Release Date(s)1983 (March 21, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures/Walt Disney Productions (Paramount Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B+
In an age of dying magic, the sixth-century kingdom of Urland finds itself plagued by a decrepit and bitter dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative. Hoping to appease the creature and outlast it, King Casiodorus (Peter Eyre) offers Vermithrax a virgin sacrifice each year chosen by lottery. But the king’s peasants, having grown tired of this, send an expedition led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) to seek the help of the realm’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Cragganmore (Ralph Richardson, of Things to Come and Doctor Zhivago fame), to defeat the creature once and for all. When Ulrich is killed by the captain of the King’s guard (John Hallam) however, the task falls to his young apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol). But Valerian has been hiding a secret. So too have Ulrich and the king, who’s long kept his own daughter, Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), from participating in the lottery. And when Galen finally comes face to face with Vermithrax, the dragon’s wrath is far more terrible than any of them imagined.
Dragonslayer is a fascinating film that owes its existence to a unique confluence of events. Years before its release, director Matthew Robbins was asked by fellow USC film student George Lucas to work on the screenplay for THX 1138 4EB. Robbins then formed a writing partnership with Hal Barwood that led to the pair selling their screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974). They soon followed this success with scripts for Joseph Sargent’s MacArthur and Corvette Summer, which Robbins directed himself in 1978.
In the midst of all this, Robbins had read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings on Barwood’s recommendation, even as a growing interest was developing among the Hollywood studios to cash in on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game craze. So when Robbins and Barwood shopped their screenplay for Dragonslayer, Paramount and Disney quickly agreed to finance the film as a co-production.
It was here that fortune smiled once more on the project; Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic had just completed work on The Empire Strikes Back and needed a new project to keep the company going. ILM had also revived the art of stop-motion animation for Empire—and pioneered a new technique called “go motion” that was uniquely suited to creature work. So production on the film soon began in the UK, with a crack effects team working back in the States led by Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, and Brian Johnson.
One of the many things that makes Dragonslayer so interesting is the fact that—save for Richardson and Eyre—its cast was almost entirely unknown to audiences at the time. As good as he is here, Peter MacNicol would seem to be the opposite of anyone’s idea of an action film hero, a point validated by his later roles in Sophie’s Choice and Ghostbusters II. Caitlin Clarke is terrific as Valerian, the boy who’s actually a girl. Clarke and MacNicol have a unique screen chemistry, even as she’s given (along with Salaman’s Elspeth) a strong role with a high degree of agency. (Clarke, who would later appear in Crocodile Dundee  and Blown Away , sadly died of cancer in 2004.) Dragonslayer also features an early film appearance by actor Ian McDiarmid, who eventually played the Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels. Add to this mix the film’s Oscar-nominated visual effects, evocative cinematography (more on that in a moment), and a foreboding score by Alex North (which includes music rejected by director Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey), and the result is an intriguing gem of early-80s genre filmmaking.
Dragonslayer was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by cinematographer Derek Vanlint (best known for his work on Ridley Scott’s Alien) using Panavision Super R200 SPSR and Panaflex Gold cameras with Panavision anamorphic lenses, and it was finished at the 2.39:1 scope ratio for theaters. For its long-awaited release on Blu-ray and Ultra HD, the original camera negative was scanned in 4K, digitally restored, and graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available on this disc). The result is a gorgeous image that improves dramatically upon past DVD and LaserDisc editions with significantly greater resolution and well-refined texturing. While a few shots are optically soft (mostly by design, through the on-set use of filters and theatrical smoke), and there’s the expected anamorphic distortion around the edges of the frame on occasion, there’s simply no doubt that you’re seeing every bit of detail in the negative here. Photochemical grain is light to medium and fully intact at all times—thankfully, there’s been no digital scrubbing. Blacks are deep, with bold highlights, even as the color palette is more nuanced, accurate, and richly saturated than ever before. Vanlint’s imagery is moody, atmospheric, and highly cinematic. (The film looks so good, in fact, that I find myself more eager than ever for a future 4K UHD release of John Boorman’s Excalibur , which was released in theaters the same year as Dragonslayer—bring it on, Warner Bros!)
Primary audio on Paramount’s new 4K release is offered in a terrific new Dolby Atmos mix that recalls (but surely improves upon) the film’s original 6-track, 70 mm audio experience. The Atmos is so much better than previous audio options for this film on disc that there’s really no comparison. The clarity and dynamic range here are exceptional, with muscular bass, smooth and lively movement, and dimensional layering. Even in the quietest moments—as when Ulrich is preparing his spells in the film’s opening—you’re immersed in an abundance of subtle environmental cues: bird calls, the whispering breeze, dripping water, flickering torches, and creaking wood. Each seems to linger in the air around you. The soundstage is big and wide, with pleasing overhead enclosure that enhances the various environments and a blustery lift that lends energy and impact to the film’s set pieces. North’s score is well placed in the mix, enhancing the tone and mood of each scene with perfection. And when Vermithrax is finally revealed, he’s got a rumbling sonic weight that befits his mighty presence. When the dragon attacks from the sky, his guttural snarls sweep by overhead, accompanied by the rush of wind and wings. This is an outstanding mix that’s simply perfect for such a worthy genre title. French mono audio in Dolby Digital format is also included, as are optional subtitles in English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and French.
Paramount’s 4K release includes the film on Ultra HD only (in your choice of Amaray or Steelbook packaging)—a remastered Blu-ray version is available separately. The 4K UHD disc offers the following extras:
- Audio Commentary with Matthew Robbins and Guillermo Del Toro
- The Slayer of All Dragons (HD – 5 parts – 63:24 in all)
- Welcome to Cragganmore (HD – 11:08)
- A Long Way to Urland (HD – 9:21)
- Vermithrax Pejorative (HD – 17:48)
- Into the Lake of Fire (HD – 13:34)
- The Final Battle (HD – 13:45)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:58)
- Screen Tests (HD – 15:42)
Aside from the trailer, all of this material was newly created for this release. The features begin with an audio commentary by Robbins that’s actually hosted by fellow director and monster aficionado Guillermo Del Toro, who is clearly a big fan of this film. He asks a steady stream of interesting questions that Robbins answers eagerly and in detail. In this way, the pair keeps the track moving along briskly with a lovely discussion that’s packed with stories and anecdotes. (Note that optional English and French subs are available for the commentary too—a nice touch.)
The hour-long documentary—produced and directed by Keith Clark (and co-produced by Jack Morrissey)—features new interviews with Robbins, Tippett, and Muren, along with a treasure trove of rare behind-the-scenes photos, footage, film outtakes, and production artwork. You learn about the project’s origins, its casting, the UK production and filming, the design and animation of the dragon itself, and the creation of the film’s climactic battle scenes. Along the way, you’re privy to a wealth of technical details and other insights that will be of extraordinary value to fans of the film.
The film’s trailer is also provided in HD, along with several different screen tests that feature not only MacNicol and Clarke, but another actress who was apparently in the running for the role of Valerian (Maureen Teefy). Welsh stage actor William Squire (who voiced Gandalf in Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings) also appears here reading the role of Ulrich for the tests. All in all, this disc offers a surprising (and surprisingly rich) package of special features, completed by a Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
[Editor’s Note: There have been reports that some copies of the Steelbook version of this title are missing the Digital Code insert. If you encounter this situation, you can visit this Paramount website to rectify the issue.]
Dragonslayer is a film that’s long deserved a fresh look by cinephiles and it’s one of those rare catalog titles that’s never even received a decent Blu-ray release until now. So it’s only fitting that this injustice has been finally corrected with a terrific 4K Ultra HD and BD debut. Hats off to Paramount for a disc that delivers both top-shelf A/V quality and great new extras. It’s highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt