When you think of live action Disney movies from years gone by you very may well think of bright, playful romps starring either animated characters or a disturbingly young Kurt Russell. But during the 80’s, seemingly in an attempt to skew darker in order to bring itself more in line with the release of the “grittier” Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, the House Of Mouse sporadically fired out suprisingly challenging and dark family movies that usually sunk without a trace at the box office. However, films such as The Black Hole and Return To Oz were so successful traumatizing a generation of kids with their unconventional brand of nightmare fuel, that anyone who saw them found them at an impressionable age had a tough time shedding their imagery from their vunerable brain matter.
The one that truly nailed me right in the cortex was Dragonslayer, a staggeringly hard-edged Disney/Paramount co-production that despite being fairly flawed (and even a bit boring), still remains one of the greatest dragon movies ever made.
During a suprisingly clean period of the middle-ages (none of the shit coated worlds of Terry Jones’ Jabberwocky here), the kingdom or Urland is under siege from a cave dwelling dragon by the unfeasibly bassass name of Vermithrax Pejorative but has found a fragile peace by the act of sacrificing the virgin daughters of the village by way of a lottery. A small band of villagers led by the determined Valorian travel to speak to to Ulrich, a wizard of some renown, in order to convince him to slay the fire spitting lizard so they can try not loving their lives in fear for a brief spell. However, after an attempt by the sorcerer to prove his power goes horribly awry, the wizard’s apprentice, Galen, volunteers to go in his place, confident that he has learnt enough to hold his own against a giant winged gecko that beltches up infernos for fun. To give the little whiny short-arse his due, he does manage to create a rock fall that buries the entrance to the cave and he is promptly declared a hero but the king isn’t too fond of Galen’s interference. Taking a profound “better the devil you know” stance on the whole thing he jails the upstart wizard-wannabe, fearing the ripple effect the attack on the dragon may have caused and sure enough, Vermithrax eventually digs her way out and starts liberally torching sections of the countryside. As the king tries to maintain control by ordering another lottery he is horrified to find out that his own daughter has discovered that the lottery is fixed in favour of the rich and displays a stunning amount of social justice for someone born in the 15th century by rigging it so only she can be picked. Changing his tune pretty sheepish (having the prospect of having your only child turned into barbeque will do that I guess…) the king enlists Galen to slay the infernal beast and so the young man prepares to face a creature that some others STILL don’t want slain. Armed with a magic infused spear and a fireproof shield, Galen enters the cave in order to throw down with the mythical throwback but can he possibly have what it takes to lay the slay-down on a creature that may very be the last of it’s kind?
Dragonslayer is immensely odd, even for a cult film but it’s off-beat approach to fantasy can be explained away by the fact that Disney was trying to snare a young adult audience at the time (hence other such traumatic cult fare such as The Watcher In The Woods) but even so, while watching Dragonslayer, it’s virtually impossible to work out exactly who the fuck the film is supposed to be aimed at.
Containing some suprisingly up-to-date themes is it’s first surprise; class and gender equality are thoughtfully examined by various major plot points dotted throughout the story such as the powerful allowing the sacrifices to continue as it’s the easiest and quickest way to pacify the beast that has the smallest amount of fallout (two virgins a year against whole towns). It’s interesting that even though the story sides with Galen’s idealism about the death’s being wrong, the film strangely piles how naive he truly is as the time of fantasy and valour seem to be leaching out from the world. Proving this point definantly is the king’s daughter, a defiant social warrior who has no qualms about letting herself be eaten to death to contest her stance on justice – this story point in particular scrambled my brains as a child as the concept of a princess who DIDN’T want to be saved flew in the face of everything I knew. The themes of gender (something that 80’s fantasy movies aren’t exactly known for – case in point: boob armour) are addressed early on in the film Valerian is revealed to be a girl disguised as a boy to avoid the lottery who
Even religion gets a look in as christianity starts to rise in the wake left by the absence of magic with baptisms and prayer becoming popular in order to help the people come to terms with what they’re experiencing – although a priest (played by Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDirmand) has a memorably traumatic end.
Ah yes, the trauma. Not only is the film rife with social issues that makes the story buck convention in intriguing ways but it’s also loaded with surprisingly hard-edged violence and had me freaking the fuck out as baby dragons rip the foot off a dead body, and people are roasted in dragonfire in agonising detail – you see one guy for a spit second, mid burn, with all his hair vaporized – to quote The Hudsucker Proxy “You know, for kids!”.
So why exactly haven’t more people heard of this fantasy film that seems to be decades ahead of it’s time, then? Because to be brutally honest, an intriguing film doesn’t necessarily make an entertaining film and Dragonslayer’s pace is horribly lethargic at best. It’s all in place to aid with the movie’s melancholy tone (another admirably off-beat trait) but it’s all so slow it virtually drains the movie of any forward momentum and vast sections of the story drag despite it’s numerous bouts of social commentary.
Thank fuck for Vermithax then, a utterly GORGEOUS state of the art beast born from the boundless imagination of effects house ILM and stop-motion maestro Phil Tippet (Empire Strikes Back and Robocop) who more than lives up to her surname as she spreads her disapproval as she rockets through the sky like a fighter jet and laying down sheets of purging napalm like it’s the darkest days of the Vietnam War. Even though the camera doesn’t linger on her until about half an hour from the end, she’s still shot in dread inducing bits and pieces like the shark from jaws (a claw here, and tail there) and gives her more of a screen presence than most of the human actors.
Her showdown with Galen – which, true to form to everything else about the film, doesn’t quite go as you’d expect – still stands a one of the greatest dragon scenes in cinema (sorry Smaug and Drogon, but she got to the screen first) and manages to elevate the film above it’s deliberate, plodding pace just in time before the film ends.
The leads (including a very young Peter MacNichol) from Ally McBeal) are fresh faced whiners much in the Luke Skywalker vein and the older members of the cast do their thing well but the film lives and dies (barely) on the strength of it’s scaley beast who only just redeems a film that despite being packed with ideas and commentary, has no idea how to present them and a pace that only chooses to… dare I say it… drag on.
Technically Vermithrax Pejorative is not a dragon at all,but a wyvern. Dragons have four legs and two wings whereas the much smaller wyverns have only two legs and two wings. This mistake has been repeated time and time again in tv and film. About the only screen dragon that gets it right is the one from the BBC series Merlin.