My five-year-old daughter loves dragons, especially those hailing from the quasi-Scottish village of Berk and have names like Toothless and Storm Fly.
For her, “How to Train Your Dragon” is what a great dragon movie is, though it’s more than that, as she’s constantly asking me when and where we can get a dragon, in order to fly her to a mountaintop.
On the other hand, my favorite dragon movie is Matthew Robbins’ “Dragonslayer” (1981), which would scare the crap out of my little girl and won’t be seen in my household for some time.
“Dragonslayer” is set during the Dark Ages and pulls us in with Alex North’s muscular, dread-inducing score. Peter MacNicol stars as Galen, a young sorcerer’s apprentice, working at the servitude of a powerful wizard named Ullrich (Ralph Richardson in a mesmerizing turn).
A cluster of town folk, led by Caitlin Clarke’s Valerian, arrive at Ullrich’s door, requesting his presence to do battle with the Vermithrax, a giant, flying, fire breathing and extremely nasty dragon.
It gets much worse.
Valerian hails from a kingdom where young virgin girls are chosen by “The Lottery” to sacrifice themselves to Vermithrax. The offbeat beginning, character driven in lieu of spectacle, gives way to our startling and nightmarish first encounter with the great beast:
Twenty-minutes in, we get the terrifying dragon sacrifice that everyone remembers. At first, we only see the dragon in sections (a tail here, a talon there, the back of its head) but the truly frightening aspect is hearing its horrible, raspy inhale before it unleashes a torrent of fire.
By the way, this is a Disney movie. Specifically, a “Paramount Pictures/ Walt Disney Productions” film and nothing like “Pete’s Dragon” (1977), either.
“Dragonslayer” is violent, intense and wondrous, the kind of uncompromised, large-scale fantasy you’d never see today (it felt even rougher and more progressive than “Clash of the Titans” and “Excalibur,” both released the same year).
Made during that glorious period where a PG rating meant you could shoehorn in brief nudity and gore, “Dragonslayer” mostly avoids any kind of whimsy and never goes cute. Also, this was produced in the pre-Michael Eisner renaissance era of The Mouse House when they didn’t know what kind of company they were.
This era’s Disney churned out middle-of-the-road animated movies like “The Fox and the Hound,” dreadful mainstream-bait flops like “Condorman” and scary, grown-up fantasy films like this and “Return to Oz.” While Robbins’ film was a box office non-performer in its day, this is one of those you-won’t-believe-it-until-you-see-it cult movies that more than earns its devoted fanbase.
The casting is strong – you can tell who everyone is on the surface before the actors have spoken a word of dialog. MacNichol’s Galen is very Luke Skywalker and the trajectory for Ulrich mirrors that of Obi-Wan Kenobi closely.
MacNichol, best known for stealing most of “Ghostbusters II” and his award-winning work on “Ally McBeal,” became a prolific character actor after this, his lone starring role. Peter Hyre is also great as the haughty, hissable king
Clarke’s Valerian is the far more affecting of the two leads, as she has been hiding in plain sight, disguised as a boy for most of her life, in order to avoid “The Lottery”. At one point, while entering the dragon’s cave, she declares, “I’m not afraid. After all, I was a man, remember?” Great line.
Let’s talk about “The Lottery,” in which “daughters are chosen, sons are not.” It’s akin to the Salem Witch Trials in reverse, as the chosen are not evil but deemed wholesome enough for the giant fire-breathing monster. In an unsettling and complex way, this plot point illustrates how religious fervor and made-up doctrines can control the masses – which, I guess, is why the paperback edition of the Marvel Comics adaptation was in my church’s library for so long (!).
The evil king has weaponized the dragon: “Your king has made a pact with a monster.” How exactly does one make a deal with a dragon? Is it an annual, you eat my virgin, you scratch my back kind of bargain? Never mind.
The scenes of the town folk, enduring the awful lottery, obeying their king and turning to religion as a comfort against the beast they serve, is wrenching. This is a world where a dumb but powerful politician controls the order of his kingdom. This is grim stuff – their faith can’t save them from the merciless Vermithrax.
Is this the best dragon in cinema? Absolutely.
All the worthy contenders (everything from “Reign of Fire” to “Dragonheart” to Smaug himself) lack the bird/insect-like quality of the Vermithrax in movement, scale, personality and ability to frighten.
The title is a nice play on words: Galen is the designated dragon-slayer but the heart of the horror lies in the dragon’s lair. A third act reveal, in which a character has died and is the dinner of a monster, is still startling (seriously, don’t let your kids watch this).
Visual effects rock stars, Phill Tippett, Dennis Murren, Ken Rallston and Chris Walas all worked on this. The dragons are amazing and the physical battle Galen has with the Vermithrax demonstrates how hard it is to kill one of these things. The special effects are so beautiful, even the visible blue screen lines can’t diminish the ILM wonders on view.
There’s a nice capper at the end, where political posturing is a part of the resolution and is as important to the King as the far harder act of slaying the beast. Occasionally, the human interactions are clumsy, and I wish the last scene was stronger.
Otherwise, “Dragonslayer” is consistently thrilling and dramatically satisfying, as well as For Grown-Ups Only. This is what a Dungeons & Dragons movie should be like.