Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Back Shelf Memories: 'Krull'

No, really, I’m still here.

To mark what I hope is a glorious comeback, I had an idea for an article series which would take an affectionate look at the more entertaining cult films of yore. You know, that kind of movie. The type with lavish, eye-catching artwork you’d once find (and going back to the topic of those mythical VHS rental shops) positioned far away from the more mainstream releases; neatly nestled somewhere just out of sight between Alligator II: The Mutation and Sewage Baby over against the back wall.

Krull is one such film. In 1983, the general reception was by no means kill it with fire, but it didn’t exactly manage to set the world alight. Released during the big swords ‘n’ sorcery boom which followed Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, and seemingly drawing a degree of inspiration from both, it comes across as a peculiar hodgepodge of the science fiction and fantasy genres. So sci-fan, then (much as I’d like to coin that term, I think it’s already established).  

The planet Krull is invaded by an intergalactic big bad known as “The Beast”, who travels across the solar system in his BLACK FORTRESS (basically a giant mountain spaceship which looks like the Fisher Price play set from Hell), with the aim of conquering every world in the galaxy (there’s yer sci-fi). After his minions, called “Slayers”, quickly make short work of the planet’s two ruling kingdoms (about thirty to fifty people in total, from the looks of it) and kidnap Princess Lyssa before her marriage to Prince Colwyn can be completed, it’s up to the now tragically crowned King Colwyn to lead a rag-tag group of followers on a journey to the Black Fortress, rescue Lyssa and ultimately destroy the Beast (and yer fantasy). It’s all kinda like an extreme version of the first Ewok Adventures film, really.

You’ll pick up on other great genre contrasts throughout, such as how the fairy tale-style castle contains a number of guards dressed up like a more colourful version of those engineer troopers that served on the first Death Star. 

 I'm not convinced he can see past the visor.

It’s also fun how, during the main action sequences, the heroes find themselves relying on blades, while the Slayers pack laser-blasting spears (just as awesome as it sounds). One of the most jarring moments comes soon after the Black Fortress has landed on Krull and we see the Slayers riding out on horseback. I mean, were they space horses or something? Maybe the Beast’s already invaded Earth and kept them on board. Oh, but hang on, Krull does have native horses.... and some can even fly... what the hell’s going on in this galaxy?

Horses from space aren’t the only fishy plot device, however. Krull is filled with odd titbits like that. Right off the bat, we’re told of the following ancient prophecy:

A girl of ancient name shall become queen. And she shall choose a king. Together they will rule the world. And their son will rule the galaxy.

It is of course referring to the marriage between Colwyn and Lyssa, and it would certainly explain why the Beast decides to park his mountain on Krull and gate-crash their wedding in the first place… but that’s a bit of a leap in faith, isn’t it? For one thing, Krull is quite clearly a planet that’s fixed in some kind of fantastical medieval era with absolutely no means of space travel. If they have other means of crossing the stars, then it’s never brought up. So unless there’s some kind massive industrial leap in time for the next generation of Krullians, I can’t quite grasp how Colwyn’s son is going to set himself up as ruler of the entire galaxy.

Stop me if I’m reading too far into it.

And then there’s the Glaive: a five bladed throwing star of ultimate destruction. Apparently. Something tells me this was intended to be the next big fantasy weapon after the lightsaber, but it never lives up to its potential. Colwyn is told how the Glaive is their only hope against the Beast’s mighty power, and that without it they might as well give up. He goes through a ridiculous amount of effort to find it, too. It’s not until after he’s scaled a whole mountain, entered the cave at its peak and then dipped his arm down into the pool of molten lava there before he’s finally holding the stupid thing. And after that it’s resigned to a place on his utility belt for ninety per cent of the film! Yes, Colwyn gets to chuck it around for about five minutes during the climax, but by that point I’d nearly forgotten it existed. The fact that it’s rendered pointless by the end just rubs salt in the wound.    

While the characters are pretty forgettable (the bereaved hero with vengeance on his mind, an annoying comic relief magician guy, and the old mentor who probably won’t make it through the second act alive, etc.), Krull does at least have a noteworthy cast. Well, a small handful of noteworthy cast members, anyway. Just about everyone involved here would fade into obscurity save for two early appearances from Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson in enjoyable though sadly underutilised supporting roles, along with Alun Armstrong (of New Tricks fame) playing the gruff bandit leader who gradually forms an almost-but-not-quite-bromantic bond with Colwyn as time goes by. Bernard Bresslaw also deserves a mention as Rell the Cyclops, whose tragic nature and deadpan delivery goes some way towards making him the character you’ll sympathise for the most.       

Krull is definitely a set-piece movie, and I’d have a hard time faulting it for lack of imagination. Although sluggishly paced at times, there’s plenty of big, exciting action scenes on offer. The Slayers’ early castle raid is a violent flurry of laser blasts and impalements; a battle in the swamps takes a turn for the worse when the ground is turned to quick sand; and the climactic assault on the Black Fortress makes good use of high ledges for people to fall off. Colwyn’s final confrontation with the Beast is a little underwhelming, sadly. But whatever the scene, they’re all given added gravitas by James Horner’s stirring musical score.     

Much like with Clash of the Titans, the real stars of Krull are the various and grotesque nasties sent by The Beast to make Colwyn’s quest more difficult. Decked out in black battle armour, The Slayers may appear humanoid, but upon death they let out “the most annoying sound in the world” as a slimy organism bursts from their helmet and burrows down into the ground. The Beast also sends out stealthy “Changelings”, which can seemingly take the form of anyone before reverting into a screeching, black-eyed creature with gnarled talons when closing in for the kill. Arguably the film’s stand-out sequence features one character’s hairy encounter with a rather large spider as he clambers across its gargantuan web (again, it’s freakin’ Ewok Adventures). Far as I know, this wonderful stop-motion arachnid is one of the last visual effects of its kind, and stands proud as a great reminder of the days before CGI. 


Do spare a thought for the Beast himself, though. One of the more bizarre subplots involves his attempts to woo and ultimately marry Princess Lyssa (who’s trapped in what looks like what might happen if H.R. Giger experimented with art deco). Using his velvety baritones, he goes to such lengths as bribing her with giant combusting roses, changing his form to a creepy red-eyed Colwyn doppelganger so as to make her feel more at ease, and even tries getting one of his shape shifting minions to seduce the prince while forcing Lyssa to watch. Top marks for effort. I guess, when you really think about it, being a fifty foot tall reptilian humanoid with tentacle hair and an exposed brain must be lonely…    

With its thirtieth anniversary fast approaching, Krull stands out from the crowd as an enjoyable slice of early 80s swords ‘n’ sorcery cinema that’s still worth your attention. Thanks to the combination of high production values which prevent it from looking too dated, a great cast to lift the script above its hokey nature, along with an endearing overall sense of creative charm, it’s easy to understand why there’s been three decades-worth of steadily building cult affection for it.

Plus, Krull is a pretty cool title.