairness. What is the future of this kingdom once the best have been destroyed by their unwillingness to participate in the grift? Look around.
Every aspect of the conclusion to Dragonslayer is similarly forlorn. It's as loaded as the end of The Searchers, with the family restored but the hero cast back into the wilderness to continue the atrocities of his post-war career. For Dragonslayer, Galen watches Casiodorus, to the fawning admiration of illiterate peasants fed on a diet of an absent Christian god's empty promises, take credit for the slaying of Vermithrax Pejorative. All it takes to change history is a noodle-armed coward in a white dress holding a ceremonial sword in front of people too dimwitted and afraid to believe anything they aren't told to see. As Orwell wrote, the final victory of fascism is creating an electorate so gaffed and obtuse it no longer trusts its own eyes and ears. Dragonslayer ends on this note: that people believe what they're told by charismatic leaders claiming to be led by instructions in a book they've only read enough to employ as a weapon against the most vulnerable. It was never about traditional notions of good and evil; even Vermithrax Pejorative is just a mother trying to save her brood (and, unlike her human antagonists, without betraying her kind). Instead, Dragonslayer is about what happens when we stop believing in our ability to affect change in the face of systems of power designed to devastate any sense of possibility and pervert our faith in justice. Elspeth's sacrifice is entirely pyrrhic if it doesn't move us to protest, with our lives, the obvious abuses of the jackals counting on our addiction to our relative comforts. Yes, Dragonslayer is about this.
It's also the crowning achievement of Matthew Robbins, one of the lesser-celebrated "Movie Brats" who was nonetheless in all the rooms, talking to all the people, and anonymously involved, to varying degrees, in projects like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Dragonslayer in many ways feels like a Spielberg film (Robbins penned Spielberg's feature debut, The Sugarland Express, winning the screenplay award at that year's Cannes), as evidenced in the ineffable balance between sharp, efficient character sketches and the evocation of a world in which sorcery exists. Note a moment where Galen torments elderly helper Hodge (Sydney Bromley) in a semi-good-natured way that underscores his childishness, and then how he cradles Hodge after Hodge is ambushed by villain Tyrian (John Hallam), listening to the old man's last words with genuine tenderness and barely subsumed horror. Galen is growing up the hard way. When Ulrich first appears in front of others, he assumes the role of charlatan to keep them off-guard, a cheap illusionist Galen introduces with a drumroll and the shake of a metal sheet to simulate rolling thunder. But he can do things like instantly light a roomful of candles, or a bit of telekinesis, and he knows what everyone's thinking. What seemed at first like errors made by a demented old guy turn out to be part of a grand plan--one that encompasses his early death and subsequent resurrection on a lake of fire--to go out in a blaze of glory, arm in arm with the dragon: the last thing in this world that has experienced the terrible changes, the sickening slide to obsolescence, that he has. Like the princess, Ulrich is the architect of his own exit. It's the best the good--the truly good--can hope for in a fallen world. His sacrifice would mean less if Galen hadn't grown to a place where he can aid his passage (something of the samurai here as well, with the reliable backup in Galen who will behead his master once his master has completed his ritual disembowelment)--and Robbins has guided everyone to their ends with what I would say is more than workmanlike precision.
Much has already been written about how Dragonslayer was part of the first experiments with Phil Tippett's game-changing stop-motion technique "Go Motion" along with The Empire Strikes Back. When I interviewed Tippett last year, he copped to cribbing a few grace notes from Willis H. O'Brien's work on King Kong (1933) in the dragon's grief upon discovering her slaughtered children. Vermithrax remains the greatest screen dragon for these anthropomorphized pauses to indicate thoughtfulness, discovery, surprise--the cock of the head we read in house pets as proof of their sentience and so worthy of our empathy. Through a lifetime of watching films looking for phantasms to supplant the wonders of this film in my experience--its mix of terror and sadness, awe and pathos--Dragonslayer has kept its place at the very fore of my imagination. More than that, it's my personal standard for how a fantasy film, ostensibly a children's entertainment or an object designed for what the larger culture would consider an unsophisticated sensibility (at least pre-Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings), can entertain children while edifying adults. When I recommend Dragonslayer (and I recommend it often), I say that it's great, and if you're so inclined, maybe read John Milton's poem about the vanquishing of all the old gods upon Christ's birth, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," as prologue. It doesn't read like a celebration.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Speaking of grails, Paramount's 4K UHD release of Dragonslayer was among my most-anticipated titles in the short history of the format, so it pains me to say that its 2.39:1, 2160p transfer, enhanced for Dolby Vision and HDR10 playback, is...not great. The characters "pop" out of the backgrounds like (in Bill's words) "Colorforms"--those flat vinyl figures you'd punch out of pre-holed sheets to static-stick against cardboard backdrops. It almost looks motion-smoothed at times (never a good thing, no matter how many HFR fanatics would have you believing otherwise), rendering DP Derek Vanlint's wonderfully grimy, textured work "tinny" and artificial. Elliot Scott's production design suddenly looks contrived when it never has before; the world of the film has shrunk down into spaces that feel curated for the camera frame rather than barely contained by it. Out of curiosity, I dug my VHS, LaserDisc, and Blu-ray copies out of storage, and though a direct comparison to these antiquated formats revealed significant cosmetic improvements, I have to admit, the DVD is my preference, because it's the correct aspect ratio while maintaining something of a lo-res purity. The animated fire in the opening cauldron, for instance, looks more like fire than in HD or, especially, UHD; the dungeons are dustier, grimier. Nighttime shots are easier to decipher with the Blu-ray's increased definition, sure, but it's DVD all the way for daytime shots. Yes, you can count every single brick on the outside of the castle in 4K. Yes, the wood grain of the plank Ulrich digs the dagger out of is obscenely precise. But these striking details ironically make the rest of the world seem smaller. The swimming-pond sequence on DVD has a mistiness that's destroyed in higher definitions. There is, for what it's worth, a conspicuous lack of grain throughout in UHD, and what's there doesn't behave much like film grain, sputtering and rarely peaking. The algorithm does strange things to the ever-present mist as well, thinning it out for lack of a better description.
When Galen comforts Hodge at the 30:48 mark, Galen appears super-vivid while Hodge is almost soft-focused, even though they're on the same plane. Is this an in-camera characterization of Hodge on the way out, a photographic anomaly, or something weirder? Curiosity piqued, I went back to the Blu-ray, and sure enough, any focusing inconsistencies are latent at best. I believe that some combination of noise-reduction, AI authoring software, and newly blunted contrasts thanks to HDR are exaggerating the issue. But look at this scene captured at right as Galen, armed with his dragonfire-forged spear, walks behind Valerian against the backdrop of Vermithrax's mountain lair: In HD, they're both in focus; in UHD, pains have seemingly been taken to accentuate, focally, Galen's distance from her. The UHD transfer corrects the anamorphic squeeze and opens up the top and right sides of the frame (while losing a sliver of info at screen-left, cropping the top of the spear)--and, as you can see, it selectively mutes the colours. Perhaps this muting, in tandem with the increased resolution, is what's causing Valerian to pop out of the screen. Like Colorforms, or the filters for Zoom conferences where you blur your backdrop and stand out with startling clarity. Still, it makes me feel fuzzy in the head when I try to think of one way the transfer feels off, because what's wrong in one frame may be (over)corrected in the next. I grant that all of it could boil down to me having internalized this text to such a degree that I'm fixated on every change and reluctant to hail them as improvements.
There's no arguing with the crystal clarity of the image, only with whether or not a film like Dragonslayer should be crystal-clear. Let me give you another example. One thing the pan-and-scan VHS and Laserdisc at least managed to convey was the smoky misery of camping in an early sequence where Galen and Hodge intrude on the expedition. Compositionally it's a mess, but 4K doesn't merely restore missing figures to the frame--it renders the people, the campfire, and the rocky terrain that surrounds them with extreme clarity, so that, as opposed to a terrifying black place stretching off into a horrifying eternity, the scene suggests a cozy set on a soundstage. And the gore in Dragonslayer is significantly more legible here. As a result, the shocking tear of ligaments and tendons in the princess's ankles is reduced to a not-entirely-convincing fake-leg gag. The rock slide? Terrifying in "bad' transfers--and in this one? Kind of like that part on the Universal Studios tour where a "rock slide" threatens your trolley. For what it's worth, I do miss the vividly saturated palette of previous transfers, something I realize might be a hypocritical criticism, given the more authentically muted colours of the UHD version. This dream that has lived in my imagination for 42 years has been dragged under a spotlight. I get that this is hugely personal. Take that as you will.
What's unimpeachable, however, is the Dolby Atmos remix. It's astonishing. I hope you hear me when I say this: it's astonishing. The slide of a leather satchel across a wood table, the flare of a torch in an echo chamber alight with exploding gasses, that lightning and those supernatural storms--the vitality of it all is spine-tingling. Look, I'm only hedging a little about which version I'll watch next time, because the audio on the UHD is unmatched and, indeed, unmatchable at this juncture in our consumer-grade technological advancement. Listen to Galen's climactic fight with Tyrian: the clangs of spear against sword and then the haft of the spear against sword are immediate and logical. Alex North's heavily 2001-influenced score is authoritatively booming, while the dialogue is clear and credible. Sound effects editor Teresa Eckton's work is exquisitely showcased and blew me away. I want to point out the moment where a glowing amulet indicates the reincarnation of Ulrich, appearing in a hanging glass bulb like an Edison filament flaring to life. There's a "ping" on the soundtrack so pure and delicate I'm sure I haven't heard it like that since opening weekend, 1981. I didn't detect any rerecorded sfx and suspect the Atmos track was adapted from the six-track mix prepared for 70mm engagements.
Special features begin with the disc's beautiful steelbook presentation, featuring the original key art by trans artist and HEAVY METAL illustrator Jeffrey Catherine Jones. It's glorious; I'm smitten. (Dragonslayer is also available in a standard keepcase edition with alternative artwork.-Ed.) A new audio commentary teams director/co-writer Robbins with Guillermo del Toro, who has collaborated with Robbins on several projects, among them Crimson Peak, the compromised but still wonderful Mimic, the unmade At the Mountains of Madness, and this year's Oscar-winning, stop-motion animated Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. It's a glorious yakker in which del Toro's palpable respect for Robbins and passion for this film in particular lead to a fulsome conversation that encompasses references to Don't Look Now, Lord Dunsany, Fantasia, the weird intensity of Ralph Richardson, and the way Caitlin Clark is the real star of Dragonslayer. They touch on the picture's political aspects, its blasphemous aspects, the importance of Fantasy as a genre in allegorizing the "real" world... Their chemistry is obvious (I should say, they obviously have chemistry), and you learn a lot about the rules of this world and how to tell a good story. When they digressed into Mimic for a spell, I can't tell you how excited I was to hear their thoughts. And when Vermithrax Pejorative first appears, del Toro is at an ecstatic loss for words that made me, yes, cry to hear it. "This is the best-designed dragon on film, period. Everything derives from it." A-fucking-men to that, brother, a-fucking-men. Anyway, listen to this yak-track. It covers everything, and it's full of love.
Keith Clark's "The Slayer of All Dragons" (63 mins.) is a five-part making-of documentary comprising retrospective interviews with Tippett, VFX supervisor Dennis Muren, and Robbins. Robbins touches on the ethos informing the Movie Brat generation before segueing into a deeper discussion of the ideas driving the screenplay of Dragonslayer. It's incredibly validating to hear the piece referred to as something other than a kid's movie with a surprising amount of gore and nudity. I learned, too, that they deepened Valerian's voice in post-production, The Conversation-style, when she was passing as a man. It's fascinating. Robbins talks about finding unusual light sources and credits cinematographer Vanlint (of Alien fame) for a significant portion of the movie's look. Too, he explains how he designed the sets to curve inwards, giving them depth and compensating for lens distortions at the edges of the anamorphic frame. I want to mention a story Walter Murch tells about lacing the torture sequences of George Lucas's THX-1138 with thunder because, as they take place in an all-white environment, Murch knew the 35mm prints, with time, would develop vertical streaks resembling rain. One of the grand ironies of these upgrades is that all of these tricks employed by grandmasters of the medium mean nothing once the images are frozen for eternity at a certain degree of perfection. What can you say? Robbins mentions Bruce Nicholson's matte paintings, too, saying they lose their power on home video, to which I say perhaps they do in terms of scale, but UHD is the final nail in the coffin: For the first time, I noticed that some of the torches late in the film don't flicker, since they are indeed part of the painted scenery. Progress? On 35mm, at least, they would literally flicker, however imperceptibly, as they passed the shutter. Anyway, this making-of is an absolute treasure, as vital to an appreciation of the picture as the commentary track. You'll be glad to know a good 20% of it is given over to an appreciation of Vermithrax Pejorative--and damn right.
The presentation rounds out with the original theatrical trailer in uncorrected HD, helping to demonstrate what, exactly, was lost in the upgrade to 4K HDR. There are even a couple of shots that were unfamiliar to me, so now I'm hoping for a double-dip that collects outtakes from the film. There's a line that is just fucking incredible where a guard says that a few children will die in a way that indicates it's an acceptable loss for the good of society. Sounds like our corporate masters during Covid, doesn't it? "You can't make a shameful peace with dragons" appears to have replaced it in the finished film, so good for good, but this additional information is bracing. This is an extended, narrative-driven trailer, and wonderful. I don't remember seeing it in a theatre. What a treat. A selection of "Screen Tests" (15 mins.) includes William Squire reading for Ulrich. He's great but maybe too vital and not quite uncanny enough. Then there's Maureen Teefy, fresh from Fame, as Valerian. She's strong, but it's clear why they went with Clark; she seems less tough than afraid. The final screen test sees Clark and MacNicol doing the romance-reveal scene, which diverges from the movie's interpretation in setting and delivery. Clark does it with more vulnerability, for one. When she says, "I'm not a boy anymore," Dragonslayer's trans subtext comes into shocking relief. I love it. Love. It. The UHD disc comes with a voucher for a digital copy of the film. (It's been reported that some steelbook copies are missing the digital code, in which case Paramount will send one on request.-Ed.)
109 minutes; PG; 2.39:1 (2160p/MPEG-H, Dolby Vision|HDR10); English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD "core"), French DD 2.0 (Mono); English, English SDH, French subtitles; BD-100; Region-free; Paramount