Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Matinee: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

Right at the crest of the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons there was a minor wave of swords-and-sorcery films that were, more or less, blatant attempts to cash in on the trend. 1980's Hawk the Slayer was, in my opinion, one of the better efforts.

Unlike some of the other films in my Sunday Matinee series, this one doesn't offer much of anything in the way of social commentary. Or, for that matter, fine acting or special effects. But when it hit Cinemax, this fourteen year old was entranced, and watched it literally hundreds of times. It was, almost literally, a D&D game brought to life.

The evil Voltan (played by Jack Palance; just imagine Jack Palance deliberately trying to over-act, and you'll have an inkling of what he's like in this film) has kidnapped an abbess, and is demanding a ransom from the church for her return. The church cannot, by policy, pay the ransom, but suggests that the warrior Hawk, who has been an agent of good in the past, may be able to assist. Hawk re-assembles his band of adventurers with the help of a witch (whom he has saved from being burned at the stake); we have the dwarf, the giant, the elf, and the one-handed crossbowman who was sent to fetch the hero in the first place. Each has a short scene that sets the stage for who he is, and really works for giving a background to the characters.

Seeking the money to pay the ransom, the heroes attack Sped, a slaver on the River Shale (and a thoroughly disgusting character that nobody is sorry to see get his head staved in). Voltan's son, Drogo, learns that they have the ransom money and attempts to get it for himself, but is slain in the process, sending Voltan into a fit of rage. The party heroes are betrayed by one of the nuns, seeking to win the return of the abbess by letting Voltan into the strongly-defended abbey. We are treated to a flashback of backstory, wherein Voltan and Hawk are revealed to be brothers, with the evil Voltan killing the bride-to-be of the saintly Hawk. Eventually, Voltan slays the dwarf, Hawk slays Voltan, and all is set right with the world.

This film defines the B-movie of the 1980's. The soundtrack is cool, but repetitive. The special effects are unbelievably cheesy (we are treated to a barrage of luminescent ping-pong balls as a magic spell at one point), and half of the effects budget must have been spent on fog machine rental. Jack Palance is, well, Jack Palance on steroids, but there is a surprising amount of talent in this movie, including veteran character actor Roy Kinnear as the innkeeper.

What really makes this movie are the interactions between the characters. They are really well portrayed as a group that has a history. The elf is aloof, but deadly with his bow (infamously, there are scenes where he jumps over the same log over and over and over, shooting bad guys each time) and is a sort of mentor for Hawk, and the dwarf and the giant have a continuous battle of wits and insults, but all good-naturedly, leading up to the touching scene of the giant weeping over the dwarf's death. There is a lot of humor throughout the film, and it is used to good effect. But the star, John Terry, makes Keanu Reeves look positively flamboyant by comparison.

Nothing but fluff, and B-grade fluff at that, but it's still a lot of fun. Oh, and it turns out there's finally a sequel in the works! 30 years late, but still welcome.

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