Dragonslayer (1981) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for violence, brief nudity, scary images, and mild language (would be PG-13 today)
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam, Peter Eyre, Albert Salmi, Sydney Bromley, Chloe Salaman, Emrys James, Roger Kemp, Ian McDiarmid
Director: Matthew Robbins
Screenplay: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins
Review published July 7, 2015
Peter MacNicol (Ghostbusters II, Addams Family Values) stars as Galen, apprentice to an aging sorcerer named Ulrich (Richardson, Rollerball). Ulrich has been enlisted for help in trying to stop a nearby kingdom's practice of an equinox-related lottery resulting in a virgin sacrifice to appease a powerful, fire-breathing dragon as a peace accord. Alas, Ulrich can't really make the trip, but entrusts a powerful amulet to Galen, who soon realizes that the magical artifact gives him some pretty nifty powers. Thinking himself an able wizard, Galen decides it's time he prove his mettle against the dragon, though his prowess at conjuring may prove his ultimate undoing against forces far more powerful than he's ever faced before.
Nominated for an Academy Award for its impressive visual effects from Industrial Light and Magic, Dragonslayer struggled to find an audience upon its initial release, partially due to being marketed as a children's fantasy, a co-production between Walt Disney Productions (with its nudity and violence, perhaps its most 'PG-13'-worthy release up to that point) and Paramount Pictures. However, nudity, scary moments, and a particularly gory scene of dragon feasting made it a bit unpalatable for the tykes who might otherwise have been enthralled by a sword and sorcery adventure in the era of "Dungeons & Dragons".
Gorgeous landscapes and brilliant practical effects make it an eye-candy lovers delight, even if the tale is a bit familiar. Interestingly, the films would garner a second Academy Award nomination for its score by Alex North (Spartacus, Prizzi's Honor), which I actually feel is average at best. Scripted by director Matthew Robbins (Corvette Summer, Batteries Not Included) and writing partner Hal Barwood (The Sugarland Express), there's comfort for those who enjoy a familiar quest, even if some of the surprises aren't really much (such as a girl playing a boy (Clarke, Crocodile Dundee) who looks and sounds too feminine not to think so), though there's one particular grisly death I didn't think would or could ever happen in a PG-rated film aimed at younger viewers.
It's actually nicely cast, considering there are no box office draws in the mix, including handing the starring role to a first-time actor in Peter MacNicol, an American actor, no less, among a group of predominantly British thespians. Reportedly, MacNicol came to find the film an embarrassment, and doesn't choose to discuss it when talking about his body of work. Some of the secondary actors are a bit spotty, but the main cast shines quite well, especially Ralph Richardson as the enigmatic wizard Ulrich. John Hallam (Flash Gordon, Love and Bullets) also makes for a charismatic and formidable heavy, whose world-weariness provides a proper counterpart for Galen's rambunctious naivety. But really, it's the dragon, improbably named Vermithrax Pejorative, that steals the show, featuring a massive, go-motion hydraulic model, plus a variety of puppets for its various modes. It's a truly magical creature that hadn't been matched with that level of detail of film until well into the age of computer-generated imagery.
But, it always comes back to the problem of failing to find the proper audience, as it is too adult for most kids and too juvenile to hold the interest of most adults, whole teens in between probably though. As a result, the movie failed to earn back its production budget in the theaters, not even cracking the top five films of its week of release, or the top 50 highest grossing films of 1981. Nevertheless, it has certainly stood up well than many sword-and-sorcery films of its era, and remains rather delightful, if you don't mind the disturbing and somewhat gory moments that strain the tone toward the film's climax. For those who love films about dragons and wizards, and especially kitsch from the early 1980s, it has a bit of a cult following that is deserved. Though largely eclipsed in this era of Lord of the Rings and "Game of Thrones", for those who are insatiable, Dragonslayer definitely is worth a look.
©2015 Vince Leo