Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Requiescat in Pace, Vermithrax Regina

Dragonslayer (1981)
Valerian: Are you afraid of dragons?
Ulrich: No. In fact, if it weren't for sorcerers, there wouldn't be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings... soaring... and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours... Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!
I came to this story almost entirely cold, knowing perhaps that it was about a young man charged with the duty of slaying a dragon, and that’s about it. Dragonslayer surprised me at a lot of turns, being unsentimental and daring to upset a lot of staid storytelling conventions – yes, the Old man Dies, but if you thought it was simply to enable his apprentice to step up and meet his destiny then you should think again. Clearly George R R Martin was taking notes when he watched this, using names from the story (the titular dragon is namechecked in an early Song of Fire and Ice book), and I must admit to comparing the rather unexpected ‘stuff happens’ mood of the tale to that of Martin’s Westeros. In the grand scheme of the story good triumphs of course, but  it’s an intriguingly sophisticated story that’s woven in nonetheless. And I rather like the fact that Valerian, once unmasked as a woman, doesn’t revert to an utterly opposite  feminine sense of dress and speech, but retains a lot of the toughness and huskiness her earlier guise displayed – she’s just not your typical wilting flower (and come to that, even the sacrificial Princess is a cut above your usual shackled screamers.)

Like a few early 80s movies from the House of the Mouse, this is not your typical Disney fare, with some gore, violence, onscreen deaths and even a little rear/lateral entity; but we should applaud it for taking these risks, as much as its stablemate Tron pushed the limits of computer technology, here is (prior to the inferior 90s Dragonheart) the most ambitious onscreen live action dragon to date, and prior to The Hobbit’s Smaug, certainly the best rendered. Vermithrax Perjorative is a splendid creation – admittedly heavy on the matte-lines and moving with the requisite stop-motion trembles, her presence is nevertheless awe-inspiring, and her fiery breath the more convincing for being (apparently) provided by a real flamethrower. Jackson’s Hobbit may have given us the description of “a furnace with wings”, but Dragonslayer’s worm is the real deal – you even find yourself sympathising with this ancient killer when she finds the corpses of the last clutch she’ll ever raise.

There’s a practicality to the story which I love – though the place names are imaginary, it works hard to evoke a Dark Ages setting; real low fantasy with grubby faces, brackish skies and spellbooks seemingly composed entirely in Latin, the scholar’s tongue. Ulric’s tower is simply the most convincing wizard’s tower I’ve seen on film, and I’ve half a mind to lift it in its entirely for a future Dungeons and Dragons game. There’s literal pragmatism, also – Galen’s weapon is forged by a blacksmith using magic, but is no great device of destiny and ultimately fails in the task; he’s better off with a shield made of dragon scale and having his wits about him instead. 

Yeah, Peter MacNicholl isn’t immediately convincing in his film debut (allegedly he leaves this movie off his CV now. But keeps Ghostbusters 2 on??), but who could compete against Sir Ralph Richardson, whose wizard Ulric is seriously jostling the shoulders of Gandalf and Dumbledore for Best Cinematic Wizard Ever?  John Hallam as Tyrion (another George RR Martin hat-tip) works a sinister pragmatism to his antihero role (Hallam is no stranger to playing the bad guy, but one of the few other roles I’ve seen him play is the fey but no less sinister Light in Doctor Who’s Ghost Light – a quite different performance), and overall there’s a pessimistic mood to the story. As Ulric’s remains shoot over the heavens and the appeaser-King is wheeled to the dragon’s corpse to deliver a post-mortem coup de grace heavy with cynical propaganda, you really get the sense that Valerian and Galen are wandering out of a dying, idealised age and into an uncertain future.
This may be the last early 80s fantasy movie I’ll watch for a while, so I’m glad it turned out to be this one, a surprising yarn that’s not quite family-ready, but ideal for the young adult with an interest in This Sort of Thing. I wish I’d seen it sooner!

PS: Hey, this is another synchronised review with Guanolad and Jamas. Check them out!

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