‘That is not dragon, that is Satan!’ squawks some soon-to-be-toast in Matthew Robbins influential fantasy from 1981. Whatever name you want to call the creature featured here, it’s big, it’s bad, and it’s the dragon that helped inspire the world of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, so hats off to the splendidly named Vermithrax Pejorative, cinema’s best dragon to date. With no CGI to footer with, Dragonslayer goes down the right road for an 80’s production; few wide shots in the Harryhausen idiom, allowing us to sit back and admire the work. Instead we’ve got mud, mist and close-ups of hydraulics, plus occasional wides; Vermithrax Pejorative is a monster for the ages.
Yet somehow Dragonslayer is a Disney film, and as often seems to be the case, their failures are often more striking than their successes. Always good value, Peter Eyre plays King Casiodorus Rex of the magic kingdom of Urland. The wily but corrupt king made a pact with the local dragon to feed it a regular diet of female virgins, and has organised a lottery to select from the local girls. The king sends his lackey Tyrian (the utterly imposing John Hallam) to spy on the local sorcerer, Ulrich of Cragganmore, played in flamboyant style by Sir Ralph Richardson. Ulrich is slain, Old Ben Kenobi-style, but his death deputises his assistant Galen (Peter McNichol) to go on a quest to be the Dragonslayer that Urland not only needs but wants right now….
That’s a quite unconventional story, with lots of kinks that make it anything but Disney in outlook. The feel for corruption is developed right until the final scene, when the King claims credit for the actual dragon-slaying. There’s also not just one fearsome dragon, but a nest of lethal babies that gnaw your flesh off like piranhas. Ian McDiarmid gets his entire skin burnt off. And as if all this bloodletting wasn’t enough, there’s a scene involving sidekick Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) that hardly fits in the Disney canon; under the impression that he/she is a boy, Galen strips nude and jumps into the river, only to find himself the only guest at a gender reveal event. Absolutely vital to the narrative, there’s no way to cut this rather racy scene out, which may be one reason that Disney still don’t know what to do with this film to this day.
Dragonslayer is therefore airbrushed from Mousehouse history, but it’s an absolute belter of a film, with a huge effects-driven climax that knocks the ball out of the park. In the US, it’s viewable on Paramount +, in the UK, on disc only, but it’s worth checking this one out as a touchstone which provides the jumping-off point for many fabulous worlds since. And if nothing else, you’ll know to avoid any Vermithrax Pejorative you come across; it’s one kick-ass dragon that just won’t be tamed…