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I don't know how many of you have read any of my previous reviews, but if you have you might know that I'm a tad on the nostalgic side. Since the advent of DVD I've made it my mission to track down every childhood favourite possible, from classics such as Star Wars and Ghostbusters, to lesser known films such as Krull and Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. 1981’s Dragonslayer was one of the last titles on my list, so I was excited to be given the opportunity to review this Paramount Home Entertainment release.

Dragonslayer

Feature


Set in a long-forgotten age of magic, Dragonslayer sees a horrifying, fire-breathing dragon—Vermithrax Pejorative—terrorising the British countryside. The only hope of stopping the beast rests with an aging sorcerer named Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson), but when he is unexpectedly killed the task falls to his young apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol of Ghostbusters II and Ally McBeal fame).

Galen makes the long and arduous trip to the kingdom of Urland, where he learns of a barbaric lottery that routinely offers up female virgins to appease the beast (unless, of course, you happen to be the King’s daughter and therefore exempt). Seeking to put an end to the creature’s foul reign, a cocky Galen uses the power of his old master’s enchanted amulet to entomb Vermithrax in its lair. But, as is often the case when brash apprentices try to deal with situations beyond their abilities, Galen fails in his initial attempt to kill the dragon and his actions lead to terrible reprisals that will have far-reaching consequences for all…

Dragonslayer is a relatively entertaining sword and sorcery adventure that lacks the big name talent required to take advantage of the material. In particular, I feel that the central roles of Galen and Valerian definitely required stronger actors. It not that the performances are particularly bad, just, well, ordinary. Still, there are strong performances elsewhere (Sir Ralph Richardson for example) and the go-motion effects used to render Vermithrax still hold up well when compared to today’s computerised efforts. In fact, aside from a few obvious blue screen moments, the dragon looks more realistic than most recent CGI attempts at bringing mythical creatures to life.

Dragonslayer
What really surprised me was just how violent the film is, especially considering that Disney is behind the whole thing. I found it refreshing to watch a film with a more adult approach to the fantasy genre, and Dragonslayer is reminiscent of Krull when it comes to depicting graphic, often disturbing imagery (there are even a couple of brief ‘nudie’ shots as well). To be honest it’s nothing that’s likely to upset the average well-adjusted child, but the sight of a baby dragon gnawing the foot off of a corpse is going to shock your grandmother and probably isn’t suitable for toddlers either.

 

Video


Dragonslayer arrives in its theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 and is enhanced for 16:9 displays. The first thing that struck me was the cleanliness of the print, considering the film was originally released in 1981. I did spot the occasional nick or piece of dirt here and there, but the transfer still compares very favourably with a number of much newer releases. Colour rendition is particularly noteworthy, contrast remains reasonably consistent throughout, and while blacks aren't as inky as they could be, shadow delineation is good. To be fair the ‘greyish’ blacks could have much to do with the manner in which the film was photographed (using completely natural light, at least if the IMDb is to be believed). I’m actually struggling to think of any significant faults with the transfer. Ok, so it's a little soft and grainy when compared to modern film-to-DVD releases, but all-in-all it's a very capable effort.

Dragonslayer

Audio


Paramount provides a choice between Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. I opted for the 5.1 option hoping for an immersive experience, but alas this was not to be. Surround action comes almost exclusively in the shape of the score—which is suitably ominous whenever the dragon is present—but there are a number of totally missed opportunities to use the rears to draw the viewer into the heart of the action. Examples include the dragon flying overhead—or not, as is the case here—and the creature’s fiery breath. Although the inconsistent use of the surround channels is disappointing, I don’t want to sound completely negative as the track actually does a reasonable job of things on the whole. Dialogue is crisp and clear, there is little to no distortion and there’s a bit of oomph at the low end when needed. It’s not great, but it could have been a lot worse.

Extras


Well this is easy—zilch, nothing, nada; not even a trailer. It’s a real shame, as I’d have liked to learn more about the go-motion process used to bring Vermithrax to life, the set design, casting decisions and so on. A commentary by some of the cast and crew wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Bad Paramount, bad…

Dragonslayer

Overall


While this is yet another bare-bones release from Paramount, it does feature a surprisingly impressive visual transfer that is ably supported by a solid, if ultimately uninspiring Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Those of you looking for little more Lord of the Rings style entertainment might like to check it out, but while the low price makes it a no-brainer purchase for fans in search of a trip down memory lane, the decision to buy sight-unseen will surely rest on your affinity for the genre. However, as mentioned earlier in the review, the film's PG rating is somewhat misleading. There are several scenes of graphic violence that I wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing particularly young children to watch unsupervised, if at all, which is something worth bearing in mind.


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