Vic’s Review – “Dragonslayer” (1981)

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What’s it About?

A young wizarding apprentice is sent to kill a dragon which has been devouring girls from a nearby kingdom.

“Dragonslayer”

Directed by Matthew Robbins

By Vic

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Writer / Director Matthew Robbins (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Batteries Not Included) helmed this joint Paramount/Disney production which he co-wrote with Hal Barwood who wrote “The Sugarland Express” for Steven Spielberg. “Dragonslayer” remains, for many, one of if not the best “Dragon” picture ever made. It’s a feat that was not obviously easy or trite.

The movie had a few things to prove back then with no CGI or no really big name actors to push. The movie is a fantasy/drama story that is part coming of age and part hero’s journey in the most classic of traditions. It isn’t convoluted, melodramatic or over the top. It’s a lean fantasy film that is intriguing, well acted and a lot of fun. It has a story about discovery and wonder at it’s core and it features a Dragon by way.

Oh and did I mention that it’s fun. Yep. It’s bad ass and there are no shoddy CGI fx to be found here thanks to Phil Tippett (The Empire Strikes Back) and his “Go Motion” effects techniques. Tippett had the best job on the production and that was to breathe life into…well a fire breathing Dragon. A real nasty one named “Vermithrax”

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This dude is a very bad guy. Just look at his crazy eyes!
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Hush, young maiden. This wont take long.
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Galen confronts Vermithrax near the film’s intense finale.

Peter MacNicol (Sophie’s Choice, Battleship) stars as a wizard’s apprentice named Galen in the fictional land of Craggenmoor near the land of Urland which is a post – Roman country. Galen and his master Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) are sought out by a nasty dude named Tyrian who is a Centurion under King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre). They seek Ulrich and Galen out to help put an end to Vermithrax who is despite recieving virgins as sacrifices still terrorizes the country side.

A young boy named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) is dispatched to ask Ulrich if he can help. Things kind of go wrong when Tyrian intimidates Ulrich and asks for a test of his powers. The end result being a knife being driven into Ulrich’s chest by Tyrian and his subsequent death. Unimpressed, Tyrian and his men depart. Valerian, without a wizard to dispatch the Dragon, settles on Galen who decides to help using what knowledge he has gained from the now dead wizard master, Ulrich. Director Robbbins deftly turns the movie into a gritty and fun fantasy road movie of sorts as they band slowly make their way to Urland to try and convince the King that they have the right person in Galen to get rid of Vermithrax.

Robbins gives us an exciting and well paced fantasy movie here that is a character study and a die hard creature feature. It delivers the goods on all parts. Much credit should go to his capable cast in MacNicol, Clarke and Richardson. But the real meaty role belongs to Tippett’s monster and the great visual effects team over at Industrial Light and Magic. This is their show all the way. Great mattes, incredible sets that are dark and fully realized along with some cool period costumes by Anthony Mendelson.

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Here are a few reasons why “Dragonslayer” rules and is worth your time!

– A great Oscar nominated score by Alex North who gave us the incredible music to such films as “Spartacus”  and “Cleopatra” From the deep melodic cue that opens the movie you just know you’re in for a treat.

– Fabulous photography by the late, great Derek Vanlint who was the DP on Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and helped Bryan Singer on “X – Men” in 2000. His palette is rich, gritty and gray. His use of softer colors and the anamorphic lens gives “Dragonslayer” great depth and importance.

– Great VFX from ILM. This was their first movie outside of a Lucasfilm LTD production. Tippett and his “Go Motion” technique shows off the world in “Dragonslayer” to an amazing degree. Vermithrax is both downright menacing up close and beautiful to look at when in flight. There was a 40 foot full scale creature as well as up to 16 smaller models and puppets that all had different uses. Just amazing visuals here. Nominated as well for effects work that year.

– An early and impressive appearance by Ian McDiarmid as Brother Jacobus. After this we all know who he went on to play…

– Elliot Scott’s awesome set design. Great looking villages, castles, dark caverns, chambers and such look marvelous here. He transforms a castle fittingly to stand in as Ulrich’s and Galen’s home. Scott also designed “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and did “Temple of Doom” for Spielberg.

– The beautiful countryside locations of Wales and Scotland

– Great casting. Everyone here is great. From MacNicol’s coming of age turn as Galen to Caitlin Clarkes’ conflicted hero/heroine. Richardson steals every scene he’s in. Even when he comes back from the dead. John Hallam is perfect as the bad ass centurion Tyrian. He relishes being the bad guy here. Sydney Bromley as the servant Hodge is just outrageously fun to watch. Bromley also starred in An American Werewolf in London as Alf.

– It’s gory! Yep. despite being a Disney flick the movie pulls no punches with some of the more graphic violence caused by the evil and monstrous dragon.

– Vermithrax. Vermithrax. Vermithrax. Ken Ralston, Phil Tippett and ILM just rock the boat and deliver a very cool beastie that flies, breathes fire, flap it’s incredible wings, eats young virgins and protects it’s young.

– The climactic showdown between Galen and Vermithrax. So damn cool. It’s exciting, hardcore and very realistic. Vermithrax rising up from a lake of fire is just one of the many highlights.

“Dragonslayer” all in all is a very cool “Dungeons and Dragons” variation on the fantasy/middle ages/magic and wizardry genre. There is something for everyone to really like here. The movie is mystical, magical, interesting and fun. Our protagonists always feel like they are in peril and Robbins’ direction is lean and appealing. The Dragon is stunning and the cast all mesh.

It’s a part fantasy road movie and part coming of age film that is timeless and the film, much to the credit of the movie makers, holds up fantastically. “Dragonslayer” is a movie I love to watch on a Saturday afternoon right behind “Excalibur” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”  “Dragonslayer” remains a wonderful highlight of the fantasy films produced in the 1980’s. Highly recommended!

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12 comments

  1. I loved dragons when I was younger, and this was one of the very few movies available for me to watch until Dragonheart came along. It’s got amazing practical effects for the time, though I wasn’t quite as impressed with the dragonlings. It’s also interesting because when I came back to this movie, I was actually most familiar with Peter McNichol from Ally McBeal.

    • I love Dragonheart! I’m reviewing that very soon as well as Reign of Fire. ILM did a great job along with Tippett and Ralston for the FX. You didn’t like the baby dragons? I thought they looked ok. I enjoyed watching them dine. 😉 McNicol was also great in Ghostbusters 2. He stole every scene he was in. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      • D-Wars is a sort of guilty pleasure movie for me. A lot of fun. But I highly recommend Reign of Fire! Good movie and the dragons looks amazing. Another decent dragon film is Eragon.

      • Yeah, I enjoyed Eragon even though it’s gotten a fairly mediocre rap since its release. While it may be mediocre, anything with a well done dragon in it gets knocked up a few notches on my scale.

      • Agreed! Eragon was indeed considered mediocre. I felt that there was plenty to like in it. Irons and Carlyle were cool. I even had a blast with “How To Train Your Dragon” too. I thought the designs for the dragons were incredible.

    • I had a blast re-watching it the other night. It is one of my favorite films of that era. I get very nostalgic when I watch “Dragonslayer” The story is indeed unique and refreshing. Tippitt and his crew rocked the FX in this movie.

      Thanks for stopping in! I appreciate it.

  2. 8/10? Try 12/10! I love just about all dragon movies. However, Eragon was to kiddie for me and D-Wars…don’t get me started on D-Wars.

    • D Wars was god awful but I still actually own a copy. Don’t ask me why. And yeah, I should bump up that score on Dragonslayer. Just watched it on Netflix and it still rules on so many levels.

      Thanks for checking in. I appreciate it!

  3. DRAGONSLAYER’s such a wonderful film. I watch it at least once a year. Tibbett’s dragon worked so well because the claymation was computer driven for accuracy – something Ray Harryhausen may have wished he had.

    It’s a shame the lovely Caitlin Clarke died so young at 52 from ovarian cancer. She born, raised, and passed on in her city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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