Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 5: The End of an Era


Sword and Sorcery became an exploitation genre, rife with quickie production schedules, recycled sets, props and costumes, and written-on-the-fly scripts that checked boxes for mandatory story elements. The only bronze-thewed barbarian that managed to escape such a fate was, inexplicably, Beastmaster, which made not one, but two sequels and then morphed into a syndicated television series that lasted more than one season. Unbelievable. 

Meanwhile, over at the first-run theaters, where the floors were slightly less sticky, an attempt was being made to both cash in on the epic fantasy genre and also elevate it somewhat. The results were decidedly mixed, to say the least. That’s not to say that these movies weren’t good, or that they weren’t an integral part of growing up in the 1980s, but these movie swing far and away from the Robert E. Howardian gothic horror sensibility that informed Conan (and E. Gary Gygax), and the Vancian magic of the Dying Earth stories, and even the darker corners of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We’re now in some version of the real world, more fairy tale—but not fey—than Epic Fantasy or High Fantasy.


Pretty obvious who the stars of the
movie are, right? No love for Hauer.
Ladyhawke (1985)
This Richard Donner-directed fantasy-romance was a twenty million dollar example of the fix being in. We don’t need all of that sword-and-sorcery nonsense! We’ve got Rutger Hauer! Still skinny, too! We’ve got Michelle Pfeiffer, who is never not ever been every adolescent male’s wish-fulfillment fantasy woman. We’ve got Matthew Broderick, hot off of Wargames (1983) and in full-on cheeky smart-arse mode (big hand-waving hint, here: he’s who we are meant to identify with, ‘cause he’s like us, see?).

This movie is quite watchable, provided you can make it through the jarring soundtrack, which is mired in its 1980s-ness, to the point that it was written by Andrew Powell and produced by Alan Parsons. This is a major stumbling block for me. According to the Wikipedia page for this movie:

The film's score was composed by Andrew Powell and produced by Alan Parsons. Richard Donner stated that he was listening to The Alan Parsons Project (on which Powell collaborated) while scouting for locations, and became unable to separate his visual ideas from the music. Powell combined traditional orchestral music and Gregorian chants with contemporary progressive rock-infused material. It has been cited[who?] as the most memorable example of the growing trend among 1980s fantasy films of abandoning the lush orchestral scores of composers such as John Williams and James Horner in favor of a modern pop/rock sound.

I’ll let you decide, after reading the above, who to blame or credit for how much you love or hate the soundtrack. Since this my article, I will hoist myself on this petard and state, for the record, that whatever the merits of prog-rock, and there are certainly many, heavy synth-pop-infused techno beats have no place—whatsoever—in historical/fantasy/period-based movies, unless that period-based movie is set in 1985. Or, to put it another way, this soundtrack blows. I like Alan Parsons, but he was the wrong fit for this film. He just was. And I don’t care that Andrew Powell was involved and used Gregorian chants—all of that is undercut when the electronic drums and the Moog synth kick in over them. That’s Parsons’ decision—as the producer and “musical director” of the soundtrack. You know what? I’m going to blame Dick Donner for this. He’s the one that drove over the countryside scouting locations. Have some taste, man!

This movie goes the way of many films in the 1980s and 1990s; the desire to make a period production and also appeal to modern audiences. No one really seems to be from another time, not in hair nor in makeup, not in manner of speaking nor in acting.  The sole exception Rutger Hauer, who is honestly great in this movie, one of his few turns as a hero. Pfeiffer is charming and pretty, but this isn’t her best work. What she has is good screen chemistry with Matthew Broderick, who is struck by her beauty (and this we believe). Leo McKern is also great as Imperius, a drunken old monk who helps and fits in the Friar Tuck role quite easily. But historical accuracy? Pish Posh, my good man. We’ve got a double-sided crossbow for the captain of the guard! And a claymore!

If you can ignore the soundtrack—a herculean feat, to be sure—is much to like about Ladyhawke, perhaps moreso as an adult in 2018 than as a teenager in 1985. The arms and armor are a mishmash of styles, chosen because they look cool, and, well, isn’t that most of our players in Dungeons and Dragons’ reasoning in the first place? The “Fairy Tale” elements are at odds with the clearly modern production, but it’s not unenjoyable, if you park it right next to A Knight’s Tale (2001), which is certainly this movie’s spiritual successor. If nothing else, you can skip to the final battle, a lengthy, exhausting swordfight, with horses, no less, reminiscent of Boorman’s Excalibur that takes place in a church. Sufficiently epic, and also the best example of a critical failure for an attack ever put on film. Watch when Marquet, unseated from his horse, inexplicably hurls his helmet at Navarre, only to have the throw wildly miss and smash the big-ass stained glass window some forty feet above them. Huh. The sun’s out. I wonder if that’ll be relevant in about five minutes?

For those of you who feel that I’ve maligned great art, here’s Rob Hunter’s spirited defense of the movie, including the soundtrack. Some of you will squee with delight at his assertions. Granted, he still wrong, but let it never be said that I'm not fair in my assessments. 

Dog-Dragons? Nope. 
The Neverending Story (1986)
I’m a sophomore in high school, and so I understand if some of you who were maybe 6 or 7 years old have a weird affection for this deranged piece of cinematic fluff—but all of you who are my age? Older? What’s your excuse?

I watched this movie with my arms crossed, feeling like I was being talked down to, and worse, this whole movie is a metaphor for combatting depression and reality by, I dunno, wishing for a different outcome? I scoffed at the movie in my teenage years, and I really scoff at it now.

This hugely expensive film drops most of its budget on the best mid-range animatronic rigs a film could buy at the time, but that’s still not saying a whole lot—it’s like being the prettiest gorilla at the zoo. All of the money was spent making these huge animatronic creatures for the kid to interact with, but it still looks like the world’s best Chuck E. Cheese birthday jamboree. Every servo is constantly in motion as the mouth opens and closes and the spot in the middle of the upper lip twitches to and fro, and the dubbed voice is saying really complicated things that are coming out of a puppet’s mouth. I couldn’t finish it. The whole thing was a terrible distraction.

Jules Feiffer noted in his introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965):
"I couldn’t stand boy companions. If the theory behind Robin the Boy Wonder, Roy the Superboy, The Sandman's Sandy, The Shield's Rusty, The Human Torch's Toro, The Green Arrow's Speedy was to give young readers a character with whom to identify if failed dismally in my case. The super grownups were the ones I identified with. They were versions of me in the future. There was still time to prepare. But Robin the Boy Wonder was my own age. One need only look at him to see he could fight better, swing from a rope better, play ball better, eat better, and live better—for while I lived in the east Bronx, Robin lived in a mansion, and while I was trying, somehow, to please my mother—and getting it all wrong—Robin was rescuing Batman and getting the gold medals…
I didn’t read this until I was a senior in high school, but it cogently articulated how I felt about boy heroes in movies, whether it was the Goonies, or Short Round, or, well, any kid in any Steven Spielberg movie for that matter, and most certainly including The NeverEnding Story. I didn’t want to be Atreyu and I never did. I wanted to be Conan, or Tarzan, or failing a simian education and endurance training on the Wheel of Pain, maybe Grey Mouser. This little shit? Forget it. I was too old. That ship had sailed. Maybe for people who were seven or eight in 1985, this film was transcendent, but not for me. I didn’t care that Fantasia was being consumed by Ennui (how terribly German) and what does it say that the author of the book, Michael Ende, apparently beloved in some corners of the world, was so incensed by the movie that he tried suing the producers to have his name taken off of the film? Wow.

The NeverEnding Story, despite a lackluster performance at the box office, was all part of this indiscriminate shift away from heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery into the realm of fairy tales—not high fantasy, or even epic fantasy (well, not yet). Simply put, if Hollywood was going to spend all this money on a movie, it wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. Fairy tales had romance, and were ostensibly something you could take a child to. These movies were safer bets than another Conan story, which on the surface looked like bloody sword fights and naked women. Back then, people still cared about the difference between a PG rating (or the newly-minted PG-13) and an R rating.

I resent having watched this movie.

That's an awful lot of muppets
in the background, there.
Labyrinth (1986)
As The Muppet Show was winding down on television, the Jim Henson studio was transitioning into movies using the Muppet technology to create fantastic creatures that didn’t look or move like anything else. This is how we got The Dark Crystal (1982), a movie about elves—I mean, Gelflings, and their quest to end up being Adam and Eve. As much as I liked the Skeksis designs in the movie, when Kira sprouted wings and Jen says, “Wings? I don’t have wings.” And Kira replies, “Of course not. You’re a boy.” I was done with the movie. Still, it was a complete word, brought to life, and in a storybook fashion, with far greater technical acumen than many of its contemporaries.

I think it was inevitable that the follow up to The Dark Crystal would be Labyrinth, a more traditional take on the classic baby-snatching changelings and fairy folk of old—the goblins in the movie, which of course, do not resemble the Dungeons and Dragons goblins in any way, shape, or form.

Well, the artwork by
Brian Froud was pretty.
I did not care for The Dark Crystal, but I know a lot of people my age did. And while I certainly cared a great deal about Jennifer Connolly, I really didn’t like Labyrinth, either. That I can understand, though: if you like cute things, like babies, and goblins that look like Muppets, and David Bowie, then this is your jam. I think it’s a better movie than The Dark Crystal, and a more accessible movie than The Dark Crystal, but it was very clear to me that I was not the intended demographic for these movies. Simply put, I do not have the same reaction to David Bowie in a teased-to-the-rafters wig and rock-video-medieval garb holding a baby and singing to it that many women my age do. This movie hastens ovulation for a lot of its fanbase, every time they watch it, but not me. I appreciate Brian Froud’s gorgeous designs—and maybe Pathfinder’s silly and stupid goblins got their start here…who knows? In most of the scenes with goblins, I was reminded of Jabba’s throne room and Salacious B. Crumb.

What I did like was Jennifer Connolly, and the M.C. Escher staircase scene in the heart of the labyrinth. Is that it? Yes, I’m afraid. I know, my heart is cold and dead. I’ve watched the movie a few times since, and nothing ever changes for me. The Muppet performers are fantastic, but at no time do I ever buy that the humans are talking to living things. That alone makes it very hard for me to take any of the movie seriously. When the goblins sing, they all sound exactly like the Muppets from TV.

Labyrinth wears its influences on its sleeve, which is incredible since there were over twenty versions of the script written by a widely diverse array of writers that included Producer George Lucas. The Bowie songs pale in comparison to the songs on Let’s Dance, but when you consider that this movie is about girls transitioning into women, Bowie in the movie makes perfect sense.

Looks like someone made their Bend Bars/Lift Gates roll...!
Princess Bride (1987)
Finally. Something we all agree on.

When this movie hit, it was clearly lightning in a bottle. An eclectic cast; Andre the Giant? Cary Elwes? Wallace Shawn? Mandy Patinkin? Billy Crystal? Chris Sarandon? Christopher Guest? What kind of crazy movie is this? I could list them all and there wouldn’t be a pattern, except maybe in the choice of Rob Reiner as director, selecting people he’d previously worked with. It doesn't matter, really, because they all coalesce into a once-in-a-lifetime storybook romance, literally being read to young Fred Savage by an avuncular Peter Falk, with perfectly timed asides when the kissing shows up, as well as righteous indignation at the notion the villain might escape his just comeuppance.

This movie is comfort food to my generation, both familiar and eternally new, as we catch something we never noticed before or hear a joke in a new way with each repeated viewing. There are monsters of a decidedly gamer-y nature: the Shrieking eels? The Rodents of unusual size? As well as locations like the Cliffs of Insanity and the Fire Swamp. I do not believe for one second that this was a shout-out to the D&D players in the audience, but rather William Goldman tapping brilliantly into the nomenclature of such stories that D&D borrowed for some of its set pieces.

The movie also involves political intrigue, albeit really simplistic, but it was enough to get us thinking. It was also refreshing to have the fair maiden in the story be a mere political prop instead of the universal object of desire for every man in the movie. In fact, only one man really has the hots for her; everyone else is pursuing their own agendas. This never overwhelms the story, but somehow manages to tighten it up.

The Princess Bride is one of the greatest romance movies of all time; it manages to be exciting without being an action movie, funny without being a comedy, and upbeat in the face of heartbreak, war, and death. It skirts the edge of absurd and never quite swings over into camp. All that’s left is an affectionate tribute to the swashbuckling movies of yore, some of the most quoted lines of dialogue in the history of movies, and that glorious, fantastic swordfight.

This poster advertising the VHS
release of the movie is better than
the original poster. 
Masters of the Universe (1987)
The phenomenon known as Mattel’s runaway toy line turned runaway hit cartoon, The Masters of the Universe, was at the end of its run with this movie, a Golan-Globus-produced epic that may or may not have helped put a nail in the Cannon Film Group’s coffin. Dolph Lundgren played He-Man, the muscle-bound hero—hey, he’s a quantum leap above Miles O’Keefe—and Frank Langella played Skeletor as an actual villain and not as comic relief. And speaking of comic, or rather cartoons, well, let’s just say there’s not a lot of blood and guts in the film version of Masters of the Universe.

There was an assumption, I guess, that everyone coming to the movie would already know everything there was to know about He-Man, Teela, Man-at-Arms, and Skeletor and Eternia. That’s why they sent He-Man to…Earth? You know what, I don’t know what they were thinking and neither does anyone else. David Goddard allegedly remarked that his intention was to hide a lot of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World into the story, and if that’s the case, he failed miserably.  

This is light fare, especially for so late in the decade, and seems to be torn about being a movie based on a kid’s cartoon and toy line and being a movie unto itself. The world was competently realized, and the special effects were perfectly adequate. The make-ups and costumes were okay. The movie is just…there, really. It’s shame too, because William Stout did the conceptual art for the movie and what he came up with is fantastic. The budget just didn’t allow for all of it. Hell, the budget didn’t allow for the movie we ended up with.

For people younger than me—my brother, for example, seven years my junior—this is the sweet spot for the late 1980s. Not so for me. My film noir phase was a few years away, as well as a critical survey of Elvis movies. I was deep into horror movies at this point. There’s just nothing in Masters of the Universe for me, then and now, and I suspect that even if you were running a science-fantasy (ugh) game, this movie would not be what you took your inspiration from. The movie isn’t bad enough to be bad, and it’s sure not good enough to be good. It simply is a thing that happened in the 1980s, like Corey Feldman’s career.

What an ugly poster. I'm surprised
that this is what they went with.
Willow (1988)
This could’a should’a would’a been a saving grace for fantasy films. It had the largest budget of any of the movies that had come before it. It had the mighty ILM special effects studio running point, and at a time when computers were starting to help out with certain optical effects—Morphing, it was called; that seamless transition from tiger to human. Big names, like Val Kilmer and, well, Val Kilmer. Nothing against Warwick Davis but, unless you were a Star Wars fan, you had no idea who he was. It had sword fights, and actual sorcery in play, not just glowing effects or luminescent tennis balls in a snowstorm. It had a story by George Lucas. Ron Howard was the director. This could’a should’a would’a been a course correction.

But it was not. And it did not. It’s kinda hard to take George Lucas at his word as to the particulars of when he got an idea and how and why he developed it; instead, let’s talk about what this movie is, even though we all know it anyway: It’s the Star Wars story, by way of Campbell’s monomyth, pushed through Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings like Play-Doh extruding from a Fun Factory.

In many ways, this movie was the fitting finale to the fantasy films of the decade, an effects-laden extravaganza with George Lucas’ name attached, ILM in the house, to better show us all how its done, Ron Howard (and George Lucas over his shoulder) directing, and a large cast running and leaping and chasing and fighting and morphing and kissing and hugging and casting spells and and and…

I will not insult your intelligence by pointing out the obvious and overt similarities to Star Wars, with a nice origin story from the Old Testament, complete with a float down the river. Instead I will opine that I liked it better when it was Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings elements didn’t help matters much, either. When the hobbits—I mean the Nelwyn are tasked with taking the One Ring—I mean the baby to Mount Doom—I  mean, the Daikini Crossroads, I was kinda sorta offended. Did Lucas not think that we read books? Because we do. And filing the serial numbers off of these Campbellian myth concepts didn’t render them unrecognizable.

Simply put, because of the regurgitated set pieces and plot points, I was never really surprised by the movie. I would have preferred that the movie stay in Hobbiton—I mean, the Nelwyn village. There was at least some drama I cared about in those characters. The kids were adorable. Willow’s wife was amazing. And the village felt like a real place. What few surprises the movie held for me were entirely superficial in nature; the monsters, for instance, the Death Dogs, the two-headed dragon, and even the furry ape-men trolls, held my attention better than the main plot of the movie. Oh, and the two brownies? Yeah, with the comical French accents? By the end of the movie, I was ready to go on a murder-spree. So painful, so annoying, so hackneyed and cliché, so stupid!

The movie looks nice, thanks to ILM and all of their work. Ron Howard juggled all of the components and got good performances out of the supporting characters. Had this been my first rodeo, I probably would have loved it unconditionally. But with everything that had come before it, the quest narrative and the bumbling sorcerer, and all of the other trappings, made for a been-there, done-that kind of experience. I think Willow was to the Fantasy film genre what Silverado was to the Western genre. As for D&D? It was nothing new, either. We had all of that stuff, already named, detailed, and in some cases, far more interesting. This movie broke no new ground.

The thing that all of these movies have in common? Disappointing box office returns. They were all universally expensive to make, and they didn’t do as well as expected, or at all, until cable and the VHS (and later DVD) markets allowed them to find their audience. Time and nostalgia play a heavy part in that, as well. As the 1980s trundled to a close, Reagan left office under a cloud of scandal from the Iran-Contra hearings and the Iron Curtain came down shortly thereafter. Batman premiered in 1989 and was the blockbuster that everyone was looking for, and the movie industry pivoted away from fantasy. Peter Jackson’s ambitious Lord of the Rings trilogy was twelve years away. Dungeons and Dragons likewise moved into its second edition, codifying and streamlining the various tomes that had been published in the decade. Demons were banished, along with Half-Orcs and Assassins, in favor of a kinder, gentler role-playing game. 

The Age of THAC0 was upon us.  

Reviewing Art & Arcana

You have probably seen or heard about this massive tome on The Internets or maybe seen a review on The YouTubes. Art & Arcana is a gi...