Dragonslayer (4K UHD)

Director: Matthew Robbins
Screenplay: Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
Stars: Peter MacNicol (Galen), Caitlin Clarke (Valerian), Ralph Richardson (Ulrich), John Hallam (Tyrian), Peter Eyre (Casiodorus Rex), Albert Salmi (Greil), Sydney Bromley (Hodge), Chloe Salaman (Princess Elspeth), Emrys James (Valerian’s Father), Roger Kemp (Horsrik), Ian McDiarmid (Brother Jacobus)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1981
Country: U.S.
Dragonslayer 4K UHD

Matthew Robbins’s Dragonslayer, an ambitious, big-budget production co-financed by Paramount and Disney, was one of the first serious attempts in the 1980s to make a blockbuster fantasy film that might rival the success of science fiction hits like Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). This was despite the fact that, at the time, sword-and-sorcery movies had been woefully out of vogue (but, then again, so was science fiction pre-Star Wars). The 1980s saw a spate of fantasy cheapies glutting theaters and then video rental stores, so the genre became associated with low budgets, no-name stars, and hackneyed scripts. The quick death of Dragonslayer at the box office may be largely to blame for why virtually no one tried to mount a major fantasy production for some time, and it wasn’t until the thunderous success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s that the genre rose in popularity again.

Peter MacNicol, an established theatre actor who was most likely cast for his likeness to Mark Hamill, made his feature-film debut as Galen, a young and ambitious sorcerer’s apprentice who is tasked with ridding a mediaeval kingdom of a fearsome dragon after his mentor, the aging and cantankerous sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), is killed. Galen is led to the kingdom of Urland by a small group of people led by a headstrong youth named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke). They are tired of the King’s (Peter Eyre) solution to the dragon problem, which is to sacrifice a female virgin to it twice a year.

While on the surface Dragonslayer is an old-fashioned fantasy yarn, it functions also as an interesting political allegory about the nature of sacrifice and what is ultimately best for the populace. The King’s solution is a draconian one, indeed, and it is riddled with corruption, as wealthy families are able to buy their daughters out of the biyearly lotteries that decide who will become dragon fodder in the name of saving everyone else. Naturally, it is an open secret that the King’s only daughter, Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), is also exempt from the lotteries. Nevertheless, the King makes a good point when challenged by the idealistic and ultimately naïve Galen, that these sacrifices ultimately save lives because the dragon does not attack the kingdom so long as they go on. Thus, the question becomes one of sacrifice and whether it is acceptable for a few to suffer against their will so that so many others may live.

Galen decides to bypass the philosophical conundrum altogether by simply vanquishing the beast, which he thinks he has done at one point, but in fact has only raised the dragon’s ire. When it attacks the kingdom, laying waste to entire villages, Galen feels responsible and takes it upon himself to enter the dragon’s lair and dispatch it with an enormous spear known as the “dragonslayer,” his only protection being a shield composed of the dragon’s own scales. This is by far the best sequence in the film, as Galen’s descent into the lair is structured as a descent into Dante’s inferno, complete with a flaming lake and horrific imagery of the dragon’s progeny feasting on the remains of young virgin (despite its brevity, the goriness of this scene strikes one as quite intense, particularly for a PG-rated movie bearing Disney’s imprimatur).

The special effects used to portray the dragon were revolutionary at the time, although the blue-screen work and obvious matte lines can be somewhat distracting to a modern viewer raised on CGI. The major innovation was a process developed by Industrial Light & Magic known as Go-Motion, which was a variation on stop-motion animation that used computer-timed movements to smooth out the motion, effectively eliminating the jerkiness inherent to the process by introducing motion blur. Comparing the Go-Motion in Dragonslayer with Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work on Clash of the Titans, another fantasy movie released that same year, is a testament to the former’s superiority. The dragon in Dragonslayer, whether crawling through its cavernous lair on its wings or soaring through the sky, is a marvelous creation. However, Robbins knew that a good monster needs a good build-up, so like Steven Spielberg did in Jaws (1975), he keeps it largely off-screen for the first two-thirds of the film, only suggesting its presence with a brief shot of its claws or an extreme close-up of the back of its head as it rises out of the ground to claim a victim.

Cinematographer Derek Vanlint, whose curiously short filmography also includes Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), gives Dragonslayer a strong visual look. He includes plenty of postcard-beautiful shots of the medieval English moors and mountains, but he really excels when called upon to create a dark, moody environment. The night scenes in Dragonslayer are inky and dense, and the scenes in the dragon’s lair are appropriately claustrophobic with their strong contrasts of shadow and red firelight. If Dragonslayer has a letdown, it is the somewhat anemic script by director Robbins and Hal Barwood, which establishes a lot of interesting ideas, but falls short in character development. With the exception of Ralph Richardson’s gloriously haggard portrayal of Ulrich, all the characters simply fill slots, generating little emotional investment. Still, the movie works as a whole because it is so true to its calling; it evokes the tangible magic and myth of the fantasy genre, which is what the best of them do.

Dragonslayer 4K UHD + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English: Dolby Atmos
  • English: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • French: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
  • Audio commentary by co-writer/director Matthew Robbins and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • The Slayer of All Dragons retrospective documentary
  • Screen tests
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 21, 2023

    Longtime fans of Dragonslayer will be elated with this new 4K UHD edition, which replaces the bare-bones DVD we’ve had since 2003 (a Blu-ray edition is being released concurrently). The image quality on this disc is simply spectacular, with the 2160p/HDR10 transfer breathing new life into the film’s excellent cinematography. The transfer stays true to cinematographer Derek Vanlint’s penchant for darkness, but the image is never dim or muddy. Rather, the increased resolution and improved color palette brings out nuances and details in the images that had long been lost while maintaining a gorgeously rendered sheen of grain in keeping with the film’s early-’80s 35mm visual aesthetic. The overall color palette is fairly subdued, leaning heavily into grays and earth tones, but there are bright splashes of color here and there, particularly the dragon’s fiery breath, which looks great. The newly remixed soundtrack, which is available in both Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD 7.1-channel surround, is likewise excellent. The surround channels are nuanced and immersive, and the big battle sequence at the end has real depth and power. The sound design is thoroughly impressive, with small, ambient surround sounds and atmospheric bits adding significantly to the film’s effectiveness, while Alex North’s Oscar-nominated score (which uses compositions he originally wrote for, but were never used in, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) is full-throated and beautifully rendered.

    As I mentioned earlier, the 2003 DVD was a bare-bones affair, and while it is unfortunate that it has taken 20 years for Dragonslayer to get its just treatment in terms of supplements, fans of the film will not be disappointed. First, we have a new audio commentary that teams co-writer/director Matthew Robbins with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who (not surprisingly) counts himself as a major fan of the film (also remember that Robbins has worked with del Toro on numerous projects as a screenwriter, including Mimic [1997], Crimson Peak [2015], and Pinocchio [2022]). They have a great rapport in discussing the film, and there are tons of wonderful back stories and insights into its production. The same can be said of The Slayer of All Dragons, a retrospective documentary that includes new interviews with Robbins and special effects gurus Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren along with tons of behind-the-scenes photos and footage. The doc is actually comprised of five separate featurettes: “Welcome to Cragganmore” (11 min.), which looks at the film’s genesis; “A Long Way to Urland” (10 min.), which looks at the film’s production design and costumes; “Vermithrax Pejorative” (18 min.), which explores the design and special effects used to being the titular dragon to life; “Into the Lake of Fire” (14 min.), which looks at the practical set design and dragon effects; and “The Final Battle” (14 min.), which elaborates on the complex effects work that went into the film’s climactic sequence. Also on the disc are roughly 16 minutes of full-costumes screen tests with Christopher MacNicol and Caitlin Clarke, as well as Maureen Teefy (Grease 2, Supergirl), who was also being considered for Clarke’s role, and an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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