Dragonslayer (Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray)

A young wizarding apprentice is sent to kill a dragon which has been devouring girls from a nearby kingdom.

March 20, 2023 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Dragonslayer is another in what was the seemingly endless movies of the 80’s that had some sort of “Dungeons & Dragons” influence to it. It’s ironic that years later, that same sort of movie would be raking in cash hand over fist and even become nominated for Best Picture along the way (I’m referring to Lord of the Rings, of course). But comparing Dragonslayer and Lord of the Rings isn’t an apples to apples comparison. Every effect is actually done with stunts and models as opposed to computers and I’m reminded of a famous quote “Uh, these effects aren’t very special…”. Then again, that’s also the film’s saving grace and it scores very high on the “camp value” meter as well. Set during the medieval times, we’re reminded of an era in history that we didn’t really think ever existed. Was there ever such a thing as a dragon? Did we really sacrifice virgins twice a year? Can you really kill a dragon with a sword and a shield? Regardless of what philosophical questions you might have, suffice it to say that the movie won’t answer all of them, but what we have here is a mildly-entertaining movie with some cheesy special effects. But what is it all about?

We find a sorcerer (Ralph Richardson) who is being approached by the local villagers as they need his help to fight a dragon. If they don’t sacrifice a virgin twice a year, the dragon will destroy the village. Almost as soon as we meet him, the sorcerer dies. However, the sorcerer’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNichol) takes the job. Galen casts a spell that causes an avalanche and supposedly kills the dragon. We know it doesn’t, however, or else the movie would only be about twenty minutes long. Galen’s new friend, he finds out, is a woman brought up to be a man so as not to get sacrificed to the dragon. But the town now believes the dragon to be dead and she feels is necessary to parade around in a dress (and wouldn’t you know it, she’s very attractive). The dragon makes it’s appearance and is rightfully ticked off and now it’s up to Galen to fight the dragon and kill him once and for all. Probably the scene I remember the most is in which Galen hides behind the shield made of scales of the dragon and a sword forged by his father. Too cool. Dragonslayer, more likely than not, has it’s share of a cult following and Paramount has given it the bare bones (er, bare scales) treatment.

Video: How does it look?

It’s been a while, a long while, since I sat down to watch this movie. I don’t even think it had a Blu-ray release, but nevertheless it’s now gotten the 4K treatment. All is well? Sort of. I don’t think I’ve given this film a second thought since I reviewed it on DVD in the early 2000’s. That’s not a knock on the film, rather I “do my thing” and move onto the next in my “to be reviewed” pile. Paramount has been good to some of its catalog classics and I was curious to see how this one has aged and what it might look like with added resolution, HDR, and so forth. As it turns out, not too bad. It’s not that great either, but a bit better than I was expecting. There’s a bump in detail for obvious reasons, colors seem a bit brighter and bolder and the HDR does help with some of the darker scenes (of which there are many). The 2.35:1 HEVC 4K image does the best with the source material. It’s a step up, for sure, but the bar was set pretty low to begin with.

Audio: How does it sound?

A campy movie from the early 80’s gets a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Is all right and fair in the world? Most likely not, but I do have to say that this is a major improvement over the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix from the DVD. Again, for a film of this age, we’ve certainly heard better and while this mix does have its advantages, it’s not going to shake the room. Dialogue sounds clear and clean and though the surrounds aren’t very active, they kick in at the right moment (and fans of the movie will know that moment). All in all, the audio isn’t disappointing, but by today’s standards it can’t compare.

Supplements: What are the extras?

To Paramount’s credit, there are a few new supplements (the previously-released DVD was sans features).

  • Audio Commentary – New to this edition is a brand new audio commentary with Director Matthew Robbins and Guillermo del Toro (who seems like a good fit with this one). We see the long-lasting appeal of this film and del Toro’s comments, through this thick accent, are pretty spot on. Any film that’s several decades old that’s getting a new commentary track is certainly worth listening to.
  • Screen Tests – 15 minutes’ worth of some very rough footage showing the main stars of the film. Nothing too mind-blowing here.
  • The Slayer of All Dragons – Probably the best supplement on the disc is this five part documentary. We step back in time with director/co-writer Matthew Robbins, dragon supervisor Phil Tippett, and ILM’s visual effects master Dennis Muren as they recount the journey from concept to screen.
    • Welcome to Cragganmore – A look back at the impact of Star Wars and its visual effects on Hollywood, the origin of the movie and its screenplay, and the film’s casting.
    • A Long Way to Urland – Pre-production begins in England as the film takes shape. The young filmmakers seek gritty medieval realism through the production design, cinematography, and costumes.
    • Vermithrax Pejorative – The filmmakers take on the daunting task of bringing a dragon to life like never before, utilizing every ounce of movie magic available including Phil Tippett’s breakthrough go-motion animation, cutting-edge practical animatronics, visual effects, and compositing.
    • Into the Lake of Fire – Production woes at every turn, horrific baby dragons, and the challenge of creating Vermithrax’s iconic lair plague the filmmakers. Phil Tippett offers a mini-masterclass on crafting powerful creature performance through detailed animation.
    • The Final Battle – The team faces the unique challenges of the film’s stage-bound climax, filmed entirely against a blue screen. Director Matthew Robbins looks back on the incredible work done in the final stages of film editing, the beautifully dense sound design, and Alex North’s amazing score, which utilized pieces from his legendary unused 2001: A Space Odyssey score.
  • Theatrical Trailer

The Bottom Line

Dragonslayer might have been a flash in the pan when it was released back in 1981, but it’s got legs and fans. I don’t know if I’ll sit down and watch this again anytime soon, but for true fans of the movie we’ve got new supplements a new audio commentary, better picture and sound. It’s hard to argue with this one.

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