After posting about how disturbed I was about scoring software, I decided that I needed to rid my mind of the horrific thoughts of the pre-programmed, boring noodling that kept insisting on cropping up to annoy me. Perhaps the best way to do this, I felt, would be to watch a film with a score so far removed from what Cinescore would produce...
Alex North's score for Dragonslayer is written in his modern and unique style. Because of this, it is very unusual for a fantasy score, most of which are Romantic pastiches. The music is harsh and demanding... and not a little challenging.
I must admit that it took me a very long time to warm up to North's approach. When I was younger, I had a hard time wrapping my head around his style. He writes a lot of music with no tonic center and his orchestrations have a tendency to be very thick. However, over time I began to find that his scores were not only rewarding, but also uncompromisingly his own.
Dragonslayer, for which North raided some of the ideas that he originally came up with for his famous rejected score for 2001 (Jerry Goldsmith's recording of which is a wonderful companion piece to the soundtrack album for this film), is dark and forbidding, serving as a constant reminder of the beast while at the same time buttressing the on-screen action.
One of the scenes where the score really gripped me is the subtle piece heard when Valerian asks Ulrich if he is frightened of dragons, and he responds, "No. In fact, if it weren't for sorcerers, there wouldn't be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings... soaring... and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours... Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!" It is a moment similar to the Indianapolis story in Jaws, where the fear is generated entirely from the actor's performance and the music.
But the score is not subtle on the whole. On the contrary, it is rather strident and at times gets extremely aggressive, especially during the combat sequences ("Tyrian and Galen Fight" remains a show-stopper, especially with that finale). There are lighter moments, such as the love scene and the very end of the movie (which, in the film, is mostly retracked with music from earlier in the picture). And there is the forbidding minor mode brass fanfare for Vermithrax herself, used sparingly but effectively.
While Peter MacNicol's performance could be stronger (possibly a reason the actor doesn't like to discuss this film), the movie itself holds up surprisingly well. it gets rather audacious at times - Tyrian, the chief human 'villain' of the piece, while a sadistic bastard, actually has legitimate reasons for the actions he takes, and the plot involving Princess Elspeth takes some really unexpected turns.
The special effects have dated terribly, with the cutting-edge puppetry no longer being quite the eye-popping spectacle it was when the film came out. However, the film concentrates more on the storytelling (and in many ways bears more of a resemblance to written fantasy fiction than most other fantasy films of the era). Despite the fact that her presence looms over the film like a malevolent shadow, Vermithrax Pejorative is barely seen until towards the end of the film, by which point the audience has already enough invested in the characters and storyline to get through the obvious matte lines and grainy effects footage, and the design of Vermithrax is breathtaking. She looks like a real creature instead of just a dinosaur with wings, and her proportions make it fully believable that she can fly.
I put on the film primarily for the purposes of enjoying the score, but found myself getting caught up in the story and enjoying it immensly on many levels. It was a very pleasant surprise.
EDIT: Further discussion on aspects of Dragonslayer in a conversation with mortimusmonk.