Dragonslayer begins with a view of magic that’s equal parts hookum and fantastic. A small party has arrived at the home of a sorcerer to plead for him to kill an especially ornery dragon. For decades their kingdom’s kept the dragon at bay by offering ritual sacrifice of a virgin maiden, the participant determined by a rigged lottery. After agreeing to hear their case, the sorcerer sends out his young apprentice to “warm up the crowd” and build up his entrance.
The apprentice works an array of pots and metal slabs like the sound effects man for The Shadow radio plays. When the sorcerer steps into view, the apprentice underscores his arrival by throwing phosphorous on the ground that ignites in a bright blue flash. But all this stagecraft is done in full view of the party, as if the cheap tricks were so novel that simple folk may be convinced they’ve witnessed a great spectacle.
The party has approached the aged sorcerer since he may be the last such left alive. He inspects their evidence: scales and a foot-long tooth, and deduces that the dragon in question was itself very old. “When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!” Surprisingly enough the old man agrees to battle the beast, even though he’s visibly too frail to survive the journey.
I don’t begrudge the lot of cinematic fantasy films. They need to fashion a compelling narrative onto an invented world spiced up with special effects work, and get as close as possible to a ninety minute run time. Dragonslayer has it particularly rough. This is a film that knows it has a wonderful creature and best of its era effects to bring it to life. The first half of the film--as the apprentice declares himself the new master and travels to wage war with the beast--flies by. Normally, a long voyage is the perfect time to introduce characters and subplots of various importance. Dragonslayer does this with the utmost haste. Breezing through a few major revelations with nary a reaction shot. The camera can’t spare a minute of the running time to allow any character even a brief moment of introspection. There’s a dragon to get to, dammit.
For all the rush to get to the monster effect, the dragon only appears for fifteen minutes. Not to build the appearance up too much, the effects are definitely of their era, but this is one of the few films where the stop motion and full scale puppetry look of a piece. There’s one sequence in particular where the apprentice spies the dragon from above. I thought the scene was a bit of back-projection, but then the apprentice jumped onto the dragon’s back within the shot.
There is more working under Dragonslayer’s skin. There’s the contrasting of the two main female roles: the commoner who’s spent her life posing as a boy to dodge the lottery, and the princess whose name has been kept out of the lottery by her father the King. They take opposite approaches to fighting the status quo, symbolic and practical. In war as much with their lot in society than the dragon itself.
There’s the way the term “Dragonslayer” hops from potential savior to potential savior. From the confidence of youth, to the finest weapon ever forged, to the will of God, and then to the service of the impotent monarchy, but never addresses the sacrifice that ultimately defeats the monster.
And of course, there’s the world itself, wonderfully realized. Black peat and craggly mountains, broken up by huge plumes of dark green ostrich ferns. Great stone castles, both in disrepair and in great use.
Dragonslayer rushes through all of these, barely giving itself time to invest its creation with its own life. In this era where the slow building success of Game of Thrones has opened the door for big-budget TV-fantasy, I hope Dragonslayer could get revived as a miniseries on a premium network. The better to build out its world and contradictions.