Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Short Take: Hawk the Slayer

(1980) Directed by Terry Marcel; Written by Terry Marcel and Harry Robertson; Starring: Jack Palance, John Terry, Patricia Quinn, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter O'Farrell, Ray Charleson, William Morgan Sheppard and Cheryl Campbell; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I like a man with spirit. But remember this and remember it well… Voltan owns everything: the table, the chairs, the very food you eat. I own everything, including your useless life. Remember it well!” – Voltan (Jack Palance)

When we think of sword and sorcery films, our minds conjure visions of magical lands populated by wizards and elves, nubile damsels in distress, and swordfights aplenty. Okay, take your expectations and lower them a notch. And while you’re at it, take them down another notch. Now you’re ready to experience the wonder that is Hawk the Slayer. Director/co-writer Terry Marcel borrowed from a deep well for inspiration, including Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series of novels, and the Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Along with writing partner Harry Robertson, Marcel fleshed out a script in a few weeks. After failing to garner much interest for his fantasy adventure, Marcel struck paydirt with Chips Productions, the low-budget subsidiary of ITC.* The film enjoyed a strong run in England, but hopes of theatrical distribution in the U.S. were crushed when the distribution company folded.

* Fun Fact: According to Marcel, ITC head Lew Grade offered to make Hawk the Slayer a big budget production if he agreed to step down as director, and take executive producer credit (Source: “Hawk the Hunter Interview with Terry Marcel,” Rebellion).

Hawk vows vengeance against his older brother Voltan (Jack Palance) for murdering his wife, as well as his father. Wielding the powerful “mindsword,” he sets off on a quest to assemble a band of warriors to fight Voltan and his oppressive reign. He’s accompanied by Crow, the elf (played by Ray Charleson, who speaks in a clipped, high voice), the giant Gort (Bernard Bresslaw, who later appeared as the cyclopean giant in 1983’s Krull), Baldin the dwarf (Peter O'Farrell), and Ranulf (William Morgan Sheppard) a one-handed fighter.

As the titular protagonist, Terry is a tad stiff, although he deserves a pass for his earnest performance. Palance’s performance as Hawk’s evil brother Voltan* almost borders on self-parody, as he delivers each line with a reptilian hiss. He doesn’t quite chew scenery, so much as devour it. Some of the supporting performances seem subtle, compared to Palance’s maniacal, over-the-top portrayal. The good-natured interplay between Gort and Baldin seems natural and unforced. Patricia Quinn (best known as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is good as a blind witch, who helps Hawk with his mission. The small roles by veteran character actors Roy Kinnear as an innkeeper and Patrick Magee as a cult leader are also a welcome presence.

* Another Fun Fact: It’s easy to accept the magical mayhem in the film as de rigueur. It’s a bit hard to swallow that Hawk and Voltan are brothers (John Terry and Jack Palance were 31 years apart), or that Ferdy Mayne, who was only three years older than Palance at the time, played their father.

Part of Hawk the Slayer’s* considerable low-fi charms was its attempt to tell an epic story (Accompanied by a disco-tinged score by co-writer Harry Robertson) on an impossibly tight budget. The cut-rate production featured such “special” effects as glowing ping pong balls, rotating hula hoops (in a scene reminiscent of 1978’s Superman), and a witch’s freeze spell, in which one of Voltan’s guards is enveloped in silly string. And in one scene (if my eyes didn’t deceive me), the elf is sporting a pair of penny loafers. If you’re expecting something in the neighborhood of Excalibur or The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment. Taken in the right light, and the proper perspective, however, it’s easy to appreciate how Marcel and Robertson achieved so much with so little. Sure, Hawk the Slayer is easy to laugh at, but it’s more fun to laugh with it.

* Not-So-Fun Fact: After the relative success of the film, Marcel wrote a screenplay for a sequel. Unfortunately, subsequent attempts to bring it to the big screen (or small screen with a proposed TV series), including a 2015 Kickstarter campaign, have failed.

Thursday, April 11, 2019


(1981) Directed by Matthew Robbins; Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins; Starring: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam, Peter Eyre and Ian McDiarmid; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

“Oh, I know this creature of yours – Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit, crippled, pitiful, spiteful.” – Ulrich (Ralph Richardson)

Sword & Sorcery Month begins with a favorite from my formative years, the Paramount/Disney co-production, Dragonslayer. Don’t let the Disney connection fool you, though. This early ‘80s PG-rated film contains surprising amounts of gore and a brief flash of nudity, so if you’re looking for that sort of thing, I’ve got you covered. The main attractions, however, are the spectacular effects (more on this in a moment).  Dragonslayer was directed and co-written by Matthew Robbins, whose previous film was Corvette Summer (1978), and decades later would go on to collaborate with Guillermo del Toro.

Dragonslayer introduces some fresh faces (circa 1981), including Galen (Peter MacNicol), a sorcerer’s apprentice, and Valerian (Caitlin Clarke)* a young woman pretending to be a teenage boy. Valerian appeals to Galen’s master, Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to help their village, besieged by a malevolent beast. When Ulrich suddenly perishes, the apprentice must pick up where the sorcerer left off. His early demise serves as a reminder that it’s Galen’s story. Richardson portrays Ulrich not as an all-powerful wizard but a flawed, world-weary man who’s seen a few too many seasons. His humor and grace contrasts Galen’s awkward, ersatz cockiness.

* Fun Fact #1: This film marks the first feature roles for MacNicol and Clarke.

The story’s true villain is mendacious, unprincipled King Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), who has negotiated an uneasy peace with a murderous dragon, at the expense of the villagers’ virgin daughters (How anyone negotiated with a dragon in the first place is anyone’s guess). The kingdom maintains a lottery, created by Casiodorus, in which said virgins are offered for sacrifice. And while we’re on the subject of sacrifice, why virgins? If the villagers offered a non-virgin, would it give the dragon indigestion? We’re reminded that wealth has its privileges, as Casiodorus keeps his daughter out of the lottery. His fear of the dragon overwhelms his hatred, and he bristles at the prospect of anyone tampering with the balance of power. In one scene, the king tells Galen about an incident, long ago, when his brother set out to do battle with the dragon, only to vanish without a trace. The only lesson he seems to have learned is that being noble and brave doesn’t get you very far in life.

Our hero is plucky and exuberant enough, albeit a bit on the scrawny side, compared to his contemporaries. As my youngest kid pointed out, “he looks like he’d be stuffed in a locker.” Of course, Galen’s depiction follows one of the familiar fantasy tropes, in which our protagonist typically goes one of two ways: either a hulking hero (e.g., Conan) or a diminutive protagonist, who favors his wits above brawn. There’s no middle ground. Setting up Galen as the nominal hero, however, is a missed opportunity to let Valerian shine. It’s disappointing that once her secret’s out, she takes a back seat to Galen. No offense intended to MacNicol or his character, but Galen is kind of vanilla in comparison. Valerian’s subterfuge adds another dimension to her character, which leaves more questions. Her father successfully avoided the lottery for years by passing his daughter as a son. When Valerian’s identity is revealed, you would think there would be some resentment from his fellow villagers that she was spared, but it’s only addressed briefly in an exchange with a fellow villager, who seems to shrug it off. It’s doubtful that other parents who lost daughters, or women who survived the lottery felt the same way. Our only indication is through Valerian, who appears conflicted about the choices she had to make, and the consequences. I also wonder, what would happen if she continued to assume a leadership role in her male-dominated community? Instead (Spoiler Alert), the writers take the easy route in the end, as she and Galen set off for greener pastures.

Few would argue that Dragonslayer’s biggest raison d'être is the eponymous, fire-breathing beast (aka: Vermithrax Pejorative*). The dragon is appropriately big and scary, but also full of expression. In a post-modern spin on the evil dragon trope, the film elicits pathos for a creature that’s past its prime, and lost everything it’s held dear. The filmmakers deliver the goods, employing every visual trick at their disposal and creating some new ones for good measure, thanks to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) effects team, led by Dennis Muren. Despite many subsequent advances in effects technology, particularly in CGI, most of the effects have held up very well. In addition to a full-scale animatronic creature (built by Brian Johnson at Walt Disney Studios), the filmmakers utilized 15 other dragon models for various poses. Muren’s team developed an evolution of stop-motion animation, called Go-Motion, supervised by Phil Tippett, which relied on a dragon puppet with computer-controlled rods. The Go-Motion process resulted in an image that contained intentional blurring to create a more fluid, lifelike action, rather than the jerky movement inherent in stop-motion animation. (Source: Industrial Light & Magic – The Art of Special Effects, by Thomas G. Smith)

* Fun Fact #2: According to one source, the dragon’s name means, roughly translated from Latin, “The Worm of Thrace Who Makes Things Worse." (source: “The Vermithrax Pejorative Story: Behind the Scenes at the Making of Dragonslayer,” by M. Ronan, Weird Worlds, 1981)

** Fun Fact #3: 1981 was a competitive year for the Academy Award in special effects, with Dragonslayer losing out to another ILM effects project, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dragonslayer is a pastiche of familiar elements with a flair for spectacle. While the story might not hold up under intense scrutiny, the film is a good introduction to the genre, and a solid entry in the glut of early ‘80s sword and sorcery flicks. Paramount isn’t known for including heaps of DVD extras, but a trailer, “making of” featurette or commentary track would have been nice. We can only hope that a decent Blu-ray edition is in the works before too long. At the end of the day, Dragonslayer might be lauded more for its technical achievements than its originality, but it sure is fun to regress back to a simpler age, when mythical beasts terrorized the land. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A History of Violence

(2005) Directed by David Cronenberg; Written by Josh Olson; Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke; Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes and Peter MacNeill; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…the audience is complicit in the violence, and then they have to be complicit in the results of it as well. If you’re gonna like the violence, then you’re gonna have to accept the consequences, and that of course has a lot to do with the theme of the movie here.”
– David Cronenberg (from DVD commentary)

Spoiler Warning: It’s difficult to discuss A History of Violence without spilling the beans, to some degree, about the central character. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should probably watch it before plowing ahead (Don’t worry, I’ll wait).

Duality is a prevalent theme in many of David Cronenberg’s movies, but it’s never seemed quite as salient, as it appears in A History of Violence. Many of us have two sides that we cultivate, either by accident or design. Perhaps, because of our day job or other obligations, we’re required to suppress a part of our persona that we only reveal to close friends or family. Or maybe there are some unsavory aspects about our past selves that we’d rather not disclose to anyone. By the same token, if we choose to bury those aspects long enough, could we credibly become a different person? Director Cronenberg,* along with writer Josh Olsen (based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke), take this premise and run with it.

* Fun Fact #1: In his DVD commentary, Cronenberg stated that he re-visited two locations, which appeared in earlier films: the motel featured in the opening scene was also utilized in eXistenZ (1999), and a bar in Toronto, standing in as a Philadelphia-area watering hole, was previously featured in The Fly (1986).

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a mild-mannered owner of a diner, who lives in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana* with his wife Edie (Maria Bello) and two kids, Jack and Sarah (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes). His life takes a fateful turn when two ruthless small-time criminals (established in the brutal opening scene) enter his restaurant and threaten to kill his staff. In one swift, bloody act, he turns the tables on the robbers, leaving them dead. Tom becomes a reluctant overnight hero, with reporters vying for interviews, but he just wants things to return to normal. Unfortunately for Tom, his accidental notoriety also catches the attention of Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), a Philadelphia-based mob enforcer who claims Tom isn’t what he seems to be.  

* Fun Fact #2: Most of the film was shot in Millbrook, Ontario, standing in for the fictional midwestern American town with the same name. Bonus Fact: The town clock is perennially stuck at 1:15.

A History of Violence toys with our assumptions about the principal character by planting the seed of doubt in our minds. The film establishes Tom as an honorable and decent family man at the beginning, with strong ties to community, then proceeds to chip away at our assumptions. When Fogarty accuses Tom of having a shared past, as a cold-blooded killer for the mob, we’re inclined to deny this is the same man. When Fogarty confronts his wife Edie and her daughter in the mall, he asks, “How come he’s so good at killing people?” As Edie re-assesses the man she thought she knew for the past 20 years, we’re right there with her.

Mortensen successfully walks the tightrope between both sides, in his masterful performance as Tom Stall. Despite the awful things he might have done, our sympathies never waver for him. On the other hand, we’re left to speculate how much he’s changed and how much is merely an act. As the stakes are raised, he’s in a desperate struggle not only to save his family, but to preserve the identity he’s constructed. Earlier in the film, we see a husband and wife together for a long time, but still very much in love. They share an intimate, playful moment, full of joy and tenderness. Contrast this with a scene later in the movie, when they engage in a spontaneous bout of savage, painful lovemaking on a staircase. The scene illustrates Edie’s conflicted frame of mind, with her love for the version of the man she married, and revulsion at the person that was hidden underneath.

The always reliable Ed Harris (who can play protagonist and villain with equal adeptness) presents a menacing figure as Fogarty. Beyond his glib exterior lies a storm, churning beneath the surface (Somehow, Harris makes the line “Don’t forget your shoes” sound chilling). Fogarty remembers Tom from an earlier life, when he was Joey Cusack, and aims to settle the score for a confrontation that left him blind in one eye.

It’s worth noting the solid acting job by Ashton Holmes* as Tom’s teenage son, Jack,* who undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts. He’s a complex character, at once sickened and empowered by his father’s subterfuge. In an early scene, he asserts his intellectual dominance over a bully, keeping his anger in check with a sardonic sense of humor, and favoring his quick wit over fists. As an indirect response to his father’s actions, Jack’s next confrontation with the same bully takes a violent turn.  

* Fun Fact #3: Holmes, who played Tom and Edie’s high school-aged son, was 27 at the time.

The decades-long collaboration between David Cronenberg and Howard Shore remains one of the most un-sung collaborations in filmmaking. Shore’s exemplary score keeps us consistently engaged with the film’s tonal shifts. When we’re introduced to the town of Millbrook and Tom’s family, Shore’s music recalls the work of Aaron Copland, evoking an idyllic slice of Americana. As the mood darkens, so does the music, which takes on somber tones, more fitting to Samuel Barber.

Cronenberg subverts our expectations about the protagonist, painting a bucolic portrait of an unassuming small town (Cronenberg said that he relied on the works of Edward Hopper for inspiration), and introducing something sinister into the mix. Tom’s dual identity serves as an apt metaphor for the secrets we keep from our loved ones and co-workers. We keep them concealed, for fear that we will lose their esteem if we dare to reveal facets of our darker selves. It’s not relentlessly grim, however, as Cronenberg and Olsen judiciously infuse humor to undercut the tension, allowing the audience members to take their collective breath. Indeed, one of the biggest laughs comes from a particularly heated scene, when Edie confronts Tom about their surname. A History of Violence is one of the director’s most focused films concerning duality. Bolstered by great performances all around, it’s a meditation on violence as a means to an end, shattering the myth of killing as a heroic act.