Director: Matthew Robbins
Starring: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, Chloe Salaman, Ian McDiarmid, John Hallam, Emrys James
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: June 26, 1981
4K UHD Release Date: March 21, 2023 (Amazon.com)
A young wizarding apprentice is sent to kill a dragon which has been devouring girls from a nearby kingdom. (from IMDb)
As a child of the 80’s, I’m surprised Dragonslayer slipped right past me. Perhaps it seemed too mature for my young age, or it just wasn’t good enough to make into our regular rotation of VHS tapes (then again, I had seen much worse, like The Beastmaster… *shudder*). Whatever the reason, I believe now, almost 42 years later, I’m seeing this 80’s fantasy film for the very first time. As a hopeless Ghostbusters enthusiast, I found it intriguing that Ghostbusters II‘s Peter MacNicol, who played the quasi-villain Janosz in that 1989 sequel, is the central hero in Dragonslayer. Learning that, I knew I just had to see it out of sheer curiosity. 2023 sees the film make its debut in 4K UHD, giving the mystical adventure a whole new life.
Dragonslayer definitely captures that 80’s fantasy feel that was common for the decade. The story revolves around villagers who come to a wizard named Ulrich to ask him to vanquish a menacing dragon named Vermithrax. When a local antagonist named Tyrian challenges the wizard, he kills him, causing Ulrich’s young apprentice Galen to try to step in as Ulrich’s replacement. Galen accompanies the villagers, who appear to be led by a young man named Valerian. The journey reveals its surprises along the way, as the collective try their best to slay the beast.
Let’s face it, after modern fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series, many of the 80’s fantasy “epics” just feel so small in comparison. But there’s still a sort of charm to them. Dragonslayer has its moments where it works and is actually pretty decent, but the overall end product is definitely what many would categorize as a “B” movie. Honestly, Peter MacNicol’s performance as Galen is one of the story’s stronger points – even though he may lack the memorable charisma of a true star – and Caitlin Clarke’s performance as Valerian is also charming (yup, spoiler alert: Valerian pretended to be a boy so she wouldn’t get sacrificed to the dragon). Ulrich the wizard, played by Ralph Richardson, channels some serious Gandalf vibes, but he’s one of the weaker links in the cast. (He’s certainly no Ian McKellen.) That aforementioned human antagonist, Tyrian, played by John Hallam, is also kind of pathetic and hardly intimidating. The dragon, Vermithrax, is pretty cool for its time period, but it’s also evident the limitations the production had for the beast. The 4K UHD transfer revitalizes the visuals a bit, boosting what would otherwise seem like just a dated picture. The journey itself sometimes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — especially once we reach the climax — and that lends to its “B” movie feel. Frankly, the ending is a bit of letdown, given that it seemed to all be leading somewhere more grand (or just somewhere else entirely) than the ending we get.
Dragonslayer is rated PG, but keep in mind that this is early-80’s grade PG. This even predates the PG-13 rating. (The aforementioned movie The Beastmaster is also rated PG and is apparently awash with nudity and gruesome imagery, only the latter of which I recall, but it was most likely an edited TV-version that I saw.) Today, Dragonslayer would be PG-13 at the least, due to a brief scene of male and female nudity, and two scenes of pretty graphic violence. At one point, we see Galen dive naked into a small lake, while Valerian is in there as well. We see Galen’s bare butt as he jumps in and a little more of it while he’s swimming underwater. As he approaches Valerian, who is underwater up to her neck, he sees her nudity and is shocked to discover she isn’t the man she’s been posing as, but a full-figured young woman. In this moment, we see a side/rear shot of Valerian that shows her bare butt and back and a sideview of her breast and nipple. It’s short, but the sudden show of nudity will likely shock some viewers. The violence is sporadic, but it includes a woman trying to struggle out of handcuffs and bloodying her wrists, a woman’s leg being gnawed on by baby dragons, a baby dragon chewing on a dismembered foot and a view of the bloody stump, and a large view of a dead dragon with it’s abdomen ripped open and its guts and organs spilled out. There’s even a very brief view of a man engulfed in flames. Oddly enough, some other acts of violence are obscured or blocked, usually involving human-on-human acts of violence. Language is minor, with just a use of “*ss” and “d*mn” each.
One thing I found kind of odd, especially for the 80’s because it seems like something that would more likely be found in today’s films, is a weird representation of Christianity. Ian McDiarmid, who is most known for playing Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars saga, plays a priest who is convinced that the dragon is no dragon but the devil himself. He tries to condemn it himself, but is then consumed by the dragon’s fire and is burned alive. As people flee at one point, another man says something like, “C’mon! Aren’t we all Christians?!” While the heroes are off trying to actively defeat the dragon, we see a group of villagers praying for deliverance instead. Later, after magic is used to defeat the dragon, the villagers and their spiritual leader thank God for this miracle. I’m not quite sure if this is a pessimistic, cynical view of Christianity, or just a representation of how it may have been perceived in a fictional period when dragons and sorcery could have coexisted. Again, I have no idea what writer/director Matthew Robbins’s true intentions were here, but I’d have to say, it doesn’t seem to a positive commentary.
Overall, Dragonslayer is definitely not a top tier 80’s fantasy epic, but it’s hardly the worst you’ll find either. There’s a certain charm to this time in the history of American cinema, and Dragonslayer is a fair representation of it.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 3/19/23)
4K UHD Special Features Review
The 4K UHD release of Dragonslayer release includes the film on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc™ and a digital copy of the film. The 4K disc additionally includes the following bonus content:
THE SLAYER OF ALL DRAGONS
Step back in time with director/co-writer Matthew Robbins, dragon supervisor Phil Tippett, and ILM’s visual effects master Dennis Muren as they revisit DRAGONSLAYER. Their stories and memories take viewers deep into the dragon’s fiery lair as they recount the challenging journey from concept to screen.
WELCOME TO CRAGGANMORE
A look back at the impact of Star Wars and its visual effects on Hollywood, the origin of DRAGONSLAYER and its screenplay, and the film’s casting.
A LONG WAY TO URLAND
Pre-production begins in England as the film takes shape. The young filmmakers seek gritty medieval realism through the production design, cinematography, and costumes.
The filmmakers take on the daunting task of bringing a dragon to life like never before, utilizing every ounce of movie magic available including Phil Tippett’s breakthrough go-motion animation, cutting-edge practical animatronics, visual effects, and compositing.
INTO THE LAKE OF FIRE
Production woes at every turn, horrific baby dragons, and the challenge of creating Vermithrax’s iconic lair plague the filmmakers. Phil Tippett offers a mini-masterclass on crafting powerful creature performance through detailed animation.
THE FINAL BATTLE
The team faces the unique challenges of the film’s stage-bound climax, filmed entirely against a blue screen. Director Matthew Robbins looks back on the incredible work done in the final stages of film editing, the beautifully dense sound design, and Alex North’s amazing score, which utilized pieces from his legendary unused 2001: A Space Odyssey score.
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: We see Galen’s bare butt after he disrobes and jumps in the water. We then see Valerian underwater and we see her butt and side of her breast with her nipple briefly as Galen sees her; There’s talk of women being sacrificed who are virgins; Valerian mentions being a virgin and how that puts her in danger.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “d*mn,” 1 “*ss”
Alcohol/Drugs: None. (It’s possible some miscellaneous characters may have some at some point.)
Blood/Gore: A woman is chained to a wooden pole as a sacrifice to the dragon. Her wrists bleed and get bloody as she struggles to escape. She has blood on her dress from it as well; An old man has an arrow in his chest. We see a little blood on his hands as they grip the arrow; Galen has blood on his head from falling rocks; A man has a red, raw burn mark in the center of his palm after being burned; Fire from the dragon consumes the priest and we briefly see his face within the flames; A baby dragon chews on a woman’s leg, with some graphic bloody results. It then bites off her bare foot and we see it missing from the body with the bloody stump in its mouth. We also see blood on the victim’s dress; Galen attacks a baby dragon and slices it in half, with bloody results; While fighting the dragon, Galen has some bloody cuts on his face; We see a wizard get clipped by the talon of the dragon and he falls over. We then see blood on his shoulder when the talon tore his robe; We see the fried, torn open corpse of the dragon, with exposed ribs and organs spilling out (it’s very graphic); The king puts his sword on the dragon’s exposed guts.
Violence: A wizard gives a dagger to a man and challenges him to stab him for he “cannot be hurt.” The man stabs him and he falls over dead; They set the clothed corpse on fire as a funeral. The flames burn green; A woman is chained to a wooden pole as a sacrifice to the dragon. Her wrists bleed and get bloody as she struggles to escape. She has blood on her dress from it as well; The dragon grabs her and lifts her up. She falls and it then incinerates her with a breath of fire; An old man has an arrow in his chest. We see a little blood on his hands as they grip the arrow. He then falls back and dies; A spell causes a lot of falling rocks that the group has to flee from; A man burns his palm when he grips the amulet; The kingdom shakes. A horse falls on its side and lands hard; Soldiers with swords chase Galen on horseback. He bursts through a pair of doors, knocking a man over; The ground shakes and cracks. A tree falls on the priest but he is ok as he fell between the branches; Fire from the dragon consumes the priest and we briefly see his face within the flames. He then falls over on fire; The dragon flies around burning a village; A small creature lunges at Valerian; An announcement paper catches on fire and the man holding it drops it; Galen and a man spar with sword and spear. Galen stabs him through a pole. He slowly collapses dead; We see baby dragons gnawing on the dead body of a woman; Galen attacks a baby dragon and slices one up, with bloody results. Another attacks him and he beats it with a torch; The dragon shoots fire at Galen and his shield blocks it. It does it again as it pursues him; Galen stabs the dragon several times and it whips him around; The dragon shoots fire at Galen again and he blocks it with his shield again; We see a wizard get clipped by the talon of the dragon and he falls over. We then see blood on his shoulder when the talon tore his robe; The dragon shoots the wizard with fire; Galen and Val struggle over using a rock to smash the amulet; The dragon grabs the wizard in its talons. Galen smashes the amulet, causing the wizard to literally explode in the dragon’s grip. The dragon then crashes into a lake that sizzles; We then see the fried, torn open corpse of the dragon, with exposed ribs and organs spilling out (it’s very graphic); The king puts his sword on the dragon’s exposed guts.