The 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer was way ahead of its time, and its influence has been felt in film and TV shows ever since it crash-landed in movie theaters.
“It was a little bit too much ahead of its time,” mused director and co-writer Matthew Robbins. “It didn’t make him so much as a ripple at the box office when it was released.”
The filmmaker had no idea the film had become beloved and achieved cult status until a few years ago. It’s now being released on 4K Ultra HD for the first time.
“I am becoming aware, these last few months in the conversations I’ve been having about it, that there is this affection for the movie all over the place. I had no idea,” Robbins explained. “The transfer to VHS tape and DVDs were so inferior and shoddy that I did my best to avoid any screening of it at festivals or workshops and so on. If they showed it, I wouldn’t go until the Q&A afterward. I was still apologizing for it because I had to defend these damaged goods.”
Among the filmmakers who cite Dragonslayer as an influence is Guillermo del Toro, who, along with Robbins, provides a commentary as part of the 4K release. The pair have collaborated several times after meeting by chance.
“I went to Guadalajara. The Sundance Institute’s sent me down there to interact with emerging Mexican filmmakers,” Robinson recalled. “I was randomly put together with this guy called Guillermo who was going to seek me out anyway because he was a rabid fan of the movie. He was nice, and we talked about it endlessly when we got to know each other.”
“Then we started working together, and it was always in the background. It was not a subject that came up a lot, but he adored the movie, so I gave him a bunch of souvenirs for his famous collection of stuff.”
The 4K restoration was a 40-year dream come true for the director and more emotional than anticipated.
“It’s a gift from the movie gods. I was dazzled when the opportunity came up,” Robbins enthused. “When they invited me to participate in the restoration, I was unaware of what power they would be applying. I was not prepared for it.”
“They can turn a few dials, and suddenly they can open up the shadows, turn a few others and suddenly all the highlights which are blown out, you can bring back detail and get rid of matte lines or ask for other things. I had long since set these issues aside; I couldn’t keep dwelling upon them.”
He continued, “I was almost afraid that I would have to speak up on these very sensitive sore spots, these wounds, so to speak. They were way ahead of me. The first thing they did was show me five clips to demonstrate the kind of thing they were going to be doing. In every instance, suddenly, the grain was gone out of the night sky, and suddenly the fringing around Peter MacNicol’s hair was gone. They were aware of everything.”
Describing the team as “big partisans” who loved the movie too, Robbins was equally astonished by what could be achieved by restoring Dragonslayer‘s sound mix.
“The way it sounds is something that I hadn’t heard in years, not since we had a few 70 mm theaters in the initial release,” he explained. “Walter Murch mixed it and did a phenomenal job, so his work is showcased as well.”
Murch was someone that Robbins knew from before film school. They were friends and classmates at Johns Hopkins University. “I ran into trouble in the mix. Skywalker Sound did the elements, and they were wild about the film, so we had tracks up on tracks upon tracks,” he remembered. “One of the problems was that, if anything, it was overdone; there was too much of everything. The first day of mixing, we couldn’t seem to find the focus.”
“I reached out and said, ‘I need a favor. You’ve got to get over here.’ He did, and in a matter of hours, he found the core. It’s a wonderful job that he did, which is evident in what you see and hear now on this restoration.”
Dragonslayer was a co-production between Walt Disney
“It’s not a question of forgiving him,” he laughed. “The question is do I forgive the marketing and the publicity people at the same studio that was at that time mostly busy with Raiders of the Lost Ark?”
The Indiana Jones movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a story by Lucas, was released in theaters by the same studio two weeks after Dragonslayer.
“We didn’t really stand a chance,” he laughed. “George sat with me at one of our previews. He was very interested because he’d seen us shooting, he visited the set, and there was a lot of big overlap with the Industrial Light and Magic crew; ILM were his guys, and they had done all this incredible effects stuff for us. He was almost part of it in that regard. The screening went great was a really positive preview, people were applauding at the end, and I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘It’s going to be a hit,’ and we believed. For a few weeks.”
Before the film’s release, was Dragonslayer seen as having sequel potential or, as Disney co-produced it, being reimagined as a theme park attraction or experience?
“That was really not in the wind, not at all. Disney was very uneasy with the resulting film,” Robbins stated. “There were elements in that film that were so non-Disney, like the baby dragons and the grizzly bits. Walt Disney was struggling at the time too. The studio was trying to find its way, and they didn’t know what they had.”
He concluded, “That’s all part of the saga here with the revival because the sales of this Blu-ray and 4K versions have been extraordinary. I’ve been hearing about it from the studio. It’s a big surprise and an unexpected gift that the movie will now be seen and heard how we always hoped it would. I can’t tell you much that means.”