Peter’s Retro Movie Review: Dragonslayer (1981)

September 3, 2012

Dragonslayer (1981) Movie Posterby Peter Nielsen

In the Dark Ages, magic was a weapon. Love was a mystery. Adventure was everywhere… and dragons were real.

It sounds like a fairytale, right? And since it was co-produced by Walt Disney Productions and Paramount Pictures you’d assume it was a light-hearted story of chivalry and fair maidens, right? Wrong!

It’s pretty obvious from the start, when the ominous music by Alex North fades in, that we’re in for a dark tale. Much darker than was usual for Disney at the time and I think they got a lot of un-deserved crap for it. We certainly liked it and hadn’t seen anything like it before. Here was a movie with wizards and dragons fighting it out… C’mon… we were SO there!

We start with a group of villagers walking up to a dark castle, seeking the help of the great sorcerer Ulrich of Kraggenmoor, who lives there. They need his help in order to get rid of an ancient dragon, which is terrorizing the kingdom of Urland.

At first they’re, rather brusquely, turned away by the castle’s keeper, Hodge, played by Sydney Bromley (An American Werewolf In London, The NeverEnding Story) who tells them that it doesn’t matter what their business is or how far they’ve come… Ulrich sees no-one!

Ulrich on the other hand has foreseen this already and bids the travelers to come in anyway. It’s actually amusing to see him almost performing when he makes his entrance to greet them. Well, not even almost… because he does in fact put on a show! His whole entrance and greeting is done very theatrically and a bit exaggerated, and is done just to show him off as the great sorcerer that he is. I suspect it’s done as much for his benefit as it is for theirs.

When I'm a wizard, I too will have a beard like that!

When I’m a wizard, I too will have a beard like that!

Ulrich is played by Ralph Richardson from Rollerball and Time Bandits for instance, and he is great here. He plays him very casual-like, you know? He’s a man who knows he has great powers but is almost aloof about it and is also a tired old man.

The villagers has brought some artifacts with them as proof of what they’re telling him is true. There are some scales and a tooth and after examining them, Ulrich tells them that he knows the dragon they’re speaking of. It’s a spiteful old dragon by the name Vermithrax Pejorative and from what we learn it’s a very powerful one at that. At first we only see glimpses of it, but later when we do get to see it, I must say it looks fantastic and also, for lack of a better word, realistic.

Ulrich offering Tyrian the knife.

Ulrich offering Tyrian the knife.

The special effects team didn’t want to use the standard stop-motion animation techniques, wherein you move the model a little between each exposure, but instead used a technique called go-motion.

This makes the model move during each exposure instead which gives it a more fluent movement and makes it look more real. And let me tell you again… the dragon looks great! Remember that Dragonslayer was made in the very early 80’s with no CGI in sight.

Ok, so the travelers and Ulrich are about to set out for their village so he can face Vermithrax, when one of the king’s men, Tyrian, arrives. He has followed them and now demands a test to see if the sorcerer really is as powerful as he claims to be.

You see, to keep some measure of order in the kingdom, the king has come up with a lottery which is held twice a year in which the name of every virgin girl is entered. One name is then drawn and the chosen girl sacrificed to the dragon. Barbaric, yes, but it ensures that it leaves them in peace the rest of the time.

The magnificent Vermithrax Pejorative!

The magnificent Vermithrax Pejorative!

Anything that disturbs this agreement would mean total mayhem and chaos. This is why Tyrian wants to see if Ulrich really is the right man for the task. Tyrian is played deliciously evil by an actor named John Hallam from Lifeforce or Flash Gordon among others.

The sorcerer agrees to a test and hands Tyrian a knife and tells him to drive it into his heart. When Tyrian hesitates, Ulrich says it’s ok because he can’t be hurt, so Tyrian stabs him and… Ulrich falls over. Dead! “Wait… What?” Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought when I first watched Dragonslayer. “The mighty sorcerer is dead? How the hell can he be dead? I mean, the movie has barely started yet!”

Galen in the dragon's den.

Galen in the dragon’s den.

Well, don’t worry folks, because this is where Ulrich’s apprentice Galen steps up. He basically tells the villagers that he will now take over and that every task they asked of Ulrich… he will now fulfill! They are of course doubtful, he is after all only an apprentice, but since they don’t have any one else to turn to… he’ll have to do.

Galen is portrayed by Peter MacNicol, whom you might recognize from Ghostbusters 2 or maybe Dracula: Dead and loving it. I think he’s very good in Dragonslayer but rumor has it he’s ashamed of Dragonslayer and doesn’t list it on his CV. Go figure!

The young “man”, Valerian, leading the villagers to Ulrich is played by Caitlin Clarke (Blown Away) and there’s a little twist involving “him”, but I won’t go into that here. Anyway, to make a long story short… they travel back and Galen, thinking himself much stronger than he is, faces the dragon and kills it. Or so he thinks! It of course returns and wreaks havoc throughout the kingdom and Galen, once again has to face Vermithrax! But this time he’ll not be alone…

There’s much more to the story than I have mentioned here, but I’d like you to find out for yourselves! So, my friends, until next time… Please let me know your thoughts on this forgotten gem. The comment section is all yours!

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