Before I came on board here at The Shattered Lens, I joined in on Live Tweeting, where you watch a movie with a group of people, while tweeting about it at the same time. Imagine being one of those audience members in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and you’ve a rough idea of how fun it can get. Our own Lisa Marie Bowman does this every Saturday with her group, the Snarkalecs, as they cover the SyFy Movie of that week.
On Saturday Nights around 11pm Eastern(or just about every Saturday), Kevin Carr (over at Fat Guys at the Movies) hosts his Late Night Live Tweet, which I’ve participated in from time to time over the last 3 years. Tonight, they’re talking on 1981’s Dragonslayer on Netflix Instant.
Dragonslayer is one of those films that flopped at the box office, but remains iconic for its representation of dragons and for having been Industrial Light and Magic’s first Visual Effects production outside of any of the Lucasfilm movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first two Star Wars films). Even though ILM was popular for what it did for those films, they were considered somewhat exclusive (or rather it’s my belief that they were). Dragonslayer became ILM’s test of whether they were a go to effects studio for the rest of Hollywood. It didn’t quite work out for the film, but at least ILM did well. At one point, the amount of lens flares in this movie would make J.J. Abrams proud.
Walt Disney Pictures, wanting to get into something a little more adult, came up with Dragonslayer just before Tron, but because of then graphic nature of the film (at least by their standards) supposedly had Paramount Pictures handle the distribution of the film and keep their hands clean. The movie contains blood, immolation and a hint of nudity, which seemed unbecoming of the Disney label. Over the years, Disney would come up with Touchstone Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures, and Hollywood Pictures for their more adult fare. I think Disney even had Miramax at one point.
The story behind Dragonslayer is pretty straight forward. In a faraway land in the Dark Ages, a group a people seek out an old wizard named Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson – Watership Down and one of my favorites, Time Bandits) to have him slay the dragon known as Vermithrax Pejorative. Why would anyone want to kill a dragon? Well this particular dragon spends it’s time burning nearby villages and to keep it from doing so, the land has a lottery where the winner – a young maiden – is offered as a sacrifice. On looking at the evidence provided – some scales and a claw (to which Urlich exclaims “That’s not a claw, by the gods….that’s a tooth!”), the wizard refuses and asks the team to look for another Dragonslayer. They inform him that he is indeed the last of his kind. His apprentice, Galen Bradwarden (Ally McBeal’s Peter MacNicol) feels that maybe they could do the job, but before Ulrich can get on his way, he is challenged by the head of the King’s Guard, which leads to the wizard’s demise.
Galen, on cleaning up the wizard’s castle, stumbles upon a glowing amulet that enhances his magic ability. then takes it upon himself to get rid of the Dragon after discovering one of Ulrich’s glowing amulets and the ability to perform magic. As a kid, I thought that amulet was the coolest thing. There are of course some complications, mainly the fact that the Monarchy believes having the sacrifices and the Dragon are a good thing, but like all Disney movies, it all works out.
From an acting standpoint, Dragonslayer is okay. None of the performances are really award winning, and actor Peter MacNicol has gone on to say that he was embarrassed to have done the film, and doesn’t even mention it when referencing anything he’s done. Actor Ian MacDiarmid, who played Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films, plays a priest in Dragonslayer, which was nice to see.
ILM’s biggest contribution to Dragonslayer was the use of a then new effect called “Go-Motion”. The idea was that most effects at the time were stop motion, similar to what you’d see in a Harryhausen film like Clash of the Titans, As a result, it was often very easy to tell when stop motion was being used due to the jerky but accepted movements of characters. Go Motion used puppets on computers to track their movements, inducing a motion blur and give the appearance that puppets were moving more naturally. I guess it was a lot like rotoscoping for the Lightsaber effects. ILM tried this out with some success in The Empire Strikes Back, and a combination of either Stop Motion or Go Motion was used in many films right up until CGI came along. The look of the Dragon itself was very aggressive and its look can be seen in similar films like Reign of Fire. Most of the effects haven’t held up very well at all under HD, and you can clearly see some of the areas where effects start and end.
It should be noted that Stop Motion is still in use today and is very popular with animated fares like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and the Academy Award Nominated Film, Frankenweenie.