Krull (1983) **
It’s difficult to convey how cool Krull looked through the eyes of a nine-year-old in 1983. When you’ve got that “childlike sense of wonder” thing working for you, it doesn’t much matter how nonsensically a movie’s sci-fi and medieval fantasy elements are combined, how devoid of narrative logic its plot is, or how curiously little use the film gets out of the very features it was apparently designed around in the first place. And when you’re still squarely within the target demographic for elephant jokes, you might not even notice how horribly unfunny a wizard whose spells invariably backfire in exactly the same way can become. However, as you might have surmised from the foregoing, Krull looks substantially less appealing through the eyes of a 32-year old in 2007, from which perspective all those faults (and a number of others) are much more difficult to ignore.
Now one question an adult might ask right up front (but which never crossed my nine-year-old mind for a second) is just what in the hell a “Krull” is supposed to be. That’s easy— it’s a planet orbiting at a comfortable distance from a binary star, where the native humanoid lifeform has somehow managed to develop a fairly detailed awareness of the populated universe beyond their world without ever advancing technologically beyond the level of the High Middle Ages, except in a couple of tightly circumscribed areas. In other words, it’s very much like Eternia as it appeared in the earliest iteration of the “Masters of the Universe” mythos around the same time as this movie’s release. Anyway, Krull has a big problem. Across the interstellar gulfs has sailed the Black Fortress, mobile headquarters of the Beast and his army, the Slayers, who have come to reign in blood over Krull as they do over countless other planets. The people of Krull, apparently, are as disunited as those of Earth today, and the Beast’s forces have been able to overrun the planet, picking off defending kingdoms piece by piece. That’s about to change, however, for Lyssa (Lysette Anthony, who went on to Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde and Trilogy of Terror II), daughter of King Eirig (Bernard Archard, from The Horror of Frankenstein and Village of the Damned), means to force an alliance upon her father and his lifelong enemy, King Turold (Tony Church). The key to this plan will be Lyssa’s marriage to Turold’s son, Colwyn (Ken Marshall, of Claws— not the late-70’s Grizzly rip-off, but the one from 1982 about the mutant wildcats). The two kings grumble a bunch, and exchange a few recriminations once Turold’s party arrives at Eirig’s castle, but the two kids are too much in love for their fathers to stay angry very long. Unfortunately, the Beast has sent a regiment of Slayers to crash the wedding. They show no mercy whatsoever upon breaching the main gate, and the fighting men of both kings— to say nothing of the monarchs themselves— all die by the sword within the hour. All, that is, except Colwyn, who is merely wounded and incapacitated in an attempt to prevent the Slayers’ field commander from carrying off Lyssa.
The next day, Ynyr the Old One (Freddie Jones, of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Firestarter) comes down from his hermitage in the Granite Mountains to salvage what he can of the situation. He finds Colwyn, heals his wound, and explains to him that the Beast has almost certainly taken Lyssa to be his bride. That speaks pretty highly of the Beast’s confidence, let me tell you— even the average necrophiliac would take one look at this guy and go, “Ew… gross! No way am I fucking that.” It takes some prodding, but Ynyr eventually sells Colwyn on the hero trip, although there are any number of obstacles to be overcome before the new king can even think of taking on the Beast. Most obviously, the final showdown is going to require a hell of a lot more than a well-maintained broadsword and a professed willingness to fight until death. The Beast is impervious to all ordinary weapons; if Colwyn wants to kill him, he’s going to need the Glaive.
Mind you, Ynyr isn’t saying that the Beast is vulnerable only to unwieldy polearms resembling a heavy-bladed short-sword on the end of a five-foot stick. No, on Krull, the Glaive is a five-bladed flickknife that operates approximately like a flying, remote-control circular saw. It’s pretty bad-ass, but if you want to talk about unwieldy… More importantly, you can’t just pop over to Eomer’s Weapon Shack and buy one. To get his hands on the Glaive, Colwyn will have to scale the highest peak in the Granite Mountains, wriggle his way into a volcanic cave, and snatch the mystical switchblade out of a pool of lava with his bare hands. No, I can’t say I understand that last part, either, let alone why the prospect doesn’t seem to bother Colwyn in the slightest. Regardless, Colwyn succeeds in his ostensibly epic task, at which point Ynyr pisses on everybody’s parade by forbidding him to use the Glaive unless and until he really needs it.
That brings us to the second impediment standing between Colwyn and a throw-down with the Beast. The Black Fortress didn’t just stay put where it set itself down right after the main titles. In fact, it teleports to a new randomly selected spot on the globe each day at dawn. It would take a seer to determine its present location with any greater precision than “someplace south of heaven,” but luckily Ynyr happens to know a couple of those. The wise man’s first choice is his old buddy, the Emerald Seer (John Welsh, of Maneaters Are Loose! and Konga), whose secret lair is about a day’s trek away. The length of the journey allows Colwyn to stock up on reinforcements, which is something he’ll arguably need even more than a fancy throwing knife. The first to sign on is a magician who calls himself Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley, who spent most of the 1970’s making hellacious British sex comedies like Up the Chastity Belt and Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something!)— “short in stature, tall in power, narrow of purpose, and wide of vision.” With a handle like that, I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you that Ergo is pretty well useless for anything except comic relief. Much more effective as allies are Torquil (Alun Armstrong, from The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing) and his band of escapees from Turold’s royal prison. They take some convincing before they’ll accompany Colwyn to the Black Fortress, but the prospect of an official pardon from the new king is a pretty persuasive bargaining chip. Finally, there’s Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Breslaw, of Hawk the Slayer and Moon Zero Two). The Cyclopes have had it in for the Beast for millennia, ever since their binocular ancestors traded in one of their eyes for the power to see the future, but ended up being able to see only the moment of their own deaths. Since Rell is about seven feet tall and possessed of superhuman strength and endurance, he’s probably worth more than the whole mob (except maybe Ynyr) combined.
Eventually (this is turning out to be one seriously long day), our heroes reach the Emerald Seer’s hideout, but things don’t go very well. The Beast can tell when he’s being spied on, and his power is sufficient to stop even the Emerald Seer from getting more than a cursory glimpse of his activities. There is one place, though, where the Seer would have the upper hand— the Emerald Temple, which, despite its name, is sort of a grayish, smelly thing located in the center of the Great Swamp. There are Slayers in the swamp, of course, lying in wait for any opportunity to kill again. And just to be on the safe side, the Beast sends a Changeling to the swamp, too, with instructions to assassinate and replace the Seer before he can reach the hallowed point from which he could eavesdrop on the Black Fortress unopposed. Colwyn, Rell, Torquil, and the outlaws overcome the Slayers, but not before the Changeling has accomplished its mission. That leaves the nascent Krull Liberation Army with no real idea of the Black Fortress’s whereabouts, and with the Seer’s pre-teen apprentice, Titch (Graham McGrath, from the “Broadway on Showtime” version of Frankenstein), to care for.
You will recall, however, that I said Ynyr knew a couple of seers. In fact, the other is an old girlfriend from back in the day! Of course, since his ex is now calling herself “the Widow of the Web” (Dune’s Francesca Annis) and living alone in a one-room cocoon with a giant, man-eating spider for a pet, you can probably understand why Ynyr didn’t just go to her first. (The spider, incidentally, goes to show just how much vitality stop-motion had in it as an effects technique during the 1980’s. Ray Harryhausen himself only rarely achieved anything comparable.) Still, the Widow is the now the only person alive who might be able to identify where the Black Fortress will next appear, while Ynyr is the only person alive to whom she might possibly consent to speak. The consultation proves very costly for all concerned, but Ynyr does indeed get the desired information. The trouble is, the next stop on the Beast’s itinerary is in the Iron Desert, fully a thousand leagues away— an awfully long distance for people without internal combustion engines to travel in 24 hours. If you’re thinking the solution will involve yet another mini-quest for some conveniently empowered magical whatsit, then you’ve obviously been paying attention. Colwyn and the others reach the Black Fortress just before the deadline by saddling a herd of Firemares (the majority of which are very conspicuously Firestallions, by the way), and the climactic clash between the King of Krull and the intergalactic angel of death finally gives us the long-awaited deployment of the Glaive. You may be surprised at how little the weapon’s supposedly immense power avails Colwyn, however.
I overstated my case somewhat at the beginning of this review. The truth is that Krull still looks awfully cool even today. Its production design is among the most effective and imaginative to be seen in any 1980’s fantasy movie, with props, sets, locations, costumes, and monster makeup that are all mostly beyond reproach. The Beast is a little less impressive than I remember him being, and I can now understand why director Peter Yates kept him always obscured by strange camera angles and distorting lenses. But otherwise, there is not a single fault to be found with the look and feel of Krull. I especially like the obvious effort that was expended to make the Beast and the Slayers seem alarmingly alien. While Colwyn and his followers are running around with fairly conventional swords, spears, and axes, the Slayers carry double-handed, single-edged short swords (almost like short-hafted glaives, now that I think about it) with spikes about sixteen inches long at the pommel end. The spike is an energy weapon capable of firing about five shots before disintegrating, so the standard Slayer combat tactic is to stand off from the enemy until all their death-ray charges are expended, and then close in to fight whomever is left standing hand-to-hand. The design for the Slayers’ armor contains interesting structural echoes of their base of operations, with dome-shaped helmets surrounded on three sides by a high collar of metal prongs and flanges corresponding to the jagged stone pinnacles that partially encircle the Black Fortress’s central observation dome. And when a Slayer is killed, that spheroid helmet splits open to release a horrible invertebrate creature about the size of a human brain, which burrows into the ground while emitting an indescribable shriek. What we see of the Beast is as strange as any H. R. Giger design, albeit in a totally different direction. My favorite element of the Beast’s appearance is his hands, which look rather like those worn by James Arness in The Thing, except that they seem to have at least nine fingers each, the extras arrayed in a parallel row above or behind the non-opposable digits. The Black Fortress presents weirdly contradictory aspects depending on whether you’re standing inside it or out— the exterior blends from a prickly contrivance of rough-hewn rock at the summit to a fasces-like sheaf of crystalline rods at the base, while the interior looks almost organic. And when the edifice is destroyed at the end of the film, its wreckage falls up into space! You also have to admire the attention to detail apparent in Rell’s Cyclops-eye prosthesis, which both blinks and rotates in its socket.
It’s just too bad that production design and special effects are practically the only things Krull has going for it. The phalanx of slumming Shakespeareans in supporting roles can’t make up for the lifeless and frequently irritating performances of the lead players, and the before-they-were-stars turns by Robbie Coltrane (From Hell) and Liam Neeson (The Haunting and Excalibur) as the only members of Torquil’s outlaw band to get anything like personalities don’t add very much interest, either. Most of Krull’s shortcomings can probably be laid at the feet of screenwriter Stanford Sherman, however. From a storytelling perspective, this movie is a gigantic mess. At its core is one of the most purely generic renditions of the Hero’s Quest you’ll ever see, and one in which “why?” is treated as a dirty word, if not an actual heresy. I find it interesting that in Columbia’s half-hour making-of feature, Journey to Krull, the studio attempted to place Krull within its historical context by showing a few clips from the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad— doing so demonstrates how pedestrian Sherman’s script really is by emphasizing that it differs in no essential way from the quest portion of a movie written 60 years earlier. Both films march their heroes through an arbitrary succession of basically unconnected challenges, the result of which is to provide them with the mystical means necessary to rescue the heroine from the clutches of a villain who wants to marry her against her will. The mention of the earlier film also plays up an extremely unflattering point of comparison, for whenever Ahmed got his hands on some snazzy magical doodad in The Thief of Bagdad, he actually used the fucking thing!!!! For all the Glaive’s ubiquity in Krull’s advertising campaign, its spends all but perhaps ten minutes of a two-hour movie hanging inertly from Colwyn’s belt, and it turns out not to be capable of destroying the Beast anyway once it’s finally brought into play! Compare that to the constant use Talon made of his Swiss Army magic sword in the contemporary The Sword and the Sorcerer, and I think you’ll see just how big a waste of a good idea we’re talking about here. But I suppose we should still give Krull a tiny bit of credit for being surely the only movie ever made in which the Power of Lovetm is literalized as the ability to shoot jets of blazing napalm from one’s fingertips.