Saturday, June 1, 2013

Krull (1983)... Jak's Pick for June


As I type this paragraph, I've never seen the movie Krull, and yet it's my own pick for this month. I know a few people who have seen it, and all of them either loved it because it was so bad or hated it because it was so bad. So apparently I'm in for a bad movie if my friends and Rotten Tomatoes' 33% rating are to be trusted. This is not why I chose this film.

When I was very young, we had an Atari 2600 game console. Thanks to the plummeting prices from the video game market crash at the time, we ended up getting a good collection that I spent a lot of my early youth playing through. My uncle had one as well, and since we would only very rarely go to his house (Thanksgiving and a couple of birthdays were at his place, and the rest were at my grandmother's), the games he had that we didn't have were like exotic treasures to me. Among these was a cartridge labeled "Krull", with ominous cover art and levels that had so many wildly different things going on that I couldn't keep up. I figured if it confused me that much, it had to be a really good and deep game. When I found out it was based on a movie, I imagined how awesome the scenes that inspired the levels must be.

Early impressions carry an awful lot of weight, and I have a feeling that's going to make this an interesting experience for me. Even knowing now that the game's levels are really nothing more than tenuously linked-together, dressed-up rehashes of Kaboom, Pitfall, and Breakout, I still tend to think of it as a game with far more depth than a cartridge of that era could possibly hold, even as I'm playing it and cataloging every influence.

Similarly, even knowing that every person I know and every source I can find agrees that Krull is a pretty bad movie, I'm finding myself expecting that the film will have the same awe-inspiring depth that I can't seem to shake of my impression of the game that's loosely based on it. Young Jak really wants this movie to be good. It's about time to see if it is.

It starts off with the bladed star weapon, that I already know from the game manual to be called the Glaive, boomeranging around through space to bring us the title in what must have been fairly impressive special effects at the time it came out in 1983. A huge structure which looks like equal parts geode and petrified wood enters the scene and flies toward a planet with two suns where it eventually lands in the middle of a desolate landscape, breaking and shifting the land around it. It's the Black Fortress, the narrator informs us, the stronghold of The Beast and his army of Slayers which travels from world to world enslaving each one's inhabitants. Its latest visit is to the world known as Krull, where there's a prophecy that a girl will become a queen who will choose a king and have a son who will rule the galaxy.

We next see this girl, Princess Lyssa, in the middle of a conversation with her father, King Eirig. He's opposed to her idea of marrying Colwyn, the son of another king whose country theirs is apparently at odds with. She argues that they must have a guaranteed alliance with their enemies to stand against these new invaders from the Black Fortress.

We get right to the wedding which is soon interrupted by a contingent of Slayers. Of course, Lyssa is captured by the Slayers after a melee in the castle with Colwyn and the soldiers after the two kings are killed. Colwyn is hit with a Slayer's beam and falls unconscious as everyone else is slaughtered.

The next morning, an old man who we learn is called Ynyr the Old One treats Colwyn's wounds amidst the dead. He tells Colwyn that Lyssa is being held in the Black Fortress by The Beast, who can only be taken down by a mythical weapon called the Glaive which must be retrieved from a mountain peak. Colwyn scales the mountain and, after navigating some harrowing conditions, he comes back with the weapon in hand, ready to tackle the Black Fortress, only to be told by Ynyr that the fortress changes its location with every sunrise. The blind Emerald Seer can help locate it, so they head off to find him. On their way, they meet a clumsy magician named Ergo who accompanies them. Meanwhile, inside the fortress, The Beast tells Lyssa he intends to have her as his queen, in an effort to be the king of the prophecy whose son will rule the galaxy.

On their way through a mountain pass, they are ambushed by a small group of criminals who are convinced to join Colwyn's quest to take down the invaders. The group is trailed by a cyclops, Rell, who kills a Slayer that had spotted Ergo. Soon, they reach the Emerald Seer who attempts to locate the fortress before his visions are interrupted by The Beast. They bring the Seer to the Emerald Temple in the middle of a swamp where he can work beyond The Beast's influence. After a battle with Slayers and the loss of one of the criminals to quicksand, the Seer is killed by a doppelganger who nearly kills Colwyn before being dispatched by Rell. Colwyn's only option now is visiting the Widow of the Web, a dangerous sorceress who Ynyr once loved long ago.

Ynyr reaches the Widow alone and she reveals where the Fortress will rise the next day, though the price of acquiring the knowledge ends up being his life. He tells Colwyn where it is, the Iron Desert, before he dies. The Iron Desert is unreachable in time except by using Fire Mares, which the group rounds up and rides to the Fortress. Once there, they are soon attacked by Slayers. They eventually make their way into the Fortress, at the cost of Rell and a few of the criminals.

Colwyn uses the Glaive to enter the princess's chamber where she tells him he must fight The Beast. He does and eventually wins. The world of Krull is saved.

From the opening shots of the Black Fortress dawdling through space, I had a feeling this was going to be another optical effects reel masquerading as a movie. I feel like I was both right and wrong at the same time, because there are two very different movies mashed together here.

If we divide the film into thirds, I really enjoyed the middle third of the movie. It showed off the impressive sets and locations without lingering, the story moved smoothly from one adventure to another, making me genuinely want to see what happened next, and I found myself liking and caring about a lot of the characters as they were fleshed out - something which surprised me because I find that most quest genre movies with a larger cast tend to just give their characters paper doll archetypal personalities and choose to leave the depth to other genres.

The first and the last thirds are almost exactly the opposite of that. When we're not getting reams of backstory dumped on us in one minute, we're hanging on shots that seem to be designed solely to show off the locations and special effects. During the Slayers' siege of the kingdom, we have so many long stares at a single cart on fire which just plod on as if the movie's saying "Look. It's on FIRE. We set something on fire and we filmed it. Look at that thing on FIRE." Lyssa doesn't so much as react when she sees her father get killed. There are literally three full minutes of Colwyn climbing the mountain to reach the Glaive.

Somewhere soon after this part, the film finds its legs for a good while, with promising character development and exciting pacing. Then from around the point where Ynyr dies, it's a downhill slide right back into Bad Movie Land as the characters are reduced to one-note parodies of their earlier potential, and the pace goes all over the place again.

It's an extremely uneven experience, which is much more frustrating than a plain bad flick, because the cast and crew proved they could have made this a very good movie if just a little more effort and thought had been put into the opening and closing acts. The special effects were mostly impressive, though I felt the fight scenes came off kind of forced, sluggish, and awkward in their execution. The wardrobe was a neat mix of medieval and sci-fi, and the sets were beautiful and expansive. It was good that at least a few of them were part of a good movie, even if that movie was buried in the middle of a bad one. Even if it wasn't the movie that young me thought it would be.

Maybe that movie's out there somewhere. Sorry kid, this one isn't it. I wonder what Angie and Noel thought of it?


For the longest time, I thought Krull was a Conan the Barbarian rip off. "Isn't that the one they remade with Kevin Sorbo?" I would say when someone mentioned it. "No, that's Kull the Conqueror." Kull, Krull, they're practically the same thing. Then I'd see a poster with the Beast's rather ugly head on it and assume it was a straight sci-fi story, one of the many attempted rip offs of Star Wars that appeared in the early 80s, so I never bothered with it. But in recent years, I've been more curious about it.

While there's certainly some Star Wars influence present, there's also a bit of The Lord of the Rings. I'm not entirely sure if the sci-fi laser beams really mesh well with the otherwise fantasy setting. They feel tacked on, desperately trying to remind you of light sabers without actually including any. Beyond that, it's mostly a fantasy tale, and as a huge fan of most of the 80s films in the genre, I found things here and there that I could enjoy from this movie.

Ergo's entrance into the film makes you think he's going to be absolutely terrible, but apparently first impressions aren't everything, because he ends up being one of the better characters of the whole film. His presence is sorely needed at that point, since Colwyn is a vanilla bland lead and Ynyr a poor Obi Wan Kenobi substitute. From then on, the film just follows the same pattern. Our heroes walk until they run into more people, convince the people to join them, and then keep walking. This movie is paced like The Lord of the Rings is written. We don't need to watch Colwyn's entire climb up the mountain when nothing happens but a minor avalanche, and we don't need to see their entire journey on the fire mares to reach the Black Fortress. The pacing also hurts during the quicksand scene, where it doesn't look like the guy actually legitimately is sucked under because it moves so slowly and he isn't really struggling all that much.

Besides Ergo, I really like Rell the Cyclops, even if his makeup is fairly poor. Pretty much all the effects in this movie are very poor. Obviously noticeable green screen, bad creature effects, bad transformations from Ergo, just all of it. The only thing I think looks great is the crystal spider. It takes you out of the movie a bit when you're noticing just how bad these things look.

I'm also disappointed in just how minor a role Lyssa plays in the story. The legend says she will become queen and choose her king, so you would think we're getting a strong-willed, brave woman, but instead all we get is a damsel in distress. I can't measure the disappointment I felt when I saw her grab that sword as the castle is under attack, and then quickly just toss it to a guard only to watch him get killed. And instead of picking up another and fighting, she just gets captured. I can't help but compare her to Lily in Legend, who ends up in a similar predicament, but takes care of herself so much better (particularly if you watch the director's cut of that film). But I do like the idea that this prophecy is a repeating one, where there can be multiple Lyssas and the circumstances just have to be right. It reminds me of The Legend of Zelda, where the young Link appears over and over again throughout history to save the world.

Overall, I'd say this film is ripe for a remake. Use some much better effects and tighten up the pacing, pick a more charismatic male lead, and update Lyssa's role so that she puts up more of a fight. I'd say Liam Neeson could come back and play Ynyr this time, but he's already been Qui-Gon and there's no need for him to repeat that kind of role again.


Krull is an odd film, and one I keep revisiting despite saying I don't like it all that much. The early 80s was a great period for fantasy movies, but while the likes of Dragonslayer, Willow, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Legend, The Never Ending Story, and a good handful of others dazzled audiences with innovative visuals and eye-popping design work, Krull suffered alongside Clash of the Titans in that it felt old. Both were the products of studios and technicians who were passing their prime and tried in vain to keep up with talented newcomers who were pushing the industry in bold new directions, and thus those films feel exactly like what they are: the product of a bunch of old guys trying to stay cool for a new generation of kids, without really having a clue how to do so, so they just fell back on lazy imitation or old tricks which date the films and leave them feeling more like something made a decade or more earlier.

Which is a shame, because there is a lot about Krull which actually holds up. As Jak points out, the middle section is where the film is at its strongest, with some solid setpieces and an interesting batch of characters steadily (if a bit randomly) introduced into the party. You've got Ergo, the boisterous magician who can't keep his scribbled notes for spells separate from his recipes for pies, and who complains and boasts and whines and sidetracks for sweets, yet still dives in to help when the chips fall. You've got the band of outlaws and ruffians led by the great Alun Armstrong as Torquil (and also including Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane in very early roles), as men scraping by to stay alive outside the law, who are given a chance by the new king to make their sons proud and earn freedom from the chains they still wear. You've got the blind seer, tragically unable to see how the Beast will outwit him on both occasions he tries to help, and the boy apprentice who finds a new family once his mentor is slain. You've got Rell, the Cyclops, whose entire race is a tragedy in that they sold one of their eyes to the Beast for the gift of foresight, but the only future they see is the moment they'll die.

I've used the word tragedy in the last two of those bits, and that's where the strength of this section of the film lies, in that it has powerfully tragic stories that it hits the characters with, then challenges them to rise above it and move on. Even as the climax turns into silliness, Rell still goes out with a great hero moment as he defies his fated death and saves the day, even though that destines him to go out in a way of even greater pain. Even more tragic is Ynyr, who goes from being the token Ben Kenobi figure to almost stealing the show as things sidetrack into a sweeping classical fable that tells his entire life story in the span of 10 minutes through his history with the Widow of the Web, whom he saves from her fate even as he excepts the fate which finally brings him to an end. There's some shoddy stop-motion and they linger way too long on the aged Freddie Jones genuinely struggling to climb along the web, but this section is still the most moving piece for me.

And yet, despite these great moments, the film still ultimately doesn't work. Again, Jak hit the nail on the head in that the opening and closing acts are a mess, randomly throwing in cliches they're swiping from other stuff and general random nonsense. And our two leads don't help. Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony are fine actors (Lysette especially doesn't deserve the voice they idiotically dubbed over her just because a producer thought she sounded "too British"), but Lyssa spends half the film ineffectively running through poorly designed corridors, and Ken Marshall, our hero, lacks an actual hero's journey. Seriously, they throw a few challenges at him now and then, but he ends the film exactly the proud, noble leader he opens the picture as, going through no change, no growth, nothing to make us form an attachment to him as our lead. He's already rising to the challenge in the first act, so it means very little when he rises to the challenge in the third.

I don't usually bring drafts of the script into pieces for this site, but I'm really quite fond of the early draft of Krull, and I think mentioning it can add a little context for how the film ended up as it did. Originally, it was purely a medieval fantasy piece, where the Beast was a giant black dragon, recently awoken by dark magic after having been banished to a demon realm centuries ago, and the Fortress, his mountain, never flew into space. The Slayers, instead of the oddly designed zombie storm troopers we get here, were entirely human people who pledged to fight for the Beast just so he wouldn't destroy their lands and families.

Dragonslayer beat them to the punch in 1981, so the dragon was out. Okay. They made it a demon beast thingie. Fine. H.R. Giger was hot, so they decided to cop his style for the villains. Unfortunately, everything he draws is clearly penises and vaginas, so by stripping and sanitizing those elements, they're left with flat, bland designs that don't look like much of anything. The sets are instead just smooth curves of... nothing, and look exactly like the poorly lit pieces of plaster and fiberglass they are. And they obviously had no confidence in the Beast suit they built, so they both hide it in shadows, and shoot it with a blurry kaleidoscope effect which, instead of building mystery, has the feel of Mom shoving her hand over your eyes when something she doesn't want you to see comes on TV. Even for the human characters, while their costuming is very nice, the prop work just looks cheap and shoddy, with axes and pikes and Rell's trident designed with flimsy handles and impractical blades. And the Glaive. I've never been a fan of the Glaive. It looks kinda cool for a second, but Ken Marshall has to keep holding it in odd ways to keep from slicing his own wrist, and when it's in use, the whibble-whibble-whibble sound it makes is more adorable than daunting.

And by turning the Slayers from actual people into stormtroopers, they undercut the scale of this world, the conflicting politics of the Colwyn/Lyssa relationship (she originally had a mother, and the rival kings were Colwyn's father and a Slayer character who carried on throughout the story), and leave the place feeling surprisingly deserted. We hear about a village, but don't see any of them beyond some women with food. When we're at the castle, it's just the four main figures of royalty and a bunch of soldiers, with absolutely zero presence of a commoner populace. I understand cutting out unnecessary masses for budgetary reasons, but this also makes every encounter in the story feel more random. Rell has a reason for being there, but Ergo and Torquil's band are just random people they come across who just randomly decide to tag along. By stripping out other encounters with people, which tied into those who sold out and became Slayers, we don't get any breaks between the meaningful encounters to keep them from feeling like the plot points they are.

Also, someone at some point said the story wasn't Star Wars enough, so they decided to shoe-horn some bullshit scifi elements into it. And you can tell they were added late, because every mention of other worlds or the galaxy come through voiceover or ADR lines just as a character's mouth is off screen. Also added were all the laser effects. The Slayer weapons, instead of firing beams, actually have a metal bolt at one end which they fire like a harpoon gun. Once that single shot is gone, they flip the weapon around to a piked end for melee combat. It's a musket/bayonet type of thing, and a genuinely thoughtful idea, but sticking laser animation over the metal bolts they fire has led to many a person complaining about why the aliens that shoot lasers don't keep shooting their lasers.

In the end, I like parts of this movie, and parts of what this movie was originally meant to be, but it's so shoddy at times, and so horribly compromised by the studio at others, that it just plain doesn't hold together. It's certainly watchable, and a must-see for RPG fans to want to see something resembling a table-top adventure brought to life, but it's not good. It had potential and tries so damn hard, but it just didn't fall into the hands of the right people, so it ended up broken and a shadow of what it should have been.

But the score. Holy hell the sweeping, swashbuckler score by James Horner is one of his best, and while it doesn't quite manage to be the glue that holds things together, it certainly does its job of backing the powerful moments and elevating some of the weaker ones. The ride of the fire mares, especially, is a rollicking adventure with his theme, even as it plays over a painfully drawn out deus ex machina which moves into lousy matte effects.


I've never paid too much attention to the Star Wars phenomenon beyond seeing the films and noticing "yep, there sure is a diehard fanbase for this series," so the now-obvious comparisons to it went completely unnoticed to me when I was watching Krull. That we all seemed to have a similar experience with the film anyway kind of shows me that even when you take out the derivative factor, it's still the same poor movie. If you liked the soundtrack, you can pretty much hear it again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

I agree with Noel that the wrong people executed this, and I agree with Angie that it should be remade. As much as I believe that remakes perpetuate the culture of unnecessary repetition masking as creativity, I think I would pay to see a second take on this in the theater. I can count on one hand how many movies I've seen at the theater in the past ten years, so that's a heavy statement from me.

In the meantime, I can still play the game, and somehow the movie it's based on hasn't tainted that for me. Jumping the strands of web in the Crystal Spider's lair, fending off Slayers in the chapel, riding to the shimmering Black Fortress - I can still see them as scenes from an amazing adventure movie, except now I know it's a movie that nobody's made yet. Maybe that makes it better. Better than that, maybe someone will make that movie one day. Until then, Krull is best enjoyed with the expectation of failed execution.

Next month is Angie's pick, Floopy-Doo And The Penis Mightier Than The Borg, a porno Star Trek fan fic by the internets converted to a screenplay and directed by John Waters. See you then.

We'll be back on the 1st of August with Angie's actual pick: Matango, aka Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

Much like running a Danny Bonaduce fan club, defending Krull is a lonely pop culture outpost. I don't know why God has tasked me with being the patron saint of this particular cinematic lost cause, but I suppose it could've been worse. I mean, I could've drawn Howard the Duck... wait, I actually like that movie, too. *Looks skyward* Why, God, why?!

I'm not going to try and tell the three of you why you're wrong, but instead why I'm right. Kidding. Only kidding. First, I have to preface this by saying that I am not blinded by nostalgia here. For me, Krull was merely part of a mosaic of interchangeable genre films from my youth; (The aforementioned) Dragonslayer, Clash of the Titans, The Beastmaster, et. Sure I watched it dozens of times on HBO, but I also used to masturbate to the lingerie section of the Sunday Sales ads. That doesn't mean I still get a chub every time I open the Sunday paper. Indeed, instead of a nostalgic touchstone, Krull became part of the white noise of my youth, and after a while I began to think that it sucked because that's what everyone else said. But after a chance encounter on cable about a decade ago, the veil was lifted and I saw Krull in a whole new light.

All of you did a great job of illustrating its notable strengths; The score (And Jak is so right, Horner was clearly still in WOK mode), the colorful and interesting sidekicks and the wonderful actors who bring them to life (and I must emphasize how rare that is in a genre film like this, even today). But Noel, in a critique of the movie, actually highlighted what I love so much about it. "thus those films feel exactly like what they are: the product of a bunch of old guys trying to stay cool for a new generation of kids, without really having a clue how to do so, so they just fell back on lazy imitation or old tricks which date the films and leave them feeling more like something made a decade or more earlier.". I do know what he's saying here, and he's not wrong any more than I'm right. I just happen to appreciate the fact that Krull isn't one of those now all to common cases where directors who grew up on a certain type of film try to marry a classic aesthetic to modern sensibilities, but is instead a film with classic sensibilities that incorporates a modern aesthetic.

Krull is a delightfully uncomplicated film where heroic acts are punctuated by the sound of ringing trumpets and rewarded with a kiss from a fair maiden... even if her voice happens to be dubbed.

Great work, as always :). Keep it up!