Dragonslayer

Dark Ages maidens with hot disco hair
★★★★
☆
Released: 
1981
Director: 
Matthew Robbins
Starring: 
Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam
The Setup: 
Apprentice has to whip his shit together in order to slay a dragon.
Discussion: 

This had lingered on my list for some time, due to my having seen and wholly geeked out over it when I was 13. Then I read Pauline Kael’s surprising RAVE review of it, and simultaneously found out that the director and producer were the same team that had made the fairly delightful Corvette Summer, and to the top of my list it shot.

I also didn’t know that Ralph Richardson was in it, and after his brief appearance in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo [and subsequent viewing of The Fallen Idol] I am squarely in support of Ralph Richardson. We get some Richardson immediately here, as the sorcerer Ulrich who this band of travelers has come to see. We’re also introduced, quite unobtrusively, to Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen. The band of folks is there to ask for help against a dragon that plagues their village, costing then a virgin every spring and fall. Ulrich says he’ll help them, but privately tells Galen that he’s about to die. The next morning they’re all about to set off when the King’s henchmen come, and challenge Ulrich to display his powers. Ulrich sends Galen upstairs with his amulet, and magically closes the windows. He tells the thug to stab him, and he does—and everyone waits for the sorcerer to withstand it, and it’s a little surprising when he dies. After his death, the windows open once more, which is giving me a clue that Ulrich may linger on in some sort of Kenobi-like way.

Anyway, so now Galen’s on his own. He comes down and quite confidently that he’ll slay the dragon, and that anything they would have expected from Ulrich they can expect from him. He also takes command of Hodge, the elderly servant. By this time we have noticed that there are many, many special effects—possibly too many. Of course, I’m sure I didn’t think that when I was 13. They calm down soon enough, however.

SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, wouldn’t you know that a virgin is being sacrificed right as they’re on their way back to the village. They lead her to this pole and tie her up right outside the rather vaginal cave of the dragon. The whole sequence is handled very well, without us ever seeing more than the limbs or tail of the dragon, but what we see is impressive. Things don’t end well for her. Meanwhile Galen is discovering that the young boy in charge of the mission to see Ulrich, Valerian, like the root, is actually—a young girl! She was brought up that way since birth as a way of avoiding the lottery of virgins sacrificed to ol’ fire-breath. Oh, and the King’s thug kills Hodge, pretty much just for fun.

So Galen goes out to the dragon’s lair and tries a spell to seal the cave. He moves one rock and thinks he’s done, but soon the entire mountainside falls and they all have to run for it. But it seems that the dragon is buried.

Then, during a festival, Valerian decides she’s safe because the dragon is dead, and she comes out into the yard dressed as a girl. Anyone who has ever watched Ma Vie En Rose, however, will not be able to watch this scene as it is intended, as it is so similar to a certain scene in that film—the protagonists even look very much alike. Galen dances with her, and, since everyone knows about the lottery and all, she is accepted without any intimations of weirdness—she was just trying to stay alive.

Ah, but then the King wants to see Galen. He realizes right quick that Galen barely has a clue what he’s doing, that his stunt with the mountainside probably didn’t kill the dragon, and that Galen is toying with their lives! Please listen, around 47:40, right after the King says “I created the lottery” to the murmur that arises in the assembled men. Someone obviously directed the extras to “Murmur,” and what you end up with is the most ludicrous non-words, sounding sort of like “Sigh-SIGH, SIGH-sigh.” It doesn’t detract, but it’s amusing if you notice it.

So this part is a little boring; the king steals his amulet and throws him in prison. The King's daughter visits him, and he tells her that the King pays to keep her name out of the lottery. She sets him free. The dragon, who has dug her way out of the Earth and is rather peeved about it, attacks the village. The village has a lottery. The shot below was the inspiration for the title of this review. The Princess is chosen in the lottery! But she rigged it. She then makes a big speech about Justice… I actually forget what happens to the Princess, but I suspect that may be her we see the dragonettes feasting on later. In retrospect; what did that whole thing with the lottery have to do with? I mean sure, it's interesting, but did it really have any resonance with the larger story? Maybe a little bit, with the daughters of the village dying and the children of the dragon dying [as they will in a sec], but… it didn't really add a lot.

Anyway, then Valerian and Galen go out to the dragon's lair and right outside she tells him that she is now eligible for the lottery because she's still a virgin. And you're like "Well then …." Hey Galen, sounds like there's a hint in there somewhere. It is pretty amazing that it never occurs to these girls to pop that hymen right quick and thus avoid the lottery, but if they did I guess we wouldn't have much of a story. Galen goes in and kills the baby dragonettes, then heads down to the main lair, which is when we really get a good look at the dragon for the first time. The lair is very well-realized, with flaming water and nasty, drippy walls, and the dragon is good; all of it is exactly like what most of us would imagine a dragon like, brought to life. Galen has a shield made of dragon scales, which he hides behind and withstands the fire. It requires a bit of suspension of disbelief [okay, yeah, we ARE talking about dragons, but anyway…] that Galen doesn't get roasted, or that his puffy, curly hair doesn't even get the tiniest bit singed. Maybe he uses Olde English flame retardant as part of his daily hair-care regimen. The dragon moves pretty well—well enough that even now, it's hard to puzzle out exactly how they did it. I assumed it was a puppet, but it turns out to be some advanced computer form of stop motion [so says the IMDb]. I was also impressed that the dragon moves and acts like an animal. It walks on its wings, like a bat, and erratically tries to scratch a sword out of its throat. There's also the pretty good moment when the dragon sees her dead babies and mourns, then gets right pissed, which is nice. If you don't try to puzzle out how she could have gotten pregnant in the first place, since there are no other dragons around.

So there's a very confusing [to me, at least] edit where we see Galen getting flamed [in a dragon way, not in like a chat room way] and next thing you know, he's laying outside the lair. It just kind of came off like a mistake and was jarring. Anyway, he put up a pretty good fight! So good, in fact, I was wondering if the climax was just going to be more of the same. So then Valerian tells Galen that they should just run away, and he agrees, leading to some family drama, then they take off. Upon reaching a lake, Galen remembers that he was supposed to chuck something into the lake [dude, make a LIST or something, Jesus…] and suddenly turns right around and heads back to the dragon's lair.

There he drops his fairy dust into the flaming lake, which extinguishes the flames, and then… long story short, Ulrich is back! In an example of this movie's genial nature, it takes time out of the action to have Ulrich ask, first thing upon his return: "You didn't happen to bring anything to eat, did you?"

Ulrich tells them that he can't stay long, and tells Galen he's going to have to destroy the amulet—he'll know when. This leads to the big showdown with the dragon, in this blasted rocky environment, during an eclipse. Ulrich has summoned up a bunch of clouds, which makes for great, iconic images as all the characters are pictured against backgrounds of nothing but clouds. Valerian urges Galen to crush the amulet, but he says no, Ulrich says he'll know the right time—but soon enough, she grabs it off him and makes to crush it herself! This, to me, is grounds for divorce right there. She doesn't trust or respect him! It would be a different story if the actress was able to convey that she's driven to a frenzy of worry by the battle, but not really. If I were Galen, I would say sayonara to her disrespectful ass the second the battle was over.

I'll leave the details of the climax for you to enjoy—it really is just straightforward fun entertainment—but to say that I found the moment of the dragon's death to be a little disappointing. I just thought they could have come up with something a little more dazzling and creative. There is a great moment as the smoldering carcass of the dragon falls from the sky into a crater lake. Of course, it's undone a second later when you see the carcass lying in the middle of a field, and you're like "So, did they dredge it up out of the lake? And it was still smoldering?" As the credits roll, this dischordant Disney-esque boy's adventure music plays. Oh, and in retrospect, you see that Galen's battle with the dragon was so bad-ass, because that's it for him, and it's really Ulrich that slays it.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was very good—if I had any reservation, it was just that I had seen it so many times before, and had a general idea of where it was all going. What it does very well is present everything—dragons, wizards, everything—in a completely straightforward manner, without any winking or attempt to be contemporary, and what that does is help you take it all seriously. Even the slightest ironic distance would leave room for laughter for reflection on how silly some of it is. The script fills out the non-dragon moments and the characters that populate it well, and has a very good rhythm or rising and falling energy that makes the slower scenes work well and makes the climax a real climax. I liked how Galen was really out of his depth and made great progress, but wasn't a full-blown jedi dragonslayer by the end. And, as I mentioned earlier, everything, from the dragon's lair to the desolate rocky peaks where the climax takes place, is fairly close to exactly how you [or at least I] imagined such things to be. This movie is crying out for a remake, that can iron out the few story wrinkles and have some up-to-date—but preferably not all CGI—special effects.

Peter MacNicol [I was SO hoping I'd find out he was the brother of Kristy McNichol] is still acting today, mostly on television. He's good, cute and very appealing. The director of this co-wrote and directed the cute Corvette Summer, and went on to direct The Legend of Billie Jean! Which is not on DVD and which I SO need to see. And also Batteries Not Included. Holy shit… and he played "Returnee #3" in Close Encounters! Anyway, if you're into dragons and fantasy… you've already seen it. But if you know someone who hasn't….

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it's a very good, well-constructed fantasy story.