No. 43: Krull

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I mentioned in our last installment that I felt one of the markers of 1983 filmmaking was the inescapable cheesiness that betrays most of the films of that era immediately and thus takes us as modern audience members out of the story. I’m happy to say that Krull surprised me in just how entertaining it remains today, and I don’t mean entertaining from a camp standpoint. Krull has everything a modern major blockbuster strives to offer the audience: a unique concept (sort of), strong visuals, likable characters played by good actors, a great score and, at times, an involving story.

What sets Krull apart from last week’s film Spacehunter is probably the same factor that takes any film from being bad to being at least decent: commitment. Unlike their paltry budget for Spacehunter, Columbia gave Krull an estimated $27 million to work with and the results are noticeable on-screen. The stop-motion sequences are probably the only visual aspect of the film that simply doesn’t stand as impressive today and they are thankfully limited. The sets are enormous and impressively detailed and the makeup and creature effects are solid, particularly with the cyclops character (how do they blink his eye?).

Director/producer Peter Yates being at the helm probably accounts for the film’s unusually strong story and characters (at least for the fantasy genre). Yates was at the top of his game in 1983, having already earned a Best Director and Best Picture nomination for his cycling film Breaking Away in ’79. Yates would also receive another Director and Picture nomination in ’83 for his personal drama The Dresser, which sadly does not make the Top 50 list for 1983 (though I may review it anyway as an honorable mention).

Before I go too much further, here’s a brief summary of Krull: there’s a very vague setup involved but basically there’s a bad guy called The Beast and he and his army want to take over the fantasy world of Krull. A prince and a princess from two warring kingdoms decide to get married to unite their forces against the bad guy and shortly after they are wed, the new queen is kidnapped and taken to the big scary castle of the beast. Oddly, the leads are probably the least famous cast members today, Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony, a British actress whose voice was re-dubbed by an American voice actress. Liam Neeson has a very small role as one of a band of robbers that joins up with the young king on his way to rescue the queen. It was a very early job for Neeson and although the part is laughably small, he really finds a way to shine and he gets every last bit of mileage out of every line he’s given. Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies) also plays one of the robbers but has a significantly smaller role even than Neeson.

As you’d expect, the film is more about the journey to save the princess than about actually saving the princess. Along the way there are a series of monsters and exciting encounters, all of which are actually pretty imaginative and perilous. By the far the best of these episodes involves the character known as “The Old One”, who essentially serves as the Gandalf of the group, sneaking into a giant spiderweb to gain some pertinent information from a creepy old woman called The Widow of the Web. When the old man finally arrives at his destination, we are treated to an extremely well-acted and well-written scene revealing that the two characters have a long personal past together. Their subplot has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but in a way outshines the main plot of the film in its emotional depth, thanks largely to a truly great one-scene performance from Freddie Jones.

Probably the most enduring item from the film, at least according to those I’ve spoken to, is the special weapon given to the prince to slay the beast. It’s called the Glaive and it’s basically a giant throwing star with a mind of its own. It basically works like this: you throw it, it goes around cutting up whatever needs to be cut up, and then it comes back to the thrower’s hand. The Glaive showed up on South Park in the famous “Imaginationland” episode when Jesus used it against some of the evil characters.

What stands out today as the film’s strongest individual element is the score by James Horner. Horner has excelled for years at composing scores that seem to add instant depth and gravitas to a film (his Braveheart score remains one of the best-selling movie scores of all time) and his work here is an early example of the kind of inspiring, soaring music he would come to be known for. It’s a perfect tone-setter for what is really a film about escapist thrills with a backdrop of romance. Check out the clip below which includes probably my favorite score moment of the film.

From a business standpoint, Krull was not as successful a project as Spacehunter, since the latter made a profit at the box office and Krull topped out at $16.5 million, well below its production budget. The difference is that between the two films Krull has a better chance of having a lasting affect on its viewers. I’ve spoken to several of my older friends and colleagues this week who were kids when Krull was released and their impressions 27 years later were all positive. Does the ensuing video and TV sales from the film eventually make up for the loss Columbia took at the box office? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t but I’m inclined to believe that every once in a while, it’s in the studio’s best interest to lose a little money on a film that connects with an audience and keeps them believing in the magic of movies.

Next Up: All the Right Moves starring Tom Cruise.