Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.
For some of us it never will be. If you’re of a certain age, it’s hard to picture the movies of the 90s and 2000s one day being held in the kind of reverent affection that the movies of the 80s are now.
Stranger Things, Family Guy, even this very site – wherever you find the children of the 80s you will find them wearing the rosiest of glasses. I’m guilty as charged. And when it comes to 80s fantasy movies, I offer no defence.
The 80s truly were the glory years for fantasy movies with across-the-board appeal, and that’s not even counting Star Wars, the initial spark. There are the classics: Labyrinth. The Dark Crystal. The NeverEnding Story. Legend.
Then there are the more niche offerings whose appeal was more “selective”: Willow. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Return to Oz. Hell, I’m throwing Masters of the Universe in there.
Released in 1983 and directed by Peter “Bullitt” Yates, Krull is an often odd but always entertaining mash-up of traditional fantasy, gentle horror and 80s sci-fi. The plot is rich with genre cliché and a collection of stock swords n’ sorcery characters, but it spunkily manages to be more than the sum of its seemingly mundane parts.
It cost Columbia Pictures a small fortune to make and took up several stages at Pinewood, including the 007 stage, for the creation of swamps, forests and caves. They even trained and rode real Clydesdale horses. Musically, James Horner’s score was immense and sensational.
It was heavily marketed. For reasons still puzzled over, Columbia even promoted the movie by offering “Krull Weddings”, complete with armored attendants, to some lucky competition winners – before the film was even out.
And Krull bombed. Hard.
Against a reported $45m-50m budget, Krull brought home $16.5m. Ebert and Siskel hated it. The lead actors never led again. Return Of The Jedi held open the door and, with a derisive snort, ushered Krull on its way.
But it gained a devoted cult following from the likes of me. Here we have a movie that gives me the same nostalgic pangs as that Darth Vader toy with the plastic cape and the slide-out lightsabre in his arm.
I won’t deny that probably the main reason for this is that Krull was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre, aged 5. We got to our seats way too early while the credits from the previous screening were still rolling, and thus the first shot I saw was the final one, frozen on a static shot of a green meadow.
I make no claims that this film is necessarily a great one (although it is a good one). I say only and truthfully that it’s a whole damn shitload of 80s fantasy fun, a perfect lazy Saturday afternoon film, and I unashamedly love its bones.
The credits open with a strange dark structure moving through space towards an Earth-like planet, whereupon it turns upright and lands, revealing itself to be a huge fortress of jagged black rock. A legion of masked soldiers pour out while a voiceover, seemingly intoned by a close relative of Gandalf, informs us that they are the Slayers, servants of the Beast, who have arrived on the planet Krull for general plundering.
This has forced the two ruling families of Krull into an uneasy alliance, which they have decided to cement by having the son and daughter from each family marry and unite Krull under a single banner.
The Slayers promptly gate-crash the wedding, kill the relatives, kidnap the bride, leave the groom for dead and torch the castle.
Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) awakens the next morning to find himself being tended by Ynyr (Freddie Jones – Young Sherlock Holmes, The Elephant Man), a stereotypical, fantasy-movie wise man who informs him that his bride, Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) is being held captive by the Beast in the black fortress.
The Beast intends for Lyssa to be his queen, or he will slaughter the populace. Colwyn must travel to the black fortress and defeat the Beast, but must first retrieve a kind of magical bladed fidget spinner known as the Glaive from a mountain peak, in order to have any chance against the Beast.
Colwyn and Ynyr begin their quest and along the way recruit a colourful cast of followers, including Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw), Ergo the crap magician (David Battley), and a band of outlaws led by the gruff Torquil (the great Alun Armstrong).
Yes, it all sounds rather clichéd and unoriginal, and it is. But Krull somehow pulls you in with its energy, gung-ho heroics and grace notes.
For example, when a Slayer is killed, a bizarre creature bursts out of its head and burrows into the ground, and as well as swords, they fire a kind of laser beam. Yes, I know it makes no sense, but it looks cool.
Money was visibly spent and the production values are lavish. The interiors of the black fortress are of a startlingly original and surreal design, with shifting corridors and moving walls causing various kinds of havoc. Even the fortress itself switches its location at random with each sunrise.
The Beast is voiced to resonantly sinister effect by Shakespearean actor Trevor Martin in what would these days be a Cumberbatch shoe-in. He is also never quite clearly seen, but is instead filmed through various strange distortions and filters.
He is essentially a dude in a rubber suit – but it’s a good one, created by Yoda puppeteer Nick Maley, who speaks fondly of Krull to this day.
The film’s action set pieces are performed with flair, particularly during the climactic scramble on the slopes of the black fortress. As a fantasy, this is stuffed with the kind of elements you’d expect, including wizards, shape-shifters and magic temples.
There is also a brilliantly executed scene set in a giant stop-motion spider’s web which manages to be twice as scary as Shelob from The Lord of the Rings. The special effects often show their age, but generally hold up admirably well in today’s CG world.
The plot is pretty perfunctory – prince rescues princess, fights evil forces etc – and there are chunks of dialogue cheesier than a French blue. It is very clearly a British film trying to wear big-budget Hollywood clothes. The cast are all British except for Ken Marshall, and Anthony was dubbed by an American actress, supposedly for commercial reasons.
But Krull at its heart is a lovingly crafted film obviously made with care, and its affection for the genre keeps it on point and never less than fun.
It’s damn disappointing that the Glaive hardly gets used, as it is only put into action in the last fifteen minutes, but it’s a damn funky thing and I want one. It continues to pop up in some strange places.
As for the cast, they battle through the occasional bad dialogue to build a genuine rapport. Ken Marshall as Colwyn swashes a good buckle, Lysette Anthony damsels and distresses, and – hey! – Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane are here too.
I mentioned the score earlier. It is an absolute doozy. James Horner’s lushly orchestrated effort is a thrilling piece of work. If you’ve seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III you’ll have already heard most of it – it’s a dead ringer.
But hey, if you’re going to rip yourself off, use your best stuff. The soundtrack CD was at one point a deleted collector’s item that could be found on Ebay for the kind of money that rarely changes hands without a gun and a getaway car. I know, I bought it.
But yeah, Krull bombed, unfairly. The careers of the cast diverged wildly. Liam Neeson went on to save some Jews and, in Taken, killed everyone in Europe. Freddie Jones produced Toby Jones. Robbie Coltrane you know.
Lysette Anthony suffered a brutal attack at the hands of Harvey Weinstein not long after Krull was released, maintaining an unfortunate track record with hideous beasts. Who knows, it may be coincidence that her career petered out into soap operas and Troy McClure-style fare like The Evil Beneath Loch Ness, in which Patrick Bergin maniacally bayonets a clutch of underwater monster eggs.
Ken Marshall resurfaced in the 90s as Commander Eddington in Deep Space Nine, and appeared touchingly misty-eyed holding the Glaive for the first time in over 30 years at an anniversary screening.
Krull, for me, holds up exceptionally well. It’s an endearing and well-crafted mixture of action, science fiction, horror and swordplay, not to mention an intriguing variety of beards. It is well worth checking out if you’re partial to The Lord of the Rings, or any kind of fantasy, and will certainly entertain kids for a couple of hours.
In its own way – a classic.
Check out some more of my retro reviews here:
EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC Review