First, a digression: the SyFy Channel, much like MTV before it, has done considerable damage to the very thing it first embraced. Now the phrase, “A SyFy Original Movie” elicits the same sort of laughter as Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and for the same reason: you hear it and you know you’re in for a bad movie. And SyFy is content with that: after all, if audiences are laughing, that means they’re watching. So we now have an entire subgenre, the SyFy movie, with casts either culled from past cult shows or featuring newcomers with the talent of an infomercial audience plant; the same generic Eastern European scenery represents everything from Tennessee to Sherwood Forest; and the scripts…well, they’re as bad as my first drafts (which is pretty bad). And don’t even mention the special effects. And this is where most of our low-budget, independent fantasy films now come from.
All this makes Dawn of the Dragonslayer, an indie fantasy film directed by Anne B. Black (and not, let me be clear, connected in any way with SyFy), that much more extraordinary and interesting. It couldn’t have cost much more than most SyFy movies, yet the things that don’t depend on money–talent, the desire to do good work, and belief in the project at hand–nudge it into the realm of real cinema. It’s low budget, but not low rent.
The story begins when Will Shepherd, a…shepherd, leaves home after a dragon kills his father. He seeks to serve as bondsman to Lord Sterling, with the aim of being elevated to knighthood. Sterling’s holdings have been devastated by the plague, and only he, his daughter and a few worthless servants remain. Will and Kate Sterling fall in love, a union threatened by class distinctions, a vile rival knight and the reappearance of the dragon.
To be fair, there’s a certain dourness to the film that prevents it from being as much fun as it might. But it gets so many other things right, especially compared to what’s normally found in indie fantasy films, that it’s easy to overlook this. The film was shot on the west coast of Ireland, and thus has an unexpected scenic beauty. The acting, especially from leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener, is solid and at times inspired. Further, while both are attractive, they also look suited to the story’s time and place (no pouty false lips on her, no gym-rat abs on him). The lack of scale–a cast of less than a dozen and virtually a single setting–is used to the story’s advantage, not as something to be ignored with a cynical wink and nudge. And Panu Aaltio’s music is lush and romantic.
I did a lot of research on dragons for my own dragon novel, Burn Me Deadly, so I appreciate them when they’re well-done and get probably too annoyed for my own good when they’re bad. This dragon, for the most part, is pretty good. Most importantly it seems an organic part of the film’s world, visible through the mist in the distance or just behind the clouds, blending in or flitting out of sight. At the climax we get our first good look at it, and while it’s a little over-designed, it never loses that sense of belonging to this time and place. There’s a brilliant shot of it lying dead* on the rocks, waves crashing around it.
My only real criticism is the dearth of humor. Will is a serious young hero, and the film takes its cue from him; a lighter touch might’ve made the film move faster. And I must say I prefer the original title, Paladin, to its rather generic replacement.
Still, from the first epic shot of Ireland’s coast to the final romantic image, it’s clear that real love and attention was put into Dawn of the Dragonslayer. There’s a film here bigger than its budget, and I hope it finds an audience.
Watch for an interview with director Anne B. Black and producer Kynan Griffin, appearing here soon.
*Come on, that’s not a spoiler; the film has Dragonslayer in the title and you expect a dragon not to be slain?