Beyond the Slimy Wall: Dragon Storm
By Stephanie Star Smith
November 23, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook-movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture Beyond the Slimy Wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
When Sci-Fi Originals Productions hits it, they really hit it out of the proverbial park. And increasingly, they're getting those nice, fat pitches over the plate and then sending them soaring up and over the Green Monster.
This week's offering, Dragon Storm, is a prime example. The premise is a simple one: in medieval times on a planet that may or may not be Earth, giant asteroids rain down from the sky, each with its own little surprise inside. Nope; not a creamy nougat center, but a dragon. Your basic fire-breathing, flying, nasty-tempered-as-hell dragon. And the dragons waste no time in getting down to what dragons of legend do best: eating people and setting things on fire.
Good stuff, Maynard.
This being the apparent Middle Ages, population centers are few and far between, so the dragons first lay waste to some outlying farmhouses, and that's just for openers. Soon they are heading for the feudal fiefdoms, and the introductions to our dramatis personae begin. A messenger from one of these small enclaves has come to warn King Fastrad - played to the hilt by the criminally-underemployed John Rhys-Davies - who naturally doesn't believe a word of it. Just as he's about to mete out punishment to the poor serf who has brought him such a crazy tale, however, the dragons arrive, and make sure that King Fastrad gets an up-close-and-personal look at their bad selves. And for those of you who, like me, believed the feudal keeps were made of stone and not capable of burning...well, either that was an incorrect impression, or these dragons have some pretty impressive (literal) firepower. Not that Fastrad's fiefdom was any great shakes property value-wise to begin with, but the dragons destroy it in about ten highly-entertaining minutes.
Fastrad, his top aide, and several of the royal bodyguards survive, of course, and head towards the nearby - in Middle Ages terms, cause in fact this place be a long, long ways away - fiefdom of King Wednesbury, who, according to some treaty or other, has to give them refuge and help Fastrad rebuild his fiefdom. All this despite the fact that, since he came on-screen, Fastrad has been plotting to overthrow Wednesbury, a pastime he continues as he and his entourage travel across the snowy land to Wednesbury's keep. Along the way, they encounter a hunter named Silas, who offers to escort them to their destination and ensure they aren't eaten by any four-legged forest beasties...for the right price. Seeing as how none of them are any too sure where they are, much less how to get to Wednesbury's realm, they agree. This gets them to Wednesbury, where Fastrad betrays Silas immediately as a poacher of the King's game before relaying their tragic tale to their host. After offering them, as he must, refuge, Wednesbury goes on to tell the audience exactly why it was that Fastrad's former lands were so picayune, and very nearly makes the audience sympathetic with Fastrad's desire to off him by lecturing the supplicant about learning the ways of being a proper king. Cause really, Wednesbury, nobody likes that kind of finger-shaking dress-down, particularly after seeing his/her lands burnt up by supposedly mythical creatures. So now that we've established the good guys, the bad guys, the wild card and the common enemy, we have only to meet the fiefdom's resident wise man, the Kwai Caine/Bruce Lee mystic warrior wannabe, the grieving relative who wants revenge on the creatures what done killed - in this case - her father and brother, and Wednesbury's trusted aide and decidedly butch daughter, and our cast of characters is complete.
Fortunately for exposition purposes, one of the meteors was heavily damaged on its way through the Earth's/Earth-like planet's atmosphere, and the not-so-chocolaty surprise waiting inside never got to burst out of its asteroid cocoon like some malevolent butterfly. This allows the King's Scholar to study and then to pontificate, rather anachronistically, upon the nature of the beastie that it has been decided that all the characters we've met, save the two kings and Fastrad's aide, will be hunting. The good fortune plotted by the scripters continues when it turns out Grieving Relative's father was working on another somewhat anachronistic device, a combination crossbow and catapult that incorporates the equivalent of a gunsight, the better to shoot down flying dragons with. So off our little party goes, traipsing through the countryside, playing Red-Shirt, Red-Shirt, Who's the Next Red-Shirt?, The Medieval Edition, whilst at home, Fastrad plots to overthrow Wednesbury and blackmail Wednesbury's number-one aide to do away with Silas, whom he fears overheard his E-ville scheme. And I'm not really giving anything away to say that, after lots of cool action sequences involving dragon fights and intrigues both foiled and nearly succeeding, the bad king is defeated, the good king lives, his daughter and Silas fall in love, and all those who survived to the final reel with a talent for it lived happily ever after.
Synopsis safely out of the way, I'll get right to the part that is most likely at the top of everyone's minds here: how are the dragons? In a word: fan-effin'-tastic. In the past, Sci-Fi Originals flicks have had some serious issues with CGI beasties, so with the titular characters being so very important to the film, it was gratifying to see that someone took the time and trouble to make sure the dragons looked as realistic as they possibly could. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that some of the people who worked on the dragons for Dragon Storm were amongst the ones who created the dragons for Discovery Channel's wonderful Dragons' World: A Fantasy Made Real program earlier this year. Not only do they fly and dive like one would expect winged predators to do, but the fire effects are incredibly believable, amazing and awesome. Yeah, yeah; some folks will try to tell you that the humans are the stars of the show, but we all know it's the dragons that intrigued us, the dragons that got us to consider watching this film in the first place, and our flying nemeses do not disappoint.
The acting is generally pretty good, too, led by the peerless John Rhys-Davies. Really, someone needs to get this man a series stat; maybe he can play a professor of antiquities who gets caught up in adventures...no, wait; I think that role is taken. But seriously, John Rhys-Davies can take the most outlandish lines and deliver them as if he believes them with his whole heart and soul, and in this genre, that's an invaluable skill to have. Richard Wharton, who you've probably never seen in anything else (and might not recognize him if you have) is quite the treat as the know-it-all Theldurg, a find to keep one's eye on. In fact, all of the actors in the major roles acquit themselves well...with the exception of Maxwell Caulfield as Silas. Once upon a time, it seems, Caulfield was quite the nighttime soap hunk, and as many soap fans know, being a soap hunk - or a soap honey, for that matter - doesn't necessarily require much in the way of acting ability, particularly in the nighttime soaps. Sadly for Caulfield, he is not one of the exceptions who has actual acting talent, or even intelligence, for that matter. In fact, it's a bit hard to understand why he was a soap hunk in the first place, given the decided lack of testosterone he displays here, an absolute disadvantage when the character one is portraying is supposedly a lone wolf-type hunter who survives by his wits and wilderness skills on the fringes of society. Even though the recent trend - see Troy and LotR - is toward decidedly fey warriors, many of us still expect our rugged he-man types to be, you know, manly. His complete lack of acting ability doesn't help him any, either. Saying all your lines in a monotone doesn't indicate masculinity, son; it just indicates you've no idea how to emote.
But perhaps the biggest surprise here, in terms of the creative forces, is that the director of Dragon Storm is Stephen "Flounder" Furst. I was unaware of his directing ventures before this film, but if all his work is a satisfying as Dragon Storm, then he can count me as much of a fan of his behind-the-camera efforts as I was of his role on St Elsewhere.
At just over an hour-and-a-half, Dragon Storm doesn't wear out its welcome, and since the dragons appear from nearly the first scene, you don't have to wait ages for a look at the real stars of the film. Snappy dialogue, journeyman directing and acting efforts, and especially great dragon effects make Dragon Storm one to put on your TiVo Wish List to savor when the air turns crisp and you can cozy up to a mug of hot-buttered rum, imagining it was warmed by your very own pet dragon.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.