Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson
Director: Matthew Robbins
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: None
Length: 109 Minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2003


Film ***

Back in the early 80s, adventure fantasies were as frequent at the multiplex as perhaps any other genre, it seemed. It's important to note that this was a time of post-Star Wars, when movies that featured elaborate action scenes and special effects were on the rise. Movies of this sort consisted mainly of stories of warriors dueling to the death with a bloodthirsty beast or villain of some sort. 

Such an example is Dragonslayer, an exceptionally well crafted medieval-set adventure that you could easily be considered a film that paved the way for future dragon battles like Dragonheart and the leader of the pack, Reign of Fire. In addition, the movie has also earned sort of a cult status. Released in 1981, Dragonslayer was financed by two studios, Paramount and Disney, and with a budget of around twenty million, which was considered a big budget by then, the film tanked and found its audience on video, as well as various television airings, such is the case of many forgotten and underrated gems.

Set in medieval times, the centerpiece of the story involves a battle of wits between an aging sorcerer and a ferocious fire-breathing dragon. The sorcerer, known as Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), along with his reliable apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), is asked at the request of a group of travelers to visit their homeland, where the dragon in question has tormented several of the townspeople. Aware of his powers, the leader of the delegation, Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), believes that Ulrich is the key to defeating the fire-breathing beast, though it is clearly a task which will require more than one to carry out.

If this sounds like your basic run-of-the-mill fight against the dragon battle picture, Dragonslayer does happen to have a plot element that makes this scenario a bit more interesting. The village which is being tormented by the dragon has an eccentric system going for it known as a lottery, and not the kind of lottery that benefits education. This lottery is a system which operates yearly, where a woman is sacrificed as bait for our monstrous friend. The notion is even further examined when it turns out that Valerian, disguised as a young man, is really…well…a young woman who has concealed her identity to elude the laws of the so-called lottery.

As a result of unfortunate circumstances occurring, it is Galen who is eventually given the task of slaying the beast. The young apprentice has never had the chance to prove himself as a bona fide warrior, but is soon faced with a life or death challenge that will no doubt play a part in him evolving from a boy to a man. Peter MacNicol, whom you'll probably recognize from the bumbling roles he played in Ghostbusters II, as well as Bean the Movie, is believable in this role, since he does fit the look of the wienie-sized character, for starters. By the end of the movie, though, you will believe that such a warrior is standing before you, with a bit of help from magic and sorcery.

For a movie released in 1981, the technical artistry and special effects of Dragonslayer are exceptional and quite impressive. The dragon itself is given a menacingly memorable look to it. Although the PG-13 rating wasn't issued until three years after this movie's release, looking back, I'm kind of amazed that the rating wasn't conceived following with this release. The dragon's attacks on his victims are, at times, quite intense. One of the first casualties can even be seen roasting up close, even though it's only for a brief second. Seeing as the film was partially financed by family-friendly Disney, I'm somewhat amazed that some of the scenes in the movie actually made it into the cut.

Although I wouldn't rank Dragonslayer as the absolute best dragon movie (that honor goes to Reign of Fire), it remains an easily enjoyable adventure twenty years down the road following its initial release.

Video ***1/2

Having the chance to finally view this movie in its widescreen format following so many TV viewings, I was also overcome by the sheer quality that Paramount managed to apply to this release. This year, in particular, has been a terrific year for the studio because they have shown a high level of improvement in terms of adding more quality to their catalogue titles from the 70s and 80s, which during the last couple of years has varied from about-OK to near-poor. With Dragonslayer, Paramount has issued one of their better looking discs for a film from this time period, which is something to be enormously proud of. The anamorphic picture is endlessly sharp and enhances the wide-eyed production design by Elliot Scott. The visual effects and battle scenes also benefit greatly in this near-flawed presentation.

Audio ****

Talk about being blown away. Paramount's 5.1 soundtrack is simply superb, especially for a movie of this stature. The level of range is endless throughout the movie, with both front and rear stages getting equal share of sound power, which pay off terrifically in the action scenes and the late Alex North's pulsating music score, which alone induces a strong instance of aural power. A grand presentation worthy of the sound of a dragon's breath, indeed!

Features (Zero Stars)



Though deprived of extras, Dragonslayer is worthy of being added to one's collection because of a sold transfer of an early 80s cult classic. Priced under $20, this disc is actually a case of more bang for your buck.