Dragonslayer (1981) 4K UHD Review: Great Dragon, Murky Movie

The title Dragonslayer brings to mind knights in shining armor. Villainous, fire-breathing wyrms. Damsels chained to posts in sacrifice to the demonic force of evil nature. Dragonslayer has the first two, and explicitly rejects the first.

Set in the rural post-Roman Britain of the sixth century, Dragonslayer presents a rustic world that has more than one foot in the darkest of the dark ages. Tired of the yearly lottery which sacrifices a virgin to the monstrous dragon Vermithrax Pejorative, a delegation from a village travels far to find the last living sorcerer.

Decrepit old Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) agrees to go with them. However, the delegation has been followed by a group of the king’s men, who demands a test. Ulrich supplies a magic knife, implying he can be stabbed without dying. Tyrian, the king’s man, stabs him. He immediately dies.

The delegation leaves, but Ulrich’s apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol) finds there’s still power in one of his master’s amulets, and he joins them to slay the dragon. A bit of magic, and he caves in the dragon’s lair… which seems to do the trick.

The village is happy. The king is not. He arrests Galen for interfering where he was not wanted. He’s content to let Galen rot in jail… until the dragon breaks free from his collapsed lair, and again smites the countryside.

Dragonslayer sounds like a lark but plays like a serious drama attached to a special effects extravaganza. And it’s also sometimes a bit of a slog. There is very little action in the first hour of the film. The dragon is revealed very gradually. Some of the early views (a giant foot, a long, very slow tail) are not promising. But when the creature is revealed in its full glory, it’s still deeply impressive.

Numerous special effects technicians were employed for the various shots of the dragon. Chris Walas (director of The Vagrant which I recently reviewed) sculpted the large head. Special effects mad god Phil Tippet pioneered a technique of stop motion for the fully moving dragon called “go-motion”, where a complicated series of motors were created to propel the puppet through the still shots, adding realistic motion blur.

There are varied techniques to create the dragon. With over 40 years hindsight, we can see some are more successful than others. Several times the dragon’s head has what I would dub the Henson-effect, where some parts of the face articulate whiles others are still. It’s okay on a Muppet, but challenges verisimilitude on an enormous dragon puppet. Compositing was done optically, and so the technical limitations for that are obvious. They’re even more pronounced on a higher resolution format like 4K.

But who cares? All special effects have seams. This dragon is an astounding creation and a career highlight for all the great technicians and artists involved. The most important thing – it’s a character, not just some neat effect.

And it’s a character in a movie that sounds like it should be simplistic, but the screenplay has more on its mind than slaying dragons. There’s multiple layers to the story, which is about subterfuge, both good and bad. It’s about an old world giving way to a new one, where open sacrifices are replaced with hidden ones. Charlatans can be more helpful than the sincere. The problem with the story is it might be headier than the material requires. There’s loads of subtext to scenes, and sometimes not quite enough text linking them into a satisfactory story. Hell, even in the end (I will be oblique, avoiding spoilers) no one who might be called the dragon slayer actually slayed the dragon.

I remembered watching this film as a child, and finding the dragon the only memorable thing. It’s a bit gratifying to learn that’s because the rest of the story was above my head, not beneath attention. It was written by director Matthew Robbins (with Hal Borwood) who is still working, and is credited with the screen story on Guillermo del Toro’s recent Academy Award-winning Pinocchio (he contributed to early drafts of the script.)

I don’t know that the story of the transition from the Pagan dragon and magic-riddled Britain to a Christian country (with a lot of ambiguity about whether that was progress) was the most effective one for this film. It makes the film murkier than in could have been… but maybe that was the point. The film score by Alex North is also much more “modern” and atonal than one would expect in the post-John Williams scoring world. Apparently, he used some of the music that had been rejected from his score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s fitting with the more elevated than expected tone of a special effects dragon movie produced by Disney.

Either way, the presentation here is top notch. This is to my knowledge the first HD presentation of the movie, which seemed to have missed the Blu-ray era altogether. It’s a beautifully shot film, taking full advantage of its foggy British locations. I might have preferred a brighter story and a quicker pace, but I could not have asked (especially in 1981) for a more effective cinematic creature than the film’s dragon. Dragonslayer is a technical accomplishment that might bite off more in the story department than it can chew. It survives into the 4K realm looking more beautiful than ever.

Dragonslayer has been released on 4K UHD and Blu-ray by Paramount. Note, the 4K release not include a Blu-ray of the film, though it does have a digital code included. Audio extras on the disk include a commentary track by director Matthew Robins and Guillermo del Toro. Videos extras include “Slayer of All Dragons” (64 min), a documentary on the making of the film; “Screen Tests” (16 min), which has screen tests for Peter MacNicol; Caitlyn Clarke, who was cast as Valerian; and Maureen Teefy, who was not.

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Kent Conrad

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