We Shall Live and the Beast Shall Die – Dragonslayer (1981) 4K Ultra HD

The qualities that caused Dragonslayer to fail at the box office in 1981 are very likely the same reasons the film has endured for so long as a cult item with many passionate fans. Released at a time when what passed for movies in the fantasy-adventure genre were typically jokey and juvenile in nature (see Willow from a few years later – or better yet, don’t), Dragonslayer was much darker and more mature in tone, even frightening. Not helping matters, the picture was a co-production between Paramount and Disney, and was released under the Disney brand in many parts of the world. As such, older viewers were disinclined to go see what they assumed would be a kiddie flick about fairies and unicorns and other silly nonsense, while the younger ones who went may have come out traumatized.

The fantasy genre has far less stigma attached to it today, of course. The phenomenal success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy opened the door for grown-ups to enjoy movies about wizards battling dragons just as much as their kids do, while HBO’s Game of Thrones directly (and exclusively) courted an adult audience. In some ways, Dragonslayer was a precursor to projects like those. If not quite as successful as they were, either financially or artistically, the film has merits worth appreciating and holds up better than many similar movies of the era, even some that made more money.

Dragonslayer (1981) - Peter MacNicol & Ralph Richardson
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Matthew Robbins
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: Blu-ray
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

In a fictional medieval kingdom, a group of traumatized peasants seek out the aged sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to beg for his help in dispatching a dragon. Their king has struck an unholy pact with the creature and regularly sacrifices young virgin girls (except his own daughter, naturally) to appease its voracious hunger. The people have had enough of this cruel practice, and Ulrich may be the last man with any chance of slaying the beast

Unfortunately, Ulrich dies before he can begin the journey, leaving only his apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), to fill his shoes. Galen is young, inexperienced, and not particularly strong – either physically or with magic, which mostly amounts to a bunch of sleight-of-hand tricks. But he’s also cocky and eager to make a name for himself as the next great sorcerer, especially if it will impress the tomboyish Valerian (Caitlin Clarke). With a magical amulet he inherited from his master and a heavy spear forged by Valerian’s blacksmith father as his only effective weapons, Galen sets off on this quest, determined to figure something out by the time he gets to the dragon’s lair. As he should have expected, however, attempts to put a quick and easy end to the fiend only serve to make it angry and vindictive.

The dragon itself, an imposing monster with the colorful name Vermithrax Pejorative, looms like a spectre over most of the film but isn’t glimpsed until an hour in or seen in full until near the end. His appearance is easily the highlight of the whole movie. A mix of animatronics and “go motion” miniatures by Industrial Light & Magic wizards including Phil Tippett, Ken Ralston, and Dennis Muren, the design and effects work remain impressive even four decades later. The seamless perfection of modern CGI may best it in some respects, but the creature has real personality here, and the film sets a very effective tone to make its appearance as intimidating as possible.

Where the movie falters, regrettably, is in its key casting. A valued comedic actor in his later career, the nerdy Peter MacNicol is far too contemporary a presence in the period setting. Even accounting for the way the script provides him a character arc from charlatan to hero, he’s a little annoying and feels out of place. If the rest of the movie has grabbed you enough, this shouldn’t be too difficult to let slide, but I can also understand why the character throws some viewers right out of the picture, considering his central focus and amount of screen time.

Dragonslayer ultimately tells a rather simple story, with a frustrating amount of dawdling around to fill screen time before getting to the part everyone actually paid to see. It may not be quite the neglected masterpiece some of its fans insist, but it’s a fairly compelling adventure tale and a visual effects landmark that still conjures real movie magic.

Dragonslayer (1981) - Caitlin Clarke

The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Fans clamored for Dragonslayer to be released on Blu-ray for years, but the film remained limited to DVD quality on physical media until now. Having finally relented, Paramount brings the title straight to 4K Ultra HD. While a standard 1080p Blu-ray is also available separately, the 4K releases unfortunately do not come bundled with a Blu-ray disc in the package.

I opted for the SteelBook edition, which has striking new art on the case and comes with a cardboard slipcover featuring vintage art as well. Note that some buyers have reported SteelBook copies missing the Digital Copy code promised on the packaging, but mine did come with a code that I was able to successfully redeem at VUDU. Those without such luck are advised to contact Paramount and fill out a request form for the missing code.

Dragonslayer has difficult photography that makes it a challenge to transfer to home video. Much of the film was shot in soft focus, further hampered by use of gauzy mist filters and optical composites that left the movie looking downright blurry and heavily grainy even on theater screens back in the day. While that softness aided in hiding seams in the special effects, prior video masters were borderline unwatchable, especially on standard-definition formats.

Paramount has a dicey track record for video quality in recent years, but the studio clearly put a lot of good faith effort into this new 4K remaster of Dragonslayer. Although the 2.39:1 image may still be fairly soft, it feels like we can finally see every bit of detail captured on the camera negative. Grain is present throughout but not obtrusive. (If any digital grain management was performed, it doesn’t call attention to itself.) The HDR grade is subtle but feels naturalistic. Dark scenes that were impenetrably muddy in the past are much better resolved now. Colors are “earthy” and often drab but appear accurate.

Somewhat controversially, the studio has used digital tools to tweak some of the original visual effects. No, none of the puppets or go-motion miniatures were replaced with CGI. However, visible matte lines and other small errors have been painted out of some scenes. Though purists may balk at this, most viewers will either not notice or will appreciate the decision. The effects still look like they were produced in 1981, just cleaned up a little from some of the analog limitations of the day.

Dragonslayer (1981) 4K Ultra HD SteelBook

Along similar lines, the movie’s soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Atmos and Paramount has neglected to provide any of the original sound mixes. (Depending on the venue, the film played in Dolby Stereo, 4-track VistaSonic surround, or 70mm 6-track options in 1981.) I’m not qualified to tell whether any of the original sound effects were replaced with new substitutes, but at the very least, it sounds to me like the entire track was pulled apart and extensively rebuilt to create a convincing three-dimensional soundscape.

As far as that goes, the work was done very well and I have no complaints with the results, even if I would have preferred an original track also be included as an alternative. The Atmos audio is very expansive and atmospheric, with plenty of aggressive surround and overhead activity. Fidelity is crisp and clear, though I felt that the Alex North musical score could use a little more dynamic range. The movie opens with blaring horns that unfortunately fail to dig as low as I might have hoped or expected. Yet at the same time, other sound effects such as the dragon and the rockslide can be quite rumbly.

The highlight of the supplement package is a new audio commentary by director Matthew Robbins and Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. If you’re wondering what the latter has to do with Dragonslayer, know that del Toro is an enthusiastic fan of the film, and also that Robbins has collaborated with him as a screenwriter on a few movies, including last year’s stop-motion Pinocchio. Following that are an hour-long documentary called The Slayer of All Dragons, a theatrical trailer (cropped to 1.85:1), and fifteen minutes of original screen tests with a different actor playing the sorcerer Ulrich.

Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from a 1080p SDR streaming edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s