Dragonslayer, 1981. Directed by Matthew Robbins. Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, John Hallam, Ralph Richardson.

Synopsis: A dragon is terrorizing the kingdom. In desperation, the king sends for a sorcerer to defeat the dragon. His underlings arrive on the doorstep of the wizard, Ulrich, finding him an old and feeble old man. The head of the king's military, Tyrian, doesn't believe Ulrich has the power to defeat the dragon, so Ulrich arranges a demonstration, opening his robes to allow Tyrian to stab him. He falls dead. His apprentice, Galen, lifts Ulrich to a funeral pyre, burns him, and gathers his ashes. He takes those ashes, along with Ulrich's talisman and the few tricks he knows how to perform, to slay the dragon in his master's stead. But he gets more than he bargained for. The king has made a deal with the dragon, and offers up young maidens to pacify the beast. He's more interested in old Ulrich's magic as a means of transmuting lead into gold. He turns a deaf ear to the grumbles of the peasants over the lottery that chooses maidens until his own daughter, disgusted at his hypocrisy, rigs the drawing so that her own name will be read. Only then does he implore Galen to use magic to slay the dragon. Galen forges a spear using his master's talisman, then descends into the dragon's lair. Once more, he gets far more than he bargained...

I found Paramount's new edition of Dragonslayer in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Paramount apparently doesn't have much respect for its own library because this disc only came out weeks earlier. But then, they never had any faith in this particular movie in the first place. This was a great favorite of mine at the time of its release, but I hadn't seen it in a while, and I hadn't seen it widescreen since it played in theaters.

This is one of those "problem" movies. It's the kind of movie that, if you love it, you have to make allowances for the warts. I'll be honest, I love this movie. When you spend your life sifting through the dreck of the cinematic dungheap--as I have--you have to compartmentalize things to the point where a really dynamic sequence, an amazing shot, or a terrific performance will go a long way towards forgiving hackneyed writing or pedestrian direction. This is one of those kinds of movies. The screenplay is too cynical for its own good and gets twisted around in knots trying to take the fantasy seriously. The direction is competent--competent enough to NOT screw up the spectacular locations in Scotland. But this ISN'T a director's movie, nor is it a writer's movie. This is an anti-auteurist movie if ever there was one, because the prime creative forces are animator Phil Tippett, cinematographer Derek Vanlint, and composer Alex North.

The movie LOOKS great. It presents a more convincing portrait of the dark ages than any film I can think of (Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, with its emphasis on blood, mud, and shit, is probably closer, but it is so exaggerated that it's hard to take it seriously). Vanlint's decision to shoot (most of) the film without color-altering filters was wise, and the light one finds in the film is beautiful and convincing. While this is all well and good, the movie makes it, in the end, because of one sequence, and one sequence alone. Nevermind the rest of the plot: the whole point of the movie is taking its hero (Peter MacNicol) and sending him into the dragon's lair. Here, the movie offers up the cinema's all-time best dragon, Vermithrax. The film has paced itself just right to get to this moment, too. It has offered glimpses throughout the running time, all fleeting. But in her lair, the dragon is offered in all her glory, and she is beautiful and terrifying. This is Phil Tippett's part of the film, and this is where he assumes the mantle left vacant by Ray Harryhausen when he retired after Clash of the Titans. Unlike Harryhausen, Tippett had huge resources with which to work, and began to use computers to augment the limitations of stop-motion animation. Dragonslayer can be seen as a first step towards Jurassic Park, if you like. Beyond that, though, the design of the dragon itself is groundbreaking. This particular monster is STILL being aped twenty-five years after the fact (the dragons in Reign of Fire, for example, are practically unchanged from the design of Vermithrax).

The finale of the movie is pretty good, too, though not as good as the sequence in the dragon's lair. It's enlivened by an impish performance by Ralph Richardson (after his resurrection, he asks his apprentice, "You haven't got anything to eat, have you?"), but for all intents and purposes the film is handed over to Alex North, whose score in this passage is magnificent.

When I first saw the film as a teen-ager, the sequence with the dragon drove all of the film's other flaws from my mind. The makers of Dragonslayer have wisely back-loaded the movie's best elements at the end of the film--it goes out with a bang (literally), though they haven't followed Sam Arkoff's advice of providing a great first reel to go with a great last reel (what's in between, according to Arkoff, doesn't matter). Watching it anew as an adult was a test of the taste of the adolescent. Would it hold up? Yes and no. The film's flaws are more glaring to my eyes now. A lot of the court intrigue plays like padding to me these days, as does the mistaken gender of a key character. All of that is beside the point. It was an effort to resist jumping to the DVD menu and skipping right to the good stuff. Mind you, the film is always fun to look at. Even when nothing important is happening, the film keeps your eyes occupied. I'm glad I toughed it out, though. The last half-hour of the film seems even better for wading through the first three-quarters of the movie. Nothing makes white stand out more than black, if you catch my meaning. The film practically comes alive at this point. Man, that dragon is cool as hell, even after all these years. Vermithrax is one of the cinema's great monsters, even if the movie he inhabits is less than great. There's no shame in that I guess. I mean, no one remembers the Harryhausen films for their great stories or their incisive performances, after all. And so it is with Dragonslayer.