In a decade that would eventually become overcrowded with fantasy, Dragonslayer still stands out as something special. A co-production between Paramount and Walt Disney, the movie combines the kind of '70s and '80s Disney fantasy with much more adult sensibilities. It's another of many genre movies from the '80s that's essentially appropriate for kids, but which does not talk down to them or shy away from scaring them. That's the reason that these movies have lasted in the collective conscious of us '80s kids -- they're not just disposable computer-drawn cartoons about wacky animals that talk and fart. We responded to them in ways we probably didn't understand at the time. They captured our imaginations. They shook us up. Dragonslayer does those things.
So let's just say this up front: the movie's dragon, called Vermithrax Pejorative, is the best dragon to ever appear in a live-action film (the animated category is a toss up between How to Train Your Dragon and Sleeping Beauty). Better than Dragonheart ("Entrapment is what cops do to dragons!" - Sean Connery). Better than Reign of Fire. Better than D-Wars, because no shit. Vermithrax works because he is angry and he is deadly -- and because he is a practical effect, not a weightless CGI creation. Writer/director Matthew Robbins wisely uses the dragon sparingly for nearly two-thirds of the movie's running time; taking a page from Jaws, the beast is glimpsed only in pieces. When it is finally revealed, it's an awesome practical effect. The puppeteering, especially on the head as it moves, makes the dragon feel totally real and believable. No attempt is made to explain its actions. It is not misunderstood. It is not protecting any young (well, there are young, but no motivations are stated explicitly the way they would be nowadays). It's just a big, scary monster.
Like anything that's deeply rooted in nostalgia, a lot of the movies I talk about on It Came from the '80s exist as half-formed memories for a lot of us. They're things we saw on cable 25 years ago that can only be recalled like dreams -- flashes of a scene or an image that we can conjure up without necessarily understanding its context or placement in the larger story. And because so many of the PG (and, later, PG-13)-rated movies of the '80s -- several of which were essentially aimed at children -- feature at least one scene of terrifying imagery or shocking violence, THOSE ARE THE THINGS I REMEMBER. Even when I can't recall anything else about a movie, there's a single sequence or a single image that's burned into my brain (leaving me, yes, SCARRED FOR LIFE) and stands out after the rest has faded away. Though I hadn't seen Poltergeist in 20 years, I couldn't shake the image of the guy pulling the skin off his face in the bathroom mirror. There are others: the little podling's face sinking in as he's drained of his essence in The Dark Crystal. Klytus's eyes bulging out after he falls on the spikes in Flash Gordon. Toht's face melting off in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In Dragonslayer, it's the foot scene.
(SPOILERS for Dragonslayer coming up)
Princess Elspeth has agreed to be the first member of royalty to be sacrificed to the dragon. Though Galen attempts to rescue her, seeing her death as a futile and pointless gesture, she makes a choice to enter into the dragon's den, where she is promptly attacked (off screen) by several baby dragons. Galen enters the cave to find her lifeless body on the ground...only her ankle is being graphically CHEWED UPON by baby dragons. It's gross. Worse, there is a moment right before Galen kills the babies where one of the little dragons BITES HER ENTIRE FOOT OFF on camera. This is in a PG movie. Produced by Disney. For many years, I couldn't remember a single thing about Dragonslayer, but that image has never left my head. It was filed away in my brain only as "that movie where the girl's foot gets eaten."
There are so many elements of Dragonslayer that feel so much more mature and sophisticated than any comparable movie would be in 2012, from the level of violence and terror to the religious and political subtext to the way that Princess Elspeth is allowed to die even though she sees the error of her kingdom's ways and attempts to do the right thing. Any contemporary movie would repay this conscience by allowing her to live, because the possibility of such things is what audiences want to believe. The movie subverts the tropes of traditional heroism, too, by undercutting Galen and rendering him, basically, impotent during the movie's climax. That probably wouldn't happen in a modern movie, either, because no movie star would agree to play a character like that.
There were plenty of terrible genre movies in the '80s. I'm sure that right now, I'm still riding a high and excited about the potential to champion the movies that people may have forgotten but which are worth rediscovering. That makes it easy to focus on a movie like Dragonslayer, which is undoubtedly flawed but still totally special. If you haven't seen it already, track it down. It's worth seeing just for that badass dragon.
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