Tuesday, 24 April 2012
Saturday, 21 April 2012
In spite of plentiful competition, few film titles of 1950s are as strikingly, screamingly, irresistibly camp as Devil Girl From Mars, a low-budget British attempt to get in on the decade’s sci-fi craze. This contender from director David MacDonald came out a year before the film adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Xperiment properly defined a peculiarly British version of sci-fi cinema, but there is something to this film’s heavily contrasted visuals, and sense of flailing impotence in the face of overwhelming threat, which presages the parochial genre. Devil Girl From Mars is, sadly, less Nigel Kneale than Nigel Tufnell. Many of the cheaper ‘50s sci-fi flicks tried to dress up their seamy wares with soft-core titillation and incidental sexism, and Devil Girl From Mars, with its PVC-clad, mini-skirted dominatrix from outer space having come to Earth to search for masculine breeding stock, encapsulates a dichotomy of a fetishised dominant femininity and terror of gynocracy, a mixture that often bobs up in genre films from this era. But describing this film in such a fashion places me at risk making it sound entertaining in a trashy kind of way. In fact, it’s not really trashy, and it’s not entertaining either. It is, rather, dull, slow, self-serious, and betrays its origins as a play so baldly you can practically hear the smoker’s cough of the stage hand and smell the stale tea in the dressing room kettle. Like Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X (1950), this film chooses rural Scotland as the place where mankind and alien meet; but unlike Ulmer’s even cheaper film, director MacDonald can’t wring much atmosphere out of this felicitous locale. Which is a pity, because the essential situation is close to that of the most impressive of MacDonald’s films I’ve seen, the claustrophobic thriller Snowbound (1948), but this is closer in result to some of his other credits, like the awful biopic The Bad Lord Byron (1949), and the better but still very stodgy Christopher Columbus (1949).
The action is mostly restricted to a homey, isolated inn, kept by a cheerily bickering couple, the Jamiesons (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart). Reports of strange fiery objects falling from the sky in the area bring scientist Professor Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty) and journalist Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) to the inn. Amongst the inn’s few guests is model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), who’s on the run from heartbreak in London, whilst barmaid Doris (Adrienne Corri) has taken a job so she can be close to her former boyfriend Robert Justin (Peter Reynolds), who’s in jail nearby for killing his domineering wife. Justin chooses the same night to bust out and pose as an itinerant eager to work for his keep at the inn, as the cast find themselves confronted by the eponymous black-clad femme fatale, Nyah (Patricia Laffan). Nyah parks her spaceship nearby and explains she’s been forced to make an emergency stopover by engine trouble. Because she had planned to land in London, Nyah is reduced to showing off her incredible power and scientific advancement for the sake of cowering the collective at the inn, including parading her robot, which, sadly, evokes not its clear precursor, Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), but a ‘30s radio with legs and amusing vestigial arms. The model work for Nyah’s spaceship and the sets depicting it are standard-issue for ‘50s interstellar craft, all sliding external hatches and glowing recessed lights to suggest mysterious power sources without anything our puny ape minds would think of as controls.
It is diverting to see Court and Corri together in this prototypical work, as both would become popular faces in the oncoming boom of British horror and sci-fi films. Laffan’s role exploits her minor stardom after playing Poppaea in Quo Vadis? (1951), where she was the decadent, feline opposite to Deborah Kerr’s goody-goody Christian lass; here she’s pitched to offset Corri’s emotive, selfless reject and Court’s anguished professional beauty, parading into the film clad in her fetishist’s delight garb. Nyah’s costume, with modified Inquisitor’s helmet, black glistening cape, and threateningly proffered penis-envy-powered ray-gun, provided ‘50s genre cinema with one of its purest, most easily excerpted icons: Nyah has stalked her way through countless genre surveys and television encomiums to retro cheese. But the fun provided by Nyah’s outlandish look drains away after about five minutes, and in spite of the high-contrast gender-coding, Nyah proves less an icon of insidious, order-destroying feminism than just another high-toned, big-talking alien invader, one who continually promises to astound mankind with infinitely superior technology, whilst failing to properly browbeat the bunch of losers she’s confronted with. She also flies about in a spaceship that can, apparently, be sabotaged with a good hard punch to the reactor. The film’s mid-section is little more than a succession of sequences in which Nyah, after dismissing feeble acts of resistance, shows off some piece of hardware to browbeat the characters, like history’s most evil Tupperware party host. The script, by James Eastwood from the play he wrote with John C. Mather, promises early on to offer fleshed-out characterisation and contrived but potentially interesting dramatic intersections, but as it plays out the characters are revealed as insipid, the dialogue painfully dull, and the drama weakly developed. Time seems to stand still as Carter and Ellen romance, and it's not because Nyah has some beam that can make that happen, but merely because of boredom. Nyah hypnotises Julian to go and do her evil bidding, which is, apparently, that he should sit in an upstairs room glowering for the next half-hour of running time.
What is obvious is that the original play structure was barely revised, in spite of the occasional moves outside to the vicinity of the space craft, as most of the action takes place in the inn’s dining room, and Nyah repeatedly enters stage left, marching in through the inn’s French windows, to speak haughtily at the Earthlings and deliver some sort of ultimatum, and then leaves them to argue, fret, form swift bonds, and try their various lame attempts to outsmart and kill her. The climax is predictable, nay, inevitable from the first moment Justin is introduced, as he, the doomed transgressive outcast, is the logical choice to go on a suicide mission, having proved he’s competent at eliminating bitchy females. I do jest, but the film does not. Still, there’s an ever so slight hint of something deeper, a sense of pubescent forbidden delights in the way Nyah takes local boy Tommy (Anthony Richmond) under her wing, or cape, and leads him into her spaceship for a tour, a metaphorical induction into mysteries of adulthood for the lad in a moment aimed exactly at the disquieting nexus of maternal and sexual interest, a point which is fleshed out when Nyah later confirms she plans to take Tommy back to Mars as her choice for breeding stock, unless another, more developed male volunteers to take his place. Fortunately, Julian is ready to prove that a human male would rather die than accept the status of intergalactic man-ho with nothing to do other than service a race of latex-clad hotties.
Tuesday, 17 April 2012
There are several things initially off-putting about Blood Alley. Produced by and starring John Wayne at the height of his Red-bashing glory days, it’s a hymn to anti-Commie Chinese people-power that offers up far too many Caucasians in Asian drag, undercutting the film’s attempts to lionise the Chinese character, and excessive comic relief clogs up an overly-slow first half. The production strains against an evidently skimpy budget, as northern California stands in for southern China, and the film is replete with pasteboard sets and some models so unconvincing they might have been conceived on some proto-Brechtian level of detachment encouraged through obvious falsity. That said, Blood Alley commends itself entirely and purely as a William A. Wellman film, and, once it kicks into gear, stands as expert adventure filmmaking. The old stalwart Wellman, much like the tale’s hero, wields technique and experience to save the day, rendering his film deeply engaging on a level close to pure cinema. Wayne plays Tom Wilder, a seasoned salt whose life of steaming tramps, and tramp steamers, along the Chinese coast has been brought to a screaming halt by the Communist revolution, and at the outset he’s in prison, where he’s resisted going batty through privation and torture by talking to his strangely feminised personal deity. He busts out when mysterious benefactors smuggle him a gun and a Soviet officer’s uniform for a disguise. Once out, he’s taken in hand by good-natured hulk Big Han (Mike Mazurki) and boated to a seaside village which has decided to relocate en masse to Hong Kong, involving a complex and intricately detailed plan that demands Wilder skipper a paddle-driven ferryboat loaded down with this migrating populace across the Strait of Formosa, a body of water Wilder dubs the eponymous Blood Alley.
A year after Wellman’s experimental attempt to create a neo-Expressionism in the context of Technicolor-emblazoned ‘50s commercial cinema with Track of the Cat, Blood Alley, though hardly as carefully woven from strands that entwine style and story as that film, is nonetheless essayed in similarly stylised hues and flourishes, carefully offsetting the costume design of his characters with interior décor to declare their private psychic spaces and gaudily decorate his screen. Blood Alley looks forward to John Ford’s swan song Chinoiserie 7 Women (1966) in farewelling the romantic-exotic panoply of the early twentieth century’s melting pots, and the open, peripatetic, venturesome world that fuelled the fantasias seen in so much genre cinema. Revolutionary ideology, post-Colonialist reaction, and Cold War politics are depicted here as forces beginning to seal off the world into zones of mistrust; whilst 7 Women inflects the grace-note with a study in altering gender dynamics, Blood Alley ironically offers a socialist ideal in miniature in the course of twisting Chairman Mao’s nose. Lauren Bacall is Cathy Grainger, daughter to the compulsory boozy, exiled Western doctor. Her father has been shanghaied into service by the Communists and is later heard to have been executed, and Cathy’s determination to uncover the truth of his fate becomes a major tension between her and Wilder. Cathy, like her Asian comrades, quite often displays more depth of character and physical bravery than the nominal white superman, a tension Wellman seems to enjoy sustaining, as he probes the difference between types of action and how they relate to the motives of people taking them, pitting pragmatism and discrete risk-taking against a more emotionally imperative and ideologically necessary kind.
The plan for escape has been put together by the villagers under the leadership of Mr Tso (Paul Fix), and demands they forcibly drag along the prestigious and expansive Feng family, who, formerly prosperous capitalists, have signed on with the new regime. The Fengs are controlled by their solipsistic patriarch (Berry Kroger), who likes sitting in his once magnificent car, immobilised since Japanese soldiers took off with the engine, and looking through a Viewmaster in place of passing scenery. When the time comes for the escape, Old Feng is tied up and dragged aboard the boat. The steamer’s prospective engineer, Tack (Henry Nakamura), though Chinese, has been trained Stateside in the arts of steamship maintenance and amusing individualism, puffing away on cigars through hair-curling crises. Wilder sketches out a map of the coast from memory on the back of Cathy’s father’s medical diagrams, and has to hide from an army search in a coffin, only to break out on realising that he’s left his map where the searchers can find it. Such droll touches are mixed in with more awkward sexual comedy as Cathy and the bullish, happily unattached Wilder strike sparks which each resist, and, after he teasingly makes a play of trying to seduce Cathy’s hyperactive housemaid Susu (Joy Kim) to drive her off, Susu gives Cathy a bell to ring in case he tries the same thing with her, and the bell’s proximity to Cathy remains henceforth a barometer for how she’s feeling about Wilder. Kim has to spout an excruciating number of “likees”, but she also offers the film’s most energetic performance.
The film’s supporting players includes a surreally cast Anita Ekberg as one of the village girls who is last glimpsed romantically paired with Mazurski’s Han – now there’s one for the books – and a young James Hong as a Communist officer. Bacall was always a curiously contradictory actress, in that whilst she radiated a cool, autonomous charisma, she wielded that charisma best opposite strong male leads. She gives a lively performance, and she would more or less repeat the role in J. Lee Thompson’s version of this story in a subcontinent setting, North West Frontier (1958). Wilder soon has to save Cathy from the compulsory near-rape, skewering her assaulter with his own rifle’s bayonet. Once all these laboured preliminaries are dispensed of, and the villagers’ intricately planned escape begins, Blood Alley kicks up to another, far higher plain of visual exposition, and Wellman, in spite of the limited budget, fights heroically to present an epic adventure, finding sonorous poetry in a last lingering shot of the abandoned village’s waterfront and the villagers gazing back at their severance from an untold history. The intricacies of the plan, from faking the sunken wreck of the paddle boat designed to cover its theft, to trapping patrol boats with submerged traps painstakingly constructed over years, are fascinatingly detailed and dynamically depicted by Wellman. Wayne reportedly contributed to the direction, without credit, warming up for his thematically similar, but rather inferior, The Alamo (1960).
Cleverly orchestrated little sequences continue at a steady space, as the villagers are forced by rapidly dwindling resources to find wood for the boilers, and then food, after their stocks are rendered instantly inedible when it’s suspected one of Feng’s clan has poisoned the supplies in order to force a return: in a sequence that’s both riveting and disturbing, Wilder extracts the culprit in confronting the sullen collective of the Feng’s clan, testing the limits of their fanaticism by plucking a child out to be fed the poisoned food. The lad’s mother intervenes, and throws the meal in the face of the responsible man, and Wilder starts force-feeding him with tainted rice. Wellman’s touch intensifies in a sequence that pays tribute to his roots in silent cinema, as two of the Fengs attempt to assault Wilder as he steers the ship through a storm, Wilder fighting them off whilst trying to keep the vessel steady: knives are flashed, blows landed and Wilder bloodied, rain and sea whirl in elemental fury, and the whole sequence plays out in dumb-show expressivity as Tack sends men to Wilder's aid and Cathy is hurled aside by the frantic captain as he tries maintain control of his belleaguered vessel. Wellman proffers vignettes, like the children of the village trying to catch fish in a row upon the steamer’s deck, with a precision that looks forward to Kubrick’s on the thematically similar, if supposedly politically opposite, Spartacus (1960), in visually compressing the essence of the idea of a world of humanity on the move.
Like many of Wellman’s later films, Blood Alley is overtly preoccupied with figures wrenched out of the native habitats and thrust into violent and terrifying situations, as in Battleground (1949) and Westward the Women (1951), where, as Ford would later in 7 Women, he reconciled his own haute-macho perspective with unusual frontier feminism. This preoccupation would find cumulative expression in the melancholy autobiography of Lafayette Escadrille (1958), Wellman’s last film which, sadly, was fatally compromised by a low budget, an inconsistent tone, and studio interference, and caused Wellman to retire. Just as the story here evokes the painful separation of peoples from their homelands, West from East, and the modern world from the old, so too does Wellman’s handling have one eye on cinema past and another on cinema future. The sense of tactile and incidental detail is mixed with devices of Expressionism and anti-realism throughout, as in Wellman’s best films back to The Public Enemy (1931), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and Battleground, whilst the insistence on location shooting where possible, rather than filming on the back-lot, anticipates the realistic, procedural intensity of the on-coming American New Wave in the likes of Kubrick, Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964), and early Peckinpah.
Whilst the film lapses again into rhetorical facetiousness – Wayne pausing to wax lyrical over the dedication of his Chinese wards, and the Feng family splitting, the old man ranting in fury as most of his clan reject his leadership before a Red navy cannon shell permanently silences him – nonetheless Wellman continues to etch his cinema in lucid and exacting physical terms, culminating in a brilliantly staged finale in a ship’s graveyard, left behind by centuries of piracy in Blood Alley. Cathy, having ventured inland to find is her father is truly dead, has to dodge raining explosive shells as she hops from wreck to wreck, in a thunderous storm of splinters and splashes. The villagers then have to haul the boat, African Queen-style, through reedy swamps, in order to dodge pursuing warships, before finally slipping out to sea and over to Hong Kong, where their arrival meets a thunderous reception from a dazzled free world. Would that all Asian refugees in the following half-century had received such warm welcomes in the West.
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
An ill-fated sophomore directorial outing for Matthew Robbins, a productive screenwriter who has since become one of Guillermo Del Toro’s consistent collaborators, Dragonslayer was, along with the likes of The Black Hole (1979) and Tron (1982), a dispiriting failure for Disney, as the studio tried to broaden its market appeal. Specifically, the studio had tried to annex the older adolescent demographic, the one which Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark had so potently dazzled in the new age of the blockbuster, when the idea of the “family audience” seemed puzzlingly uncertain in taste and definition, and long before the “tween” demographic was to be successfully engineered. Dragonslayer floated to the top of my thoughts lately, with the release of its 21st century heirs: John Carter, the financially disappointing, but aesthetically satisfying, problem child for Disney, and The Hunger Games, which, like Dragonslayer’s portrait of by-lot sacrifice to appease the demons of the body politic, shares the Minotaur myth as an inspiration. Robbins' film mimics the familiar structure of a fantastic adventure where a young hero evolves into a monster-slaying titan, it actually upends and purposefully subverts many of that hoary story structure’s key motifs. The young hero cannot overcome the monster; his magically enhanced, brilliantly crafted weapon breaks at a crucial juncture; he cannot save the beautiful princess from a grisly fate; and he finishes up being not only merely a trigger for the annihilation of both mentor and nemesis, but bystander as polarised social systems, monarchic government and religious authority, compete ineffectually for the credit for slaying the beast, when really it has been a victory for the collaboration of ingenious, quasi-artistic outsiders.
In short, Robbins set out, with satirical purpose reminiscent of Richard Lester and Monty Python, to undercut much of the familiar, adolescent fantasy-gratification and audience-pleasing familiarity of the mythic tale as transmitted down to the early ‘80s multiplex. Add to this the fact that Dragonslayer is a pungently atmospheric, surprisingly gruesome movie that undoubtedly surprised and discomforted a lot of parents who took their kids to see it under the impression it would be something akin to a live-action The Sword In The Stone (1963), and it’s small wonder Dragonslayer finished up failing to make its budget back. That said, Dragonslayer is a mischievous, well-made, deeply enjoyable movie that falls short of greatness largely because it finally tries a little too hard to outsmart itself, leading to a visually dynamic, superbly crafted, but awkwardly anticlimactic climax. Peter MacNicol, later mostly known as an impish comic actor, here does yeoman service as Galen, callow young apprentice to Ralph Richardson’s loopy old sorcerer Ulrich. Ulrich is called into action by a delegation of peasants from a far-off kingdom, the puckishly named Urland, that lives in fear of an ancient, malevolent old dragon, Vermithrax, currently kept at bay by yearly sacrifices of tender young female virgins, chosen by lot from the kingdom’s proletariat, whilst the daughters of upper classes are kept surreptitiously safe. The delegation have been followed by their king’s enforcer, Tyrian (John Hallam), who is determined, with understandable motives but ugly methods, to sustain the sacrificial system that maintains peace and stability in the kingdom. He goads Ulrich into proving his powers; Ulrich obliges by handing him a knife to stick in his chest, and when the blade is pressed home, the sorcerer falls dead.
Richardson’s seriocomic poise is sorely missed afterwards, but the sublime gag of this twist is mediated by the cryptic meanings of Ulrich’s foresight and instructions, which nag at Galen until events reveal their purpose to him. Galen and Ulrich’s grumbling servant Hodge (Sydney Bromley) decide to travel with the delegation back to their homeland because Galen is sure he has mastered his mentor’s teachings, and the magic amulet he left behind, sufficiently to combat the beast. Tyrian kills Hodge, mistaking him for the replacement dragon-slayer, and Hodge, with his dying breaths, hands over Galen their master’s ashes, to be carried to journey’s end. Galen, when the band arrive at the beast’s lair, tries to seal the dragon up by magically bringing the mountain above down on the lair’s entrance. The spirit of physical and sexual metamorphosis so often vital to archaic myth is here cleverly melded with a more contemporary hint of gender politics, as the leader of the delegation, the forceful Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), proves to be a young woman in disguise, having been brought up as a man to protect her from the lottery. Galen’s accidental discovery of her femininity comes when he jumps into a pond where she’s bathing, cueing a very funny fragment of nudity. This moment combines the film’s specifically cheeky take on classical myth, with dashes of Diana spied on bathing by Actaeon, and Melusine spied on by her husband, where the violation of feminine privacy takes on taboo qualities, with a contemporary perspective on how gender is constructed by its apparel. "She was twice the man of anyone in the village, and now she's twice the woman!" Valerian's father (Emrys James) crows. The consequences of being "outed" are also made clear, for communally-defined identities fixes individuals into roles that must played whether they like it or not: subsequently, Valerian has to join the lottery.
After Galen’s avalanche-provoking ploy seems to have worked in trapping the beast, Valerian emerges into the celebratory dances in a dress, provoking momentary bemusement and wonder until Galen accepts her, in a moment that tingles with transformative sensual qualities. Elements of Dragonslayer anticipate the Harry Potter series, including the uneasily paternal relationship between Galen and Ulrich which prefigures Harry’s with Dumbledore, and there’s a similar implicit link between not only magic and the metamorphoses of adolescence, but the notion of magician as artist and outside vision in a society. Ulrich retains a twilight-hued memory of how the dragons, of which the benighted Vermithrax might be the last, just as Ulrich could be the last true sorcerer, and the binary relationship of the two, as forces of benign and malevolent wonder of an extreme, superhuman degree, is continually stressed. They are also contrasted with the two poles for maintaining a stable human world, being, again, religion and government: the age of wonder is engaged in the last act of self-annihilation, from which the prosaic rises. But far from the colourful, easily enjoyable tone of the Harry Potter series and most other films in the fantasy genre, Dragonslayer actually takes up the lead of Raiders of the Lost Ark in cross-pollinating fantasy with aspects of the horror genre. In one grim sequence, Vermithrax is served up his virgin sacrifice (Yolande Palfrey) for the year; bedecked in flowers and white linen, she fights to slip out of her manacles, tearing his wrists to bloody messes, and does get free, but still can’t escape the colossal, terrifying beast whose awe and strength is neatly captured in a rising crane shot mimicking its perspective in drawing a breath before releasing its fiery spume, and Carl Dreyer’s unflinching depiction of Joan of Arc’s fate is recreated in miniature.
As the film unfolds, religion is quickly brushed aside as Ian McDiarmid’s ranting priest is roasted by Vermithrax, and government is embodied by Cassiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), who set up the lottery system in the hope it could hold the beast off until it died, and Tyrian mercilessly enforces the system because he feels in lieu of an effective response to the dragon, anything done to provoke it is merely false hope and, worse, destructive, as the beast’s retaliations are dreadful. Galen’s first attempt to kill Vermithrax merely proves Tyrian’s point, but Cassiodorus’ solution proves filled with iniquities, as his own daughter Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) and others from the higher class are surreptitiously left out of the lottery draw, and the solution has encouraged a culture of fear, false security, repression, and ritual murder, made perfectly, grimly clear in a sequence that depicts the hideous fate of the latest of the by-lot sacrifices. Eyre’s performance is both hilarious and pathetic, as a king who can think of nothing more forceful than to bleat “The lottery is invalid!” when he realises the self-sacrificial switch his daughter has pulled, and then, having imperiously chastised and imprisoned Galen previously for his dragon-slaying efforts, is reduced to begging him to try and save his daughter, as common sacrifice suddenly becomes personal and thus unbearable to the self-described beneficent ruler whose system fairly sates the danger.
Elspeth, for her part, is shocked when Galen, hurled into Cassiodorus’ dungeon for his presumptions, tells her the common belief about the exemption. She ensures that the next drawing consists entirely of her own name, and serves herself up with determination as the sacrificial lamb, refusing to be saved by Galen – a ruthlessly clever twist on a theme of privileged guilt over being saved from the worst facts in a society, and the kinds of act this leads to. So, the Princess goes down be to lunch meat for Vermithrax’s offspring. This pays off in a sequence that is both potentially traumatising, for young kids shocked at this development and the unexpected goriness as the larvae nibble away at her body, but also darkly humorous and bracing for the harder adult heart, in its cool assault on cliché. Galen is instead matched with the protean, peasant-class Valerian, in a pointed defloration of the classic theme. Dragonslayer is consistently infused with Robbins’ and co-writer Hal Barwood’s attempt to present a more probing, ironic, and contemporary take on the simple, elemental symbolism of the St George tale, trying to elucidate blind spots of power, gender, and hierarchy inherent in such mythology, and deliberately mediate the standard boy-becomes-man, apprentice-becomes-master motif by having Galen fail, but honourably, still validated when he resurrects Ulrich, who assures him he did well, and will become stronger. The potential moral and physical cost of battling the evil of the dragon is invoked, and by inference the idea of all warfare “in a good cause”, but the idea that evil can be escaped by piecemeal concession is also finally ridiculed.
Robbins, in spite of his scurrilous, antiheroic tilt, nonetheless constantly achieves visuals, in confluence with cinematographer Derek Vanlint and the effects team, that strike to the heart of mythic fantasy. A superbly visualised sequence, in which Valerian’s blacksmith father hauls the specialised weapon, the Dragonslayer, he constructed but was never game to use, from where he hid it in under a cascade, sees water and steel conjoined in the same motif of purity that drives Boorman’s concurrent Excalibur (1981), before Galen helps to reforge the spear with magical strength. Galen’s adventure in the dragon’s lair and his fight with the beast is excellently realised in fiery stygian hues and clever pre-CGI effects, particularly when a shot that has recurred throughout, where the dragon rises up behind a poor puny human, monster mostly concealed by the foreground figure, is finally presented uncurtailed, and the full impact of the dragon’s glowering head looking down on potential prey is indelible. The finale presents an ebullient landscape of swirling storm clouds, astral bodies in eclipse, and the swooping form of the dragon hovering darkly and apocalyptically over the blasted earth, in shots seemingly inspired by Milton, and others are the stuff Murnau, Lang, or DeMille could have conjured. Alex North’s score, with its thunderous horns, promises high adventure and infernal threat.
Still, Dragonslayer doesn’t achieve classic status, because ultimately its modishness starts to feel forced, and the narrative doesn’t quite resolve with the true, epic force of the best films of this kind. MacNicol never really works as a more eccentric Mark Hamill type, lacking charisma and dash, and Clarke, whilst handling Valerian’s tough-guy/girl act with aplomb, sounds, like MacNicol, far too contemporary and out of place in the entirely Anglophonic cast, as if Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s Streets of Fire (1984) tomboy has been somehow transplanted into ye olde Europa. Robbins also, in spite of his intelligence in building mood and individual sequences, consistently reveals uncertainty in how to structure his film, for instance burying the impactful sacrifice scene nearly a half-hour in, failing to sustain a properly intensifying rhythm, and uncertain depicting sustained action. Galen’s duel with Tyrian is clumsily staged, and the final confrontation of the resurrected Ulrich with the dragon, which anticipates the stand-off of Gandalf and Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), fails to truly thrill in spite of the bravura staging, because the story has emptied out its bag of tricks by this stage; the slightly cynical tweaks of formula ultimately leave it without a clear stake or sense of urgency. Even Galen’s tortured moment of having to smash his amulet that has sustained his power and destroy his mentor passes without much real sense of difficulty and severance. Still, there’s pathos in the sight of the dazed and sorry Cassiodorus shoving his sword into the dragon’s smouldering corpse with a chamberlain announcing his victory over the beast, whilst the newly burgeoning Christian flock also claims the triumph, thus leaving the secular and spiritual authority equally, apparently impotent, but also locked in a war for preeminence in influencing people now that magic, the potential of the creative both good and ill in the protean state of the world-in-making, have been banished from the land, and the young lovers leave them to it. Dragonslayer is by and large a vivid, smart, provocative, memorable take on a genre that has, especially in the past few years, fallen too often into sludgy special effects parades aligned with shallow, lazy, and derivative storylines, and a lack of any kind of bravery in testing the limits of what audiences expect from such fare, as anyone who’s sat through the likes of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) can testify.