Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cult Club: 'Dragonslayer' (1981)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Sound cinema’s first half century had no shortage of magicians, from the Kong-conjuring Willis O’Brien to his greatest protégé Ray Harryhausen, from the filmmaking team that brought L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to the screen to the one that realized Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. Of course, no name was so consistently responsible for dazzling fantasies as Walt Disney. Beginning with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney seemed to effortlessly role out fairy tales tailored for children but with enough pure artistic craft and cinematic scope to enthrall parents too. The trend continued beyond Walt Disney’s 1966 death with such box office breakers as The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and The Rescuers. The latter film was released in 1977, and we all know what happened that year. Suddenly, cartoons would not be good enough for young filmgoers. Adaptations of old fairy tales and talking mice wouldn’t be either. The new generation would require high-tech hardware and state-of-the art effects. The name Walt Disney would instantly seem as though it was echoing from a quainter past. The name George Lucas was roaring in from the future.

On the heels of Star Wars, Disney’s films started to falter. Neither Pete’s Dragon nor Return from Witch Mountain nor the company’s own space opera, The Black Hole, did the kind of business Disney was expected to do. An era seemed to be coming to an end, and one that would spawn such high-tech box-office behemoths as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and The Empire Strikes Back (proving Lucas was no fluke) was unmistakably underway. A year after that massively successful Star Wars sequel, Disney, in conjunction with Paramount Pictures, quietly glided Dragonslayer into theaters. Unlike those recent Disney films mentioned above, this sword and sorcery epic didn’t even break even, reportedly only earning back $14 million of its $18 million budget. The remainder of the eighties would be a dark time for Disney, and the studio would only reclaim its former financial glory in the penultimate month of the decade with The Little Mermaid.

In light of its whimpering release, Dragonslayer has an appropriately elegiac tone. It is a film that both eulogizes an era while paying lip service to the new one. There is a wizard who allows himself to be killed just so he can return with greater power, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi. There’s a mystical weapon, the title Dragonslayer lance, that glows like a lightsaber during its forging. When the dragon is defeated at the film’s climax, it explodes like the Death Star. Our hero is a blonde callow youth in love with a plucky brunette, not unlike Luke and Leia (in the days before Lucas decided to make them brother and sister). That’s the lip service. The eulogy is far more intriguing.

Dragonslayer takes place at a time when magic is on the precipice of extinction. There is a single adult dragon left to terrorize a kingdom by demanding a female virgin sacrifice in return for not burning crops and the men who live in fear of the beast. There is one sorcerer left, but he’s old and dying, unable to even make the journey to the dragon’s lair to slay it. There’s one weapon left with which to slay it. In place of these vestiges will be a new age of Christianity, in which lily-livered priests give God (and themselves) credit for the derring-do of others, not realizing they are replacing true magic with fairy tales.

Dragonslayer is also hopeful, as women prove themselves as brave—often braver—than the male heroes of old. A princess gives her life for the sake of the virgins whose fathers are not privileged enough to buy them out of the sacrificial lottery. Another had skirted the lottery all her life by pretending to be a boy, as her father forced her to do, but now constantly puts herself in danger to do her part in killing the last of the dragons. Princess Leia has been praised for being a more aggressive damsel in distress than the usual helpless Disney princess, but the young women of Dragonslayer best her in terms of bravery and complexity.

That complexity runs throughout Dragonslayer as the young magician we know will become a great sorcerer by the film’s conclusion never does, the sorcerer we know will be the film’s savior spends the majority of it dead, and the dragon we know is the epitome of evil expresses a moment of heartbreaking sadness after discovering that the young hero has killed all of her babies. Here Dragonslayer veers as far away from anything we’d ever expect from an old Disney movie or a new Star Wars one as is imaginable. After learning of these gruesome offspring, our hero, Galen, vows that he will kill them all. He discovers them gnawing on the self-sacrificing princess in gory, meaty detail, and dispatches them with equally graphic violence.

Dragonslayer doesn’t offer us any consolation about such conflicting moments. We feel terrible when we see the brave young princess dead. We feel terrible when we see our admirable hero kill the young creatures and their mother mourns them. We understand that the hero did what he had to do, and that the dragons were just doing what dragons do, but it is still jarring to see such things in a film ostensibly intended for kids, mostly since Hollywood tends to talk down to kids and deny them life’s real complexities.

The response to Dragonslayer upon its release was just as conflicted. It received positive notices from The Los Angeles Times and New York magazine for its spectacular special effects. Monthly Film Bulletin, however, felt the effects detracted from character development and New York Newsday felt they pulled viewers out of its medieval time.

Seeing the film today, one wonders if the negative critics were allowing Star Wars to cloud their assessments, causing them to see any film with great special effects—and Dragonslayer does have amazing puppet effects far more realistic and tactile than anything accomplishable with CGI—as lacking attention to character. It’s hard to believe those critics failed to appreciate the film’s complex characters and the excellent performances of Peter MacNicol as the young hero Galen, Sir Ralph Richardson as the old wizard Ulrich, Peter Eyre as the sniveling King Casiodorus, and Chloe Salaman as the fearless Princess Elspeth (Caitlin Clarke, who plays the other female heroine Valerian, is a bit wooden but still gets the job done).

Ultimately, Dragonslayer ended up getting slayed at the box office by Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. It seems to have enjoyed a second life on HBO, which is where I spent a lot of time watching it when I was a kid, shocked by its graphic violence, surprised by the decisions of its heroes and villains, and awed by its dragon Vermithrax Pejorative (and is that not the funniest name ever used for a villain in a non-campy movie?). It went on to make fans of such future fantasists as Guillermo Del Toro and George R.R. Martin, and frankly, it makes Return of the Jedi and all the Star Wars prequels that followed look like the pandering kiddie flicks they are. Dragonslayer treated those kiddies like adults, and therefore, it is the more timeless film, earning the small cult that still remembers it as one of the finest flights of imagination of its day.
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