Dragonslayer is set in the distant past telling the tale of a beast that terrorises the British countryside. It leaves its cave only to feed on the sacrificed virgins the king provides it, in the hope it will not harm his entire people. Only a sorcerer and his apprentice can stop the dragon before it takes any more victims, but will their magic be powerful enough to stop it?
The film, originally released back in 1981, when the fantasy genre was making big splashes at the box office in all its various forms, is an interesting story of magic, mythological beasts and heroes – the sort of nighttime fairytale children get told before they go to sleep. It certainly has more substance that Ridley Scott’s awfully hollow Legend but it lacks a little of the fun and excitement of say Ron Howard’s underrated gem Willow. The story is fairly simplistic and when it concerns the dragon, it’s undeniably entertaining but during the intervening parts it drags a little. Peter MacNicol (an actor whose roles in Ally McBeal and Ghostbusters 2 spring obtrusively to mind) can’t convincingly carry the film as its hero, and as his screen time outweighs anyone else, the film drastically needs some ‘action’ to regain its interest level.
However, the film has a lot of pluses, most interestingly the fact director Matthew Robbins keeps the mood very dark throughout. It is refreshing to see such a film not relenting to fit a ‘for the family’ mould, having moments of obvious brutality, blood and real horror. Robbins nicely balances this with some light-relief humour so the film doesn’t become too downbeat but he never relinquishes the moody ambience. Additionally, the set-design and special effects are wonderful, really capturing the spirit of the story and creating a believable world for the characters to inhabit. The dragon is terrifically designed and photographed, showing that over twenty year old special effects techniques, which are now almost never used, worked exceptionally well in creating infinitely believable monsters. In fact, such works of art as Ridley Scott’s alien in Alien, or Pinhead and his friends in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, or the werewolf transformation in John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London have never been surpassed, certainly by modern computer animation, in authenticity or scare-ability. The first time we meet the dragon it’s terrorising a helpless woman, yet all we see is some smoke coming out of its cave, then a giant claw, and its tail. It’s a superbly set-up scene, and Robbins repeats this technique to great effect – it covers up flaws in the creature design while working superbly as tension-filled, suspense cinema. Alex North’s wonderful score provides the film with a little extra life, while the great Sir Ralph Richardson graces the screen in one of his final film roles.
Dragonslayer is an enjoyable sword and sorcery tale, that suffers from being a little dull at times, though when the film works – the dragon scenes especially, it really does work and becomes something of an exciting, fabulously entertaining film. It definitely isn’t aimed at a young audience and it’s much better for it – the dark tone is refreshing, and it boasts arguably the best dragon that has ever graced the screen. It could have been better, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here.
It is great to see the film receive a widescreen release, and thankfully we get an excellent anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. Detail is strong throughout, and black level and colour tones appear natural. There’s very little grain noticeable on the transfer but during some scenes it can be seen, however it isn’t distracting. On a couple of occasions a line appeared down the centre of the screen – clearly a fault of the print, which is distracting, but thankfully it only appears for a few seconds then disappears.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is surprisingly good considering the age of the film, and really immerses the viewer in the film. This is of course helped by Alex North’s excellent score, but the sound is used well throughout the film. Rear speaker work is a lot less evident than on new film soundtracks, but front right to left, there is good separation and directional effects. The track is clear and well defined with very little distortion and dialogue is crisply audible.
Despite the lack of any extra material, the fact that this cult film has a DVD release in its original aspect ratio will satisfy most fans. In the A/V department, the film has probably never looked or sounded as good since its theatrical run, and while the film itself isn’t perfect, it is an enjoyable, magical ride.