An epic film deserves an epic review.
I haven’t seen Hawk the Slayer in a while, but trust me when I say it’s a great bad movie. An ultra-cheap slice of sword and sorcery shite from the early eighties, it combines wooden acting with hammy acting, Dark Ages drama with ‘modern’ synthesiser squealing, not very small dwarves with not very tall giants, unintentionally hilarious serious scenes with woefully unfunny comic relief…you know, the usual yin and yang that makes for classic cinema. Find it on DVD, as the BBC have given up on making it a part of their late-night scheduling.
The director of this disaster is Terry Marcel, whose only other film of ‘note’ is an adaptation of The Sun newspaper’s comic strip Jane and The Lost City. I haven’t seen it and probably never will. I know deep down it’ll never match this, this bloody great car-crash of a movie that’ll have you in stitches more than most actual comedies. Incidentally, this guy’s daughter is Rosie Marcel, who plays the icy redhead in Holby City.
So, let’s get cracking with the film, and after the portentous on-screen text that you can see at the start of this review we fade from black to a clearly evil (the music says as much) man on horseback, who is so formidable and strong he manages to make a bit of the scenery fall when he enters the house of his father. Notice that the father only looks a couple of years older than he does. This evil son is Voltan, and he’s played by the legendary Jack Palance, who was a legitimate character actor and was even in a Jean-Luc Godard film for God’s sake before spending most of the eighties onwards playing over-the-top villains like in Tango and Cash and Batman. Sure, he’d win an Oscar for City Slickers, but that’s a mere blip of respectability in what was mostly an era of ravenous scenery-chewing. Jack is on astonishing form in this film, turning a pretty funny bad movie into an unforgettable one. So Voltan (who sports a mask that can only be described as Darth Vader, Medieval Style) ends up sticking a sword in his old man when he won’t tell him the secret of the gold or something. Notice how when Voltan goes in for the kill and says ‘then let the secret die….NOW!!’ he emits a strange scowl/hiss instead of the word ‘now’ – he’ll be doing plenty of that during the movie. Oh yeah, his father’s sanctuary looks awful, the walls are covered in obvious gold wrapping paper that looks like it was bought from Poundland and he’s observing some weird swirling purple mist. What the mist is there for is anybody’s guess, but it looks mystical, so I guess the filmmakers thought that was enough.
After Voltan scarpers, his brother – Hawk the Slayer (he’s never referred to as such at all in the film) arrives just in time to catch his father’s dying words even as he protests that ‘the coldness of death is in my limbs’. He goes on about something concerning the prophecy being fulfilled and that the evil he has spawned is about to ‘pollute the land’. Oh, there’s also the legendary ‘mind sword’ (which magically moves through the air thanks to reverse photography) is now Hawk’s to use. Hawk uses it by concentrating slightly, and the intensity of this mind sword usage is achieved by using the same shot of Hawk looking mildly interested over and over again, cropping it slightly for each shot so that it looks different.
The thing is, Hawk looks more like Voltan’s son than his younger brother and is portrayed by John Terry (not the footballer) with a jaw-dropping woodenness that borders on balsa. He has two expressions – the first is stoic seriousness, the second mildly wry bemusement towards proceedings – and overall he comes off very blandly compared to Jack’s wild theatrics. When Hawk tries to convey intensity, like his promise that Voltan will ‘DIE by the sword’, you just don’t get the sense that he’s really anguished, given that he only looked slightly perturbed by his father’s death a few seconds ago. Also, please note that when Hawk slams the mind sword into the ground mid-vengeance declaration, the weapon sort-of bounces back up a bit. He also stands very, very still for a few seconds, and I think the director knew the ‘freeze-frame’ button wasn’t working in the edit suite in advance, so he asked Terry to simply freeze himself. You know, like at the end of Police Squad.
So roll on credits, with the info that this movie was produced by ‘Chips Productions’. I’m not quite sure why this always makes me laugh. I guess it’s because there aren’t many production companies named after junk food. The music is foreboding, orchestral, the usual….but then….THEN….a really badly animated hawk flies towards the camera, hurting our ears with its shrillness, the title appears over some ugly green and brown painting which looks more like vomit and then all of a sudden, the music goes fucking DISCO! That’s right, disco! A wee bit anachronistic, but you know what, I’m not too fussed – Vangelis used synths for The Bounty and that worked fine, but he did in a far more subtle way than here, where the music is so, so, SO silly – it sounds like an electronic owl on speed or something. It’s similar to Jeff Wayne’s score for The War of the Worlds. Still, as silly as it is, it’s quite catchy and stirring in its own completely preposterous way.
After the credits, we see a Ranulf, a soldier who is wounded and fleeing from battle, except there’s no real evidence of a battle actually occurring on screen. All we hear is Track 2, CD3 from the Battle Sound Effects series. Nice cost-cutting there. He enters an abbey (watch out for the jump cut before the door is opened) and Victor Meldrew’s wife as the Abbess listens to his tale of woe and horror on the battlefield, where his village was attacked by ‘raiders led by the Devil himself’, hacking them to pieces, ‘laughing as they did so’.
How they laughed.
This army was led by Voltan, the Dark One – who we next see calling out for the WIZZZZAAAAARRD!!! And something about being promised ‘ALL….in return for his….SODOM!!!’ Er…what? Then he enters some red room where an evil witch says ‘Enter….Dark One..’ and goes on to repair his scarred face, which is something that requires frequent medical attention through the film.
Voltan and his crew of desperadoes (including his son Drogo) raid the Abbey, and take the Abbess hostage. Ranulf tries to save the day but Voltan throws a knife into him, before warning them that if he’s not paid a shitload of gold before ‘next the moon is full’, he’ll…CUT A LOAF OF BREAD IN TWO!!! That’s right, bread. Ranulf rides to the high abbot, who lives in a castle accompanied by the most unconvincing painted backdrop ever to be coloured-in using the painting by numbers method. The abbot suggests that Ranulk consult Hawk, who’s busy riding around a mystical woodland (read: one solitary snake and some dry ice) while the music goes into overdrive despite nothing happening on screen.
Before Ranulf can find him, Hawk stumbles onto Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe, who’s about to burn a so-called witch for heresy but Hawk’s having none of it. Cue Spaghetti Western close-ups and Ennio Morricone soundalike effects, plus some bizarre hardboiled dialogue (‘Or else what, my fine friend?’) before Dalziel is defeated by Hawk, who commits his first ‘slay’ of the movie. Hawk brings the good witch back to her cave and we get some solemn dialogue which leads us to Ranulf, whom Hawk aims to reach in superfast time, despite the cameraman losing the top of Hawk’s body during a would-be dramatic shot. Ranulf’s been accosted by some thieves who slap him around and call him scum. Hawk’s almost there to save the day, despite the fact that whenever we cut back to him, we’re seeing the same shots we saw earlier of him riding through the forest, so in effect, he isn’t making any progress at all.
Ranulf’s been tied to a tree and is being used for target practice when Hawk shows up and we get another close-up face-off, except this time with two bad guys. Hawk slays them so effectively his weapons strike the chests of his foes less than a fraction of a second after he’s thrown them. Hawk and Ranulf introduce themselves and it’s all getting a bit formulaic, so thank god Voltan and Drogo really liven things up as they terrorise a group of villagers. Voltan is on classic form, first of all taunting poor old Roy Kinnear and then a bunch of guys trying to enjoy their lunch. Drogo calls them ‘animals’ which isn’t a textbook example of getting people to endear themselves to you, and then goes the extra snobby mile by claiming that ‘when you are in the presence of Voltan, you do not continue to eat. Nor do you continue to sit on your GREASY BACKSIDES!!!’ These guys are having none of it, claiming that they rise to no man except the hunchback who pays their wages. Voltan’s clearly not stating his case well enough, so he goes into overdrive, insisting, not unreasonably, that ‘I OWN EVERYTHING INCLUDING YOUR USELESS LIFE!!’ He says this whilst death-gripping one of the protestors, and even this doesn’t scare the other guy, who’s still going on about the hunchback. So Voltan has to resort to hardcore tactics, delivering this classic line in the process.
‘THE HUNCHBACK MAY HAVE MANY THINGS TO SAY BUT YOU HAVE ALREADY SAID TOO MUCH! CUT THE TONGUE FROM HIS HEAD, IT TIRES ME!!’
He then goes back to Roy Kinnear, who is understandably terrified at this stage. Voltan says that he had better hear progress reports if Ranulf or Hawk should happen to be swaggering their way into town anytime soon. Roy nods in terror, and Voltan hisses ‘Yes……YESSSSSS!!!!’ with all the relish of an actor who can’t quite believe he’s actually getting paid to do all of this.
Uh-oh, we’re back to Hawk, who has a rose-tinted flashback to his life with the beautiful Eliane, his beloved who Voltan really fancied and was then really pissed off at Hawk managed to win over. You see, Voltan was at war during his engagement to Eliane, and during that time she’s been getting off with Hawk. So Voltan wants revenge….
The next big chunk of film involves Hawk and Ranulf getting some old friends together to take on Voltan. They enter the forest of death or something, which is just a room with lots of cobwebs and green light, oh and some really weird gremlins who we catch tiny glimpses of thanks to quick cutaways. They look tiny and not remotely threatening, but they really scare the shit out of our two heroes, so they quickly flee the forest. Please note that the entrance and exit to the forest look identical, and the ‘magical’ way they enter and leave simply involves the editor cutting them out of shot. Well, despite all of that, it turns out the witch can instantly transport Hawk to wherever his friends are, so he doesn’t even have to leave the bloody house – he does this by sitting in some massive glowstick hula-hoop contraption. First up is the so-called giant, played by Carry On actor Bernard Bresslaw, who, let’s be honest, is a big guy, but hardly a giant. He’s pissed off because this weasel has ripped him off over some job he did, and then all these guys are demanding he finishes the job, to which the giant states, amusingly, ‘I’d sooner eat cow dung’. Even better is the ringleader’s comeback: ‘Well, that can be arranged….you can wash it down with your own blood, if need be!’
The giant, who happens to be armed with Thor’s hammer, pretty much does them all in. Hawk shows up after all the action, and then moves on to the Elf (named Crow), who has a really weird, broken way of talking (‘name….the target’) and who is getting cornered by some shady gits who try to rip him off during an archery bet. One of these is the evil South African henchman from Lethal Weapon 2. The Elf wins the bet fair and square but Pieter swears blind he won, so cue yet another face-off (there’s a lot in this film) which ends up badly for the South African, though his death here isn’t as impressive as when Mel Gibson dropped a whole crate of goods on his bonce. Last up we have the dwarf, who is being sacrificed by some pious priests. The dwarf is such a crap comic relief character that we’re kind of with the priests on this one. We really sympathise with their leader who calls him ‘ugly one’ twice and recoil along with him when he sees the dwarf down a manky fish in one gobble.
Now that the gang are all reunited, we get another flashback where poor Eliana and Hawk are cornered by Voltan. Eliana is played by Lucio Fulci regular Catriona MacColl, who I watched the other day in City of the Living Dead, which is almost a bad film, but has too much great gore and atmosphere to fail entirely. She doesn’t last long, getting an arrow in the back courtesy of a spurned Voltan. This act of evil is enough for the gang to believe that Voltan will never release the Abbess alive, even if he is given the gold, but the Abbess’ hopeless deputy is convinced that he will honour his part of the deal. God, hate I do-gooder characters like this – I’m looking forward to her demise. There’s more ghastly comic relief between the giant and the dwarf, some drawn out banter which ends up being the least funny thing in the film. The dwarf’s a terrible liar, and the giant is thick as pigshit, so it’s not a very interesting battle of wits. It’s during these long talky scenes where Hawk the Slayer’s dullness really emerges – the film’s so blandly shot and directed that you’re counting the minutes before Jack comes back to tear up the scenes.
So the guys have to acquire the gold for the ransom, and they visit the hunchback that was mentioned by the ill-fated villagers earlier on. The hunchback’s a grotesque brute and a slave trader, so our heroes are justified in stealing his ill-gotten gains. They do this by killing a lot of people. The elf’s shooting method essentially consists of the editor replaying the same shot of the arrow being fired in ultra-fast succession. The giant turns out to be a ruthless bastard, setting it up so that the hunchback has to remain laid down for eternity or get a huge mace in the face should he move. He laughs at the screen during this moment, and he actually comes off as very sinister at this point.
Anyway, I’m getting VMS (Voltan Withdrawl Symptoms) at this stage, so thank god we cut back to him at his camp, where Drogo speaks true of his desires to experience more excitement, to which Voltan almost kills him in a strange example of excitement. Drogo feels like a bit humiliated by this, and he even starts to pull out his dagger to teach the old man a lesson, but Voltan is so confident of his own excellence that he says ‘draw your dagger out one more inch and you a dead man, be you my son or not!’. Turns out Drogo isn’t actually his son – Voltan’s own facial burns proved him to no longer be the catch he once was and he resorted to stealing another family’s child! What a prick. So now we spend some time with Drogo, who I must say is played with malevolent relish by Shane Briant. His next scene as he finds one of the hunchback’s surviving henchmen and discovers Hawk’s HQ is really quite good. You can almost smell his distaste for this other man (who he ends up sticking a dagger into) and sense his excitement at finally being able to get one over on his foster dad. The guy’s a slimy little shit, and a great second-tier villain. Pity he gets killed in the next big action sequence, but what a scene! Before that we get more short-term facial surgery on Voltan’s face (cue some extended pained whimpering from Jack) and yet more bullshit from the deputy abbess who still thinks Voltan will make good on his deal to release her senior, plus another crap bit of comic relief from the dwarf and the giant.
Drogo’s raid on Hawk and company is famous for a classic line from Drogo – upon being told to shove off by Hawk, and to tell Voltan that he won’t get the gold until the abbess is released, we hear this bit of unparalleled magic.
‘I am no messenger….but I will give you a message. THE MESSAGE OF DEATH!’
Seriously, that line gets better and better the more I hear it. What follows is a choppily edited fight where the bad guys, including Drogo, are either killed or left to die, and the deputy abbess is mortified that Hawk has not simply handed over the gold. Now he has ruined everything, when they could have all been left in peace. Or, as Crow puts it, quite chillingly, ‘the peace of the dead’. Drogo is returned to Voltan, who dies just before speaking of his dashed hopes of proving himelf. Despite Voltan mercilessly shaking his dying son’s body to get as much info about Hawk as possible, he does show genuine sadness towards him once he’s croaked it. He holds his body and screams ‘DROGOOHHHHHH!!!’ Heartbreaking. But soon sorrow leads to anger, and he takes out two hapless cronies who simply get killed for just being there. Poor guys. They’re just trying to make a living, but that’s what you get if you hang out near your insane boss when he’s pissed off. Some of the editing during this bit is truly dreadful – one of the two doomed cronies tries to make a run for it, but Voltan is handed a bow and arrow and takes him out with it. The thing is, we miss vital stuff like the arrow being raised, or the arrow flying through the air. The crony is killed in about 0.5 seconds. Voltan, hellbent on revenge, calls out to the abbey and threatens to kill the abbess and burn down their sanctuary ‘from the face of the LAAAAAAANNNNND!!!!’ unless Hawk – and the gold- are given to him. That bleedin’ deputy abbess does one of those ‘end justifies the means’ bits of treachery and lets Voltan into the abbey. Before that we get some time-filling crap as the guys bring the witch back into proceedings and kill some more guys (note the sped-up footage) in an action sequence with more fog than in John Carpenter’s The Fog. This sequence doesn’t really help matters, as Voltan doesn’t get killed and the abbess is still imprisoned, so it takes the deputy abbess’ duplicitousness to get things moving. Hawk wakes up with a sword at his throat. Instant death, right? No, of course not, but had he done so, we would have been spared my favourite scene of the film, where Voltan has the guys all tied up and goes around berating each one of them in turn. Oh yeah, he knifes the deputy abbess, who despite keeping her side of the bargain, does not live long enough to realise her mistake! I can’t even begin to explain the bad-movie magic of this scene, so I’ll just reel off a list of choice quotes:
“Your death will be slow and painful, as will your friends”
“You say you loved Eliane….and yet you killed her!”
“Well then, they shall watch you suffer and when I have FINISHED, they will accompany down the river of death…”
“Little men with pointy ears….I shall trim them for you later!”
“Ah, the giant…felled by a pinch of powder. You will give great sport BEFORE YOU DIE!!”
“The dwarf…You should never have been allowed to DIG YOURSELF OUT OF THE EARTH!!”
“SPEAK THEN, MISSHAPEN ONE!!!”
“SEE HOW IT GLOOOOOOOOWS, SOON YOU WILL FEEL ITS TOUCH!”
“VOLTAN!! YOU WILL DIE BY MY HAND!”
That last outburst from Hawk happens after Voltan knifes the dwarf (to be fair, the dwarf did kick him in the face) and it’s such a sudden moment of anger given that in his most immediately preceding reaction after the knifing, Hawk gives his sort of funny ‘oo-er!’ grimace, like he’s just watched a clip from Jackass and not the stabbing of his close friend.
So Voltan leaves to get yet another a facial, leaving the witch free to rescue them by shooting a shitload of silly string onto the guard! It’s easy to take for granted that this actually happens in the movie, so numbed am I by its ridiculousness. Fortunately – sorry, I meant unfortunately – the dwarf dies, in what has to be the least emotionally effective demise of a good guy in the history of cinema. He was a pain in the arse, it’s good to be rid of him. We’re almost at the climax now, and Hawk takes on the bad guys in another eratically staged and edited fight scene which kicks off with a load of glowing balls and a dry ice machine. Ranulf doesn’t make it, neither does a nun (the giant laments her death with ‘little lady…’: awww) and Hawk now faces Voltan for the final conflict. Voltan has dreamed of killing Hawk slowly…painfully… and he does a really bad job of trying to get the job done with slow-motion, heavily telegraphed attacks nimbly defended by Hawk, who clearly gets bored with such easy prey and slices Voltan in the easiest dispatching of a boss since Dr. Robotnik in Green Hill Zone Act 3 in Sonic the Hedgehog. The ending heavily hints at a potential sequel, going so far as to resurrect Voltan just before the end credits, some bollocks about the evil witch ‘having further need of him’ and that his ‘sleep of death’ will not last long… whilst our heroes talk of further adventures, adventures we will never experience….or will we? There have been rumours of a follow-up, even after all that time. Please don’t tarnish the original with talk such as this.
Hawk the Slayer is a badly made film, blandly filmed and filled with stock characters, some of whom are portrayed with wild enthusiasm, others with charisma-free nothingness. The effects are terrible, the music mental, the editing mad, the dialogue exceptionally melodramatic. However, despite the dull plotting and occasional drag in momentum, the sheer silliness of it all makes it something special. Bizarrely, John Terry (Hawk), who did not become a superstar thanks to his underwhelming lead performance, has become a solid supporting actor in recent years with roles in Lost and 24, and let’s not forget, he was one of many actors to portray Felix Leiter in the James Bond films. He was in The Living Daylights, the Timothy Dalton one that didn’t involve Leiter getting fed to a shark. Sorry, just wanted to sneak in a Licence to Kill reference in a film review for the second time in a row. I love that film.