SxSJunkfood Cinema: Dragonslayer

By  · Published on March 19th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; I am not Banksy. But like that ninja/superhero street artist, I appear from nowhere and deface your perfectly good internet walls with my tasteless taste in movies. I will eviscerate history’s most problem-laden cinematic missteps before circumventing any notions of a favorable reputation by singing the film’s dubious praises. To drive the proverbial nail into the coffin, and into your aorta, I will then pair the movie with an appropriate junk food selection to ruin your swimsuit season.

South by Southwest is a film festival that carries with it a debauchery only outdone by the Mos Eisley-level of scum and villainy that is Fantastic Fest. With the daunting schedule of pounding beers, drinking lager in line for various films, and taking a break from running from venue to venue with an ice cold brew, it can be really hard to grant the same level of attention and diligence to one’s weekly features that one normally does. But luckily for me, the Ain’t It Cool News secret screening during SxSW provided the perfect fodder for this week’s column.

This week’s snack: Dragonslayer.

What Makes It Bad?

Dragonslayer is a fantasy epic that had the grave misfortune of being released in the same year as truck-loads of far better fantasy epics that surpass Dragonslayer on almost every conceivable level. Excalibur, Clash of the Titans, Time Bandits, Escape from New York (oh yeah, I said it). Despite the fact that an overwhelming number of those films listed were British, Dragonslayer manages to be the most boring fantasy film released in ’81. It’s so poorly paced that I wonder if the editor didn’t mistakenly think the film was called Drag-On-Slower. The brutally comprehensive exposition scene at the film’s opening has all the thrill and excitement of the waiting room at the orthodontist’s office and it’s a solid three and a half hours (give or take for hyperbole) before anything even remotely adventurous occurs. But at least there is a great deal of commentary on the political ethics of the monarchy…you know, for the kids. In the theater it became hard to distinguish the distant roar of the dragon and the cacophony of geek snores in the auditorium.

Whoever decided Peter MacNicol was a leading man at any age was booted from the movie industry long ago and is currently head of operations for Chuck E. Cheese District 17-Montana. The thing that bothers me most about him is how obnoxiously soft-spoken he is. It’s almost as if he heard he was going to star in a Disney-produced film and immediately convinced himself he would be playing a talking ferret or a magically androgynous naked mole rat. It reminds me of all the bad Italian horror movies I love wherein the assignment of dubbing every young male child went to an adult female actress. What I’m basically saying is that Peter MacNicol sounds like a little boy dubbed by a woman; a touch distracting I feel. Pair that diminutive voice with a face the size of a taco truck and the butch physique of Edie Deezen and you start to understand how erroneous this piece of casting truly is.

Why I Love It!

The true star of the film is actually not Peter MacNicol at all, but instead the titular dragon. Dragonslayer features the absolute best practical dragon effects I have ever seen. It towers, it breathes, and its appendages are frightening enough to be their own monsters. The flying effects are also damned impressive and hold up surprisingly well to this day, even projected in 35mm on the big screen. I enjoy that, despite the fact that Industrial Light and Magic handled much of the effects, the dragon has a distinctly Jim Henson quality to it, effectively making it the scariest Henson puppet to never be made by Henson studios. The climactic battle at the end, and the resulting pile of fake dragon innards, is why so many of us have such a resounding reverence for this flick.

You have to admire the balls Dragonslayer displays. This is a film produced by Disney that borrows heavily from the ancient St. George dragon mythology. Why is that impressive? Because it means this a Disney film featuring young virgins being sacrificed to the dragon via a lottery. It would be one thing if she were just roasted and that was it. But instead the girl is blasted with fire and then her corpse turns up in pieces at the end of the film being slowly picked apart and eaten by baby dragons. Yeah kids, and you thought Bambi’s mom getting shot fucked you up. Not only that, but Dragonslayer wears a very subversive subtext about religion on its sleeve. The story takes place during this monumental crisis of eras. The magic and wizardry that defined the Medieval period, at least as far as literature is concerned, is beginning to give way to the oppressive doctrine of Christianity. The film takes a very satirical position toward the church and routinely shows men of the cloth hoisted upon their own petard (one such scene featured the incineration of Ian “Emperor Palpatine” McDiarmid. Apparently the dragon found his abundance of faith disturbing).

Seeing this film on the big screen during SxSW was one of the festival’s high points for me. With all the young geeks in the room still clamoring in whispers, hoping that, despite all the announcements to the contrary, the featured film would be Sucker Punch or Thor, I was so happy to see AICN once again demonstrate a commitment to spotlighting the great genre films of the past. Having it introduced by Guillermo del Toro was no small bonus.

Junkfood Pairing: Dorito’s Mr. Dragon’s Fire Chips

Are they only available in Japan? Perhaps. But if you’re lucky enough to snag a bag, suck down as many of these wasabi-flavored infernos as possible. When you’ve built up enough concentrated heat in your gob, expunge it onto anyone in the theater whose snoring interferes with your slow, methodical enjoyment of this less-than-brisk, but oh so awesome fantasy flick.

Fight through the heartburn and enjoy more Junkfood Cinema

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.