Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Hawk the Slayer (1980)


The 1980s were the Barbarian Age of fantasy films. We had a ton of flicks featuring muscle bound heroes saving topless women from monstrous puppets. It became so pervasive that the genre oversaturated the theaters and direct to VHS market by 1988.  Fantasy films kind of fell off the map for a decade or so. But imagine my surprise when I discovered this little gem of a film that attempted to tell a sword and sorcery tale, before the barbarians struck the gate.


In a legendary time two brothers battled in a far away land. Voltan (Jack Palance) had a heart filled with hate, and had become a minion of the forces of Darkness. Hawk (John Terry) was heroic and battled to save the land from evil and oppression. In their youth, the brothers fell in love with the same woman, but a quarrel killed their beloved and left Voltan horribly scarred.

Years later Voltan returns with an army of evil and threatens the Abbess of Caddonbury (Annette Crosbie) unless he receives a massive ransom of gold. Hawk comes to the aid of the abbey with help of his companions of old. Gort, (Bernard Bresslaw) the giant wielding a mighty hammer. Baldin, (Peter O’Farrell) the dwarf who eats just about anything. Crow, (Ray Charleson) the elf whose skills in archery make him deadly. Ranulf (Morgan Sheppard) the warrior whose wicked crossbow can shoot rapid fire bolts of death. And the mysterious witch (Patricia Quinn) whose power (and ping pong balls) may prove unstoppable. Do they have any hope in succeeding or is this the last adventure of Hawk the Slayer?

Good Points:
  • Commits to the adventurous feel and fantasy style
  • Takes inspiration from classic stories and movies and gives them a fantasy twist
  • Jack Palance is deliciously over the top
Bad Points:
  • The budget is low: impacting visual effects and sets
  • The humor misses the mark
  • Hawk is a pretty bland hero

No one would confuse this for a great film, but I will say it is pretty good for what it attempts to do. The over the top villains against Hawk’s varied crew make for some entertaining viewing. The low budget visuals add unintentional laughs to the whole thing. The intended humor is often pretty weak, but if you can get past those moments, you’ll find a movie with its heart in the right place and plenty of of fun viewing for bad movie night.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Hawk and his party of adventurers.
Ah, Hawk the Slayer where were you all my life? If I had run into this movie when I was a kid, I’m certain it would have been one of my favorite VHS watches. Unfortunately I didn’t discover it until the early 2000s when a coworker introduced me to it. She knew I was a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and figured this would be right up my ally. I borrowed the DVD from her and my wife and I had a great time watching it. The combination of the over the top performance by Palance, the wobbly sets, the hilarious “magic” effects and the ripe dialogue made it an instant winner for bad movie night.

And while the film isn’t going to win any awards, I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it a “bad movie”. Compared to dreck like Outlaw of Gor or Cave Dwellers, Hawk the Slayer is Lord of the Rings. It has a coherent story. It has actors who are committed to the roles. It has a certain style to it (not that the style succeeds, but it really tries). When it attempts to entertain, it mostly manages it (except for the funny parts).

What makes Hawk the Slayer an interesting film from the era is the fact that it was made before Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster set the course for fantasy cinema for the next decade. In fact its influence is more varied and therefore creates a movie that feels familiar and yet is unique among the films that surround it.

Hawk tries to play catch with the pommel of his sword.
There are two obvious influences on Hawk the Slayer. The first is Dungeons and Dragons. The game was first introduced in 1974, but had grown in popularity over the years and by the time 1980 rolled around it was already into a second iteration as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons or AD&D. And while a group of diverse characters teaming up to fight evil in a fantasy setting may have originated from The Lord of the Rings, the characters in Hawk the Slayer feel much more like a D&D party of adventuring heroes from the tabletop game. I could see this film appealing to young fans of the game (I’m sure the kids from Stranger Things have this in their VHS library).

"How do you solve a problem like Voltan?"
But the film also feels heavily influenced by Arthurian and Celtic legends. While you have fantasy characters like elves, dwarfs and giants running around, it is mentioned that they are all the last of their kind. We see Christian symbols all over the film, especially the Celtic cross that Eliane (Catriona MacColl) gives to Hawk. This cross plays a vital role in defeating Voltan and his dark powers. Then you have the fact that you have an abbey full of nuns and a powerful abbot as characters in the story. There is a feeling like this is a world changing from paganism to Christianity, much like another film from the same era: Excalibur.

Riding through a gauzy flashback.
But the movie has other influences from visual, story structure and even music. When you look at the story structure it is actually built like Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. You have a group of defenseless innocents (the nuns in the abbey) threatened by a mob of wicked men (Voltan and his minions). He will return for their gold in a set time frame. The nuns send out a local villager for help and he gets ronin/gunslinger’s (Hawk) attention and they work together to gather a team to help the innocents. You get a series of vignettes as the ronin/gunslinger gathers the team and we see each team member in action. Then the final act plays out as the team battles against the raiders. Along the way some heroes and innocents are killed, but the raiders are defeated.

Posing for the action figures?
Some of the influence goes beyond the story structure. Some scene blocking and set up is clearly inspired by Kurosawa’s style. Each of the new companions has a clear personality and unique way of handling problems that makes them valuable to the group. Direct correlations can be made between the character types. For example Baldin the dwarf reminds me of the humorous Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki) whose laid back attitude helped ground the group Seven Samurai. Then you have the deadly Kyuzo (Siji Miyaguchi) who is the quiet master swordsman who fears nothing. I get the feeling that Crow the elf was supposed to be taken from the same mold. You can continue this comparison with all the heroic characters, with the only real exception being the witch.

Lots of close ups on Hawk's eyes.
That leads to the next influence, Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name films, like A Fist Full of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. While a movie like The Warrior and the Sorceress went for what is essentially a rip off of Yojimbo directly, Hawk the Slayer comes at it a bit more subtly. Hawk is a man of few words, who often stands and coldly stares at his opponents before springing into action. The camera work in these scenes is heavily influenced by Leone, with close narrow shots of Hawk’s cold blue eyes and quick cuts to the enemies’ sweaty faces.

And then you have the music by Harry Robinson. Since this is the early 80s we have synths and some awesome disco backbeats pumping the music along. Seriously the music is an awesome flashback of cheesiness. But once you get beyond the disco synths, you get this synth whistle sound every time Hawk appears or there is a close up on his eyes. It is very reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s uses of the whistle in The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. I’m not sure it is nearly as effective, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

Now, I’m not coming down on Hawk the Slayer because of all these influences. In fact I think the movie handles them well enough that they all kind of work together to make something interesting. It doesn’t directly rip off any of these movies. Instead it takes the Star Wars approach and borrows here and there to make something unique, especially in 1980.

Voltan love scaring the simple folk, especially this
innkeeper played by Mr. Salt from Willy Wonka
and the Chocolate Factory
As unique as Hawk the Slayer is, that doesn’t mean it is a successful film. One of the elements that just doesn’t work for me is the acting choices. I think this may stem from the tone. While there is a consistent tone of adventure and peril in the film, there is also this odd feeling that they are targeting the movie towards a younger audience. So you get some very broad acting styles combined with some more serious story elements. It is a strange mix that makes the whole thing feel off, but usually in an unintentionally humorous way.

So you have Palance as Voltan just ranting and raving away. His scenes where he threatens his son Drogo (Shane Briant) and his men are hilariously evil. His unbridled rage at Hawk is also pretty amusing. Palance is not holding back and it makes all his scenes a lot of fun. Sadly his outfit isn’t all that threatening, even if the helmet is obviously going for the Darth Vader look.

Unfortunately John Terry is stuck in a role that requires him to be the cool, calm guy. Most of the movie is spent with Hawk standing, staring and saying things in measured tones. And as good as Terry is in other films, he just doesn’t have the presence to pull off this type of role. The result is that Hawk is actually a bit of a bland character.

Uh oh, another "humorous" moment.
Especially compared to all the insane supporting characters around him. Hawk the Slayer has a great group of heroes, well great in that they are all uniquely odd. Gort the giant is the most normal of the group. He’s just a huge hulking guy that talks loud and people assume he’s a bully. But no, he’s just loud, eats a lot and has a heart of gold. Bresslaw does a good job expressing all these qualities in the film, and he becomes Hawk’s right hand giant. Playing off of him is Baldin the dwarf. He’s small, but he eats a lot. And he lies to get more food. And he teases Gort… and um. Well he’s short. So there’s that. He’s basically the comic relief of the film. But comparing him to Gimli from The Lord of the Rings is not a good thing. Baldin is just kind of annoying. The set up for most of his jokes goes on way too long and the punch lines are just lame. The action just kind of stops when the jokey scenes happen. Bresslaw and O’Farrell seem to have the comic chops, but the material just isn’t there. On top of that, as a hero, Baldin doesn’t bring all that much to the table. At least the character he’s modeled after in Seven Samurai could fight, but Baldin just doesn’t do much at all but eat and make stupid jokes.

Ranulf should have patented his machine gun/crossbow
The two archers of the group are also interesting. Ranulf actually gets a lot of screen time as the film starts. He’s a villager that survives an off screen raid by Voltan, but loses his hand in the process. He then crafts a full repeating crossbow that self loads! With this bad boy he’s out for revenge on Voltan and his minions. Powerful motivation and a solid performance by Morgan Sheppard makes this one of the best characters in the film. Sadly he gets pushed to the side of the film once all the heroes are assembled. The odd thing is that Crow the Elf is less interesting but ends up with more screen time. Again, I think he’s supposed to be calm and cool. And when he doesn’t speak, he almost pulls it off. We find out he is the last of his kind, and there is a bit of that melancholy in Charlson’s performance. But then he talks. I’m not sure what the hell happened. They attempted to modify his voice higher… I think. But he is also talking in complete monotone – like the way a kid sounds when he’s a robot. I’m not sure why he chose to play an elf this way, but man is it distracting. It leads to some of the funniest lines in the film, all because of the delivery and the attempt to make Crow cool.

You can tell she's magical because her hula hoops
glow green.
Finally you get the ladies in the film. Crosbie does a good job as the Abbess. I also think MacColl is solid in the key role as Elaine. But the scenes are so short it is hard to get much chemistry between her and Hawk. Sister Monica plays the naïve nun who thinks Voltan will keep his word. Cheryl Campbell sells it well with real conviction, so even when you are shouting at her blind faith, you see where she is coming from. But the best performance is by Patricia Quinn as the witch. She brings all the magic to Hawk the Slayer, and she does a good job being mysterious and deliver her cryptic lines with mystic skill. The film also has her voice coming through clearer in ADR, and since she is whispering all her lines it gives it an unearthly quality. Not sure if it is intentional, but it all works out.

Hawk is ready for the final battle.
The film itself moves a little on the slow side. The set up in the first third is a bit belabored, with some flashbacks thrown in to make things a bit clearer, but they low the momentum down. The scenes where Hawk recruits each team member are all done in this vignette style inspired by Seven Samurai, but much less effective. In all of them, the outsiders are all being threatened or oppressed in some way and Hawk’s arrival saves the day. It’s a bit contrived, but fun. The movie still always feels like it moves in fits and starts, lacking moments that flow into the next. Even the use of traveling montages and awesome disco synths just end up making you chuckle at what the director was attempting.

What happens when fireflies mate with ping pong balls.
But nearly all the action scenes are fun. The stage fighting isn’t great, but it’s much better than Outlaw of Gor or Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. You also get a lot of in camera effects to show the speed of the crossbow and bow of the heroes, with editing tricks to speed up the action. It is very obvious and kind of silly, but entertaining. The real joy comes from the low budget magic effects. Blacklights, florescent paint and all kinds of house hold items combine to make the magic feel really darn goofy. When Hawk uses his magic Sword of Mind to call the weapon to him – you can see the string. What makes those scenes even frunnier is the fact that in nearly every case, Hawk doesn’t need to use magic to pull the sword to him. He could just reach over and grab it. There is no reason for him to use the magic, and I kept forgetting it had that ability.

You also get some of the more standard magical visuals that include smoke blasts and a fog machine. There is even a bit of simple animation, but the big finale battle with the ping pong balls has to be seen to be believed. I was laughing so hard the first time I watched it. Great stuff.

Hawk the Slayer is a lot of fun. Like Star Wars it feels familiar, but fresh at the same time. It’s has plenty of moments to enjoy because of the silly dialogue, questionable acting choices and music. It is the exception to the Barbarian Age of fantasy films, managing to carve its own path, but is still silly enough that fans of the genre should check it out.

Gort doesn't like being called "big boned".

"You'd tell me if this helmet made me look goofy, right?"

Medieval eye surgery. It doesn't go well.

Hawk and his crew ready for the next adventure.

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  1. Where was that witch when ping-pong diplomacy was the big thing? (Maybe that's a little before your time.) I've had some trouble with hula hoops myself, but the less said about that the better.

    I never saw this one but it sounds fun. Jack Palance got a bit typecast for a stretch there, didn't he?

    1. She was all about the ping-pong attack! Diplomacy is for wimps. ;)

      Yeah I feel for Jack a bit. But at the same time, he seems to be having some fun in the role. Much more engaged than he was in "Outlaw of Gor" and I think the hats were a lot less goofy in this one.

  2. This sounds like one I could watch on an early cold Saturday morning pretty easily. Some of those films can be pretty entertaining, and even though it wasn't made to be a great movie, it can still be entertaining, and that's fine. At least if the dialogue is halfway decent I can handle it. I liked Beastmaster and the Conan films among other genre of the time.

    That still holds true today. I was trying to watch the CW's DC Heroes thing. The Flash, Green Arrow, and Supergirl and perhaps some other superheroes are trying to save or do something, but the dialogue is just so bad, I couldn't watch it. The Flash, for me suffers from other things I can't handle either, but I thought if it was handled well, I might could sit still and watch it. But I couldn't.

    1. Yeah I haven't given the shows a shot yet. I know lots of folks like them, but I'm kind of burnt out on super heroes.

      I did watch "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones" on Netflix and both of those were pretty darn entertaining. They both sagged a bit in the middle, but the ending of both series was top notch. I think I liked "Daredevil" a little bit more, because the action scenes were really impressive.

      As for "Hawk", this one is a good time for sure. Lazy Sunday viewing.

  3. It could be argued in those days there were only three Fantasy-fiction movies: _Conan_, _Ladyhawke_, & _Everything Else_.

    One was a well-budgeted adaptation of classic ephemeral fiction, one an original script based on legends with great casting & some brilliant writing,
    & everything else was cheesy sword'n'sorc~sword'n'sandal for the late-night / drive-in B-movie crowd.

    I really only liked the _Ladyhawke_ form, as _Conan_ was a bit limited. Simultaneously not violent or sexy enough.
    But mainly as I was a Tolkien purist, & if you couldn't make a movie as good as a BBC radio-play I wasn't interested.

    Low-budget British cheese such as _Hawk_, _Sw & Sorc_, _Archer & Sorc_, _Twins & Sorc_ et al - and even _Krull_, likewise left me cold.
    Not least for their vapid aping of the forms & devices of fantasy fiction, but also their cheapness.
    The way acting & script were as weak as the lighting & the fog/mist/dry ice/breath drifting across the scene.

    Even _Dr. Who_, on an equally microscopic budget, made better use of such tropes, whether it was something Hammeresque like _State of Decay_,
    Chineoiserie of _Weng-Chiang_, or classical tales like _Nimon_ & _Underworld_.

    The only other film of note was _Dragonslayer_, a rare Disney NastyTM, but with the advantages of substantially more money, better (original) script,
    a familiar combination of Hollywood hopefuls (MacNicol, Clarke) with British stalwarts (Richardson, McDiarmid, Hallam); & ILM's bluescreen & Go-Motion.
    It was the only other FF movie I liked, not least because it was almost unavailable on VHS & never on TV.
    Even today it's never been released for sale on tape or DVD in Australia.
    But also because like _Star Wars_ it didn't flinch from depicting actual violence: physical & political.
    Stabbings, burnings, shootings; royalty stealing your thunder & christianity stealing your power.

    What dominated FF of all kinds, of course, was Star Wars_. Successfully disguised as sci-fi adventure,
    it nevertheless had all the same tropes & more: quest, magic, wise general, callow warrior, wisecracking thief,
    beautiful princess, dependable Little John, two bickering servants, evil sorcerer, & lots of cannon-fodder.

    It also made the best possible use of familiarity with the Wild West, fighter-plane movies, rousing Wagneresque music.
    It would be more than 30 years before FF was taken seriously, & we still had to suffer thru even more expensive maladaptations of Tolkien & its copies (_Eragon_, _D'n'D_), before we finally received _Harry Potter_ & so forth.

  4. Yeah I'm a big fan of the first Conan film. It feels about as close as we could get the Howard stories at that time. Not perfect by any means, but judged on its own terms it really is an impressive film. Letting the score do most of the heavy lifting emotional and with the story was a genius idea given the rough nature of most of the cast. Conan the Barbarian wouldn't be nearly as good without Poledouris' amazing score.

    I need to give "Ladyhawke" another spin. It has been years since I saw it. I remember liking it quite a bit when I was a kid. But for some reason I just never felt a need to revisit it.

    I also used to really like "Excalibur" with all its dreamlike imagery and over the top antics. It felt operatic and surreal all at once. This is another one I haven't seen in years, but I really should revisit this year.

    Thanks for the comment. (and we'll just have to agree to disagree on the Jackson versions of LOTR. I still think those were about as good as we were going to get for a big budget film adaptation of those stories).