Funny story: I remember seeing this film several times at my local Blockbuster and refusing to buy it simply on the title alone. I loved dragons as a little kid but absolutely hated seeing them killed, and I figured a movie called Dragonslayer must have a LOT of dead dragons in it. Now that I’ve grown older and seen it a couple times, I can confirm it’s not the kind of movie I would have liked as a little kid, but it’s nowhere near as bad on the cruelty to dragons front as I would have thought. Dragonslayer is, however, a fairly cynical story. Contrary to the general perception of 1980’s fantasy films, Dragonslayer is a dark, grim, and, dare I say it, edgy story, deconstructing its perception of Dragon-slaying myths as well as other fairy tale cliches about knights in armor rescuing damsels. Unlike most edgy deconstructions of medieval legends, Dragonslayer actually does its research, though I wonder whether that’s to its benefit or detriment, since I imagine most of its audience didn’t follow suit. Is it a good movie? I think so. Do I like it? To this day I’m still not sure, but let’s dive into the details and see where I stand.
The movie begins with a mob of villagers asking Ulric, a wizard, to save them from a dragon. The king of their country has been dealing with the problem by sacrificing young maidens chosen at random to the beast, and the villagers hope the wizard can solve it for good so the fatal lottery can end. The sorcerer reveal’s the dragon’s name – Vermithrax Perjorative – and sets out to slay the beast, leaving his apprentice, Galen, in charge.
Unfortunately, a man named Tyrian (sadly not a sarcastic dwarf) stops the wizard on the way out the door, demanding a test to prove the wizard is truly magical. The wizard tells his apprentice to fetch a specific knife, which the apprentice does by finding the knife and throwing it out the window. Suddenly the doors close, locking the apprentice in the study while the wizard tells Tyrion to stab him with the knife, claiming he cannot be hurt by it. Tyrian does so, and the wizard dies, which seems pretty ill concieved – but then, we the audience know the wizard used magic to close the doors of the workshop, so it seems clear that something is up with this. SPOILERS: dude pulled a Dumbledore.
The apprentice cremates the wizard, and the flames of his pyre glow green. Despite this obviously magical occurrence, everyone assumes the wizard is dead, and the apprentice sets about the task of claiming his former master’s workshop. Galen realizes he can do some magic when holding the amulet that Ulric gave him, and tracks down the villagers with a bold declaration that he can do everything Ulric could, taking on the quest of slaying Vermithrax.
The movie then shows us the most recent young woman to be sacrificed to the dragon, who desperately tries to escape her horrible fate. She bangs up her wrists in an attempt to escape her manacles, only to find her efforts are too late, as the dragon is already upon her. Even though the parts of the dragon we see are very obviously puppets (and not terribly convincing ones at that), it’s still a very tense and nerve wracking scene, in no small part thanks to the girl’s very convincing acting.
It turns out this nightmarish sequence was a dream of one of the younger villagers, Valerian. The nervous villager goes for a swim in a nearby stream, only to be discovered by Galen, who realizes that Valerian has actually been a young woman masquerading as a man the whole time, since otherwise she would be eligible for the lottery. Valerian says her father has made her hide her true identity since birth for her own safety, an act she views as no more decietful than the open fact that the King keeps his own daughter from being put in the lottery.
Sadly, the pair learn (via a conveniently timed vision on Galen’s part) that Hodge has been shot by Tyrian, because Tyrian is an asshole. Hodge tells Galen that he has to put Ulric’s ashes in “burning water” for some reason, and Galen, being kind of a self important rube, promptly forgets about this weird instruction from his older co-worker and continues on his quest to kill the dragon all by himself.
Our heroes end up near the dragon’s lair, and Galen decides to investigate, even though Valerian chastises him for being reckless. After finding some dragon scales inside the mouth of the lair, Galen casts a spell that summons a great rockslide to seal up the mouth of the cave. Of course, this imperils the villagers too, but thankfully everyone manages to find cover and escape basically unscathed. With the threat apparently ended, our movie seems set to end at the half hour mark.
Which is how you know Galen done fucked up.
The village celebrates of course, treating Galen like a hero while Valerian contemplates revealing the truth about her gender. Her father tells her not to, but the young woman puts on a beautiful blue dress anyway and reveals herself to the town. Everyone is shocked at first, but Galen takes her hand and dances with her, which leads to the rest of the town finally accepting her for what she is. It’s honestly a very sweet moment, especially when the other townspeople join in the dance. There’s also a brief moment where two random villagers are shown discussing the “Christian God,” because it’s not a gritty deconstruction of medieval myth and fantasy without some heavy handed scenes where people gossip about the spread of this newfangled Christianity like the strawmen in a Jack Chick comic.
Unfortunately, Tyrian breaks up the party and arrests Galen for practicing wizardry. Galen then has to prove he has magic to the King of Urland, and, being a self important rube, Galen makes a big show of it, stroking the amulet his master gave him all the while. The King notices this before chewing out Galen for the rockslide. According to the King, the last time someone tried and failed to kill Vermithrax, her wrath was terrible beyond measure, while the lottery system the King created made the drgaon’s carnage far more tolerable. Galen argues that killing the dragon is better than making a truce with it, while the King continues to have doubts, which in turn means Galen could be in big trouble if Vermithrax survived.
Anyway, it turns out Vermithrax survived.
Galen is thrown into jail, where the King’s daughter reaches out to him, telling the young wizard that her father is a wise and just man. The princess believes the King must protect his people in this way, but Galen retorts that she benefits from a system rigged in her favor. Though Galen thinks the Princess was aware of this, it’s clear to the audience that she very much wasn’t, and the poor young girl runs off to confront her father, who is trying to figure out how the amulet granted Galen magic powers. Sure enough, the King admits that he did rig it so she was never imperiled by the lottery, and the princess is outraged to learn she benefits from privilege.
Vermithrax reawakens, shaking the earth so horribly that Galen is able to escape the dungeon. A group of Christian villagers, led by a priest with a big cross-shaped walking stick, approach the dragon’s lair under the belief that the power of God can kill the dragon. The ground splits beneath their feet, glowing with a hellish red light as Vermithrax’s head slowly rises from the center of the earth like the devil himself. The priest tries to send her packing by preaching the authority of God, but Vermithrax simply immolates him before proceeding to raze the town with dragonfire. Like the previous dragon scene in the movie, it’s all very tense and dramatic.
The King announces a new lottery to placate Vermithrax, and Valerian accepts that her name is now on the list. All the elligible girls are rounded up to see who becomes dragon chow. You’d think Valerian would be chosen, but instead it turns out to be the Princess! Yes, the King’s daughter purposely rigged the lottery so she would be chosen, believing this to be the only way to make up for her unfair advantage. Princess Elspeth is by far the most selfless person in this story, and more people in real life could learn from her example. Horrified that his daughter is on the chopping block, the King gives Galen the amulet so he can slay the dragon and save the princess, and is as shamelessly hypocritical about his sudden change of heart as possible. Galen embues a spear with magic so it may work better as a dragonslaying weapon, and then sets out to save the princess and slay the dragon.
Valerian gives Galen a shield made from Vermithrax’s shed scales and tells him that the dragon has babies, which Galen says must die too. She then gets all Helga Patacki on him by talking about how dumb he is and how he must love the Princess because she’s pretty, before talking about how she’ll be eligible for the lottery after Galen dies because she’s a virgin. This being a pretty obvious hint, Galen tells Valerian that he loves her, and the camera cuts away before they hump.
Galen teleports to the dragon’s lair to save the princess, only to find Tyrian waiting for him. Tyrian says the kingdom needs the sacrifice, and steps up to kill Galen himself for the sake of the kingdom, or simply to be a dick, because let’s be real, that’s the reason Tyrian exists in this movie. The Princess agrees that the sacrifice is necessary, and runs into the dragon’s lair while the two men are fighting, because Princess Elspeth isn’t a false ally. Eventually Galen kills Tyrian and runs off to save the girl.
However, when he enters the nest he finds the Princess has already died, as a clutch of dog-sized baby dragons are currently chewing on her body parts. Furious that the young reptiles made him look like a chump, Galen slaughters the babies one by one before heading off to deal with Vermithrax. He finds the dragon on a river that happens to be partially on fire, but, being a self absorbed rube, doesn’t think to remember the ominous words said by his former co-worker in the magician’s workshop. Vermithrax emerges behind the young wizard, and though Valerian’s shield is adept at protecting him from her flames, Galen is incapable of doing much damage to her since he’s, y’know, a magician’s apprentice and not a knight. Eventually he runs away like a coward, and Vermithrax follows, only to find the scene of her children’s slaughter. The dragon nudges her dead offpspring tenderly before crying out in grief and furiously resuming her search for the tiny mammal that killed her children.
Using some cunning, Galen literally gets a drop on the dragon and stabs her in the neck with his magic spear, though the blow is not a mortal one. He stabs her a few more times, but while Vermithrax is wounded by the blows, none of them manage to kill her, and the spear eventually snaps in half with the dragon very much un-slain. The sheild alone saves Galen’s life, and all hope seems to be lost. Valerian rescues him and suggests they should elope, since it’s basically the only way they could have a life together at this point.
The two head out, but a convenient vision in the lake reminds Galen of the whole “dump the ashes in the burning water, idiot” thing. He and Valerian enter the dragon’s lair once more, and Galen finally fulfills his promise by scattering his master’s ashes in the burning lake of the dragon’s lair. The fires go out, and Ulric the wizard returns in a vortex of glowing green flames. It turns out he used his death as a way to travel to the dragon’s lair more safely than he could by road, sorta like taking an uber but with a slightly higher chance of getting stabbed. The old wizard gives Galen one last order: when the time is right, Galen must break the amulet.
Ulric then battles the dragon with magic, and Galen smashes the amulet when the two are locked in combat. This makes Ulric explode, which in turn blows up poor Vermithrax. The dragon’s carcass falls to the town below, and the villagers believe that God killed the beast, reinforcing the spread of Christianity. The King, meanwhile, stabs the dragon’s carcass and declares himself a dragonslayer. Galen and Valerian, for their part, proceed with their plan to leave town, starting a new life as the age of magic, wizards, and dragons comes to an end.
Dragonslayer REALLY gets off on the concept of tearing apart Medieval ideas of morality, as every figure that would be morally just in a Medieval myth – the King, his knights, even the trickster-y sorcerer’s apprentice – is presented as corrupt, incompetent, or both. It presents a Monty Python-esque “everyone’s covered in shit” view of what life in the Middle Ages was like, and almost delights in lacking hope or meaning behind its conflict. It’s definitely not an uplifiting Fantasy film with a kind message, and while I like that its morally grey worldview extended far enough to give the fire breathing monster a moment of pathos, the end result is still a movie that’s a bit too cynical for me to fully enjoy. Still though, it has one hell of a dragon in it.