Krude But Functional

Krull is a lovingly-crafted example of style over substance. The back cover of my Blu-Ray copy quotes the Variety review as saying it’s “Excalibur meets Star Wars“, and as is often the case with these cherry-picked movie quotes this is entirely true but in a very specific way.

To be precise, Krull cribs the lush fantasy aesthetic of Excalibur‘s most psychedelically excessive parts – along with that of the lesser Conan sequels and various ’80s sword and sorcery imitators – and then steals liberally from Star Wars when it comes to throwing in a mostly irrelevant science fiction angle (as well as eerily predicting the Star Wars prequels’ defiance of anything resembling coherent pacing or convincing romance).

Those sci-fi elements are mostly all put on the table for the first fifteen minutes of the movie, but then are never really that relevant until the end. The villainous Beast shows up on the planet Krull (which has two suns, Tatooine-style) in his starship, which becomes known as the Black Fortress because once it’s landed it looks like a big ol’ castle, and his goons – the Slayers – shoot laser beams out of their swords and have a Stormtrooper-like capability to only hit unnamed extras with them, and when you bust open their helmets it turns out there’s a nasty little gribbly inside them.

There’s also a prophecy that the son of our heroes – Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette “this is my debut movie and they didn’t trust me to remember my character’s name unless it was a lot like my actual name” Anthony, whose lines were actually all dubbed by Lindsay Crouse so she’d sound more mature) – will rule the entire galaxy, though given the complete lack of starship technology available to our protagonists exactly how that would come about is a huge question. (The only ship we encounter is the Black Fortress, which according to standard 1980s fantasy movie logic blows up once its master is slain.)

None of this sci-fi stuff has any particular bearing on the rest of the movie, which operates more or less entirely according to a fantasy aesthetic and fantasy logic. I mean, you could start quoting Arthur C. Clarke and waffle about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, but Clarke missed an important point in enunciating that idea – which is that this technology is only indistinguishable from magic if its creators specifically design it to look and operate like magic, rather than making a far more useful and pragmatic user interface for it. Had the Beast simply been an evil demon and the laser bolts been spells and the son of Colwyn and Lyssa been just destined to rule the world as they end up doing, more or less nothing about the movie would be appreciably different.

So, anyway: the Beast and the Slayers are kicking up trouble and the dads of Colwyn and Lyssa have looked at the whole prophecy thing and decided that actually, they don’t mind their dynasty ruling the entire galaxy at all, thank you very much. Thus, they arrange a marriage between Colwyn and Lyssa, which the two of them are super excited about because they actually consider each other pretty hot (plus the whole “we get to rule the world and found a galaxy-ruling dynasty thing” is a hell of an aphrodisiac for anyone with a whiff of aristocratic ambition).

Naturally, the Slayers invade the wedding and kill more or less everyone, taking Lyssa away so that the Beast can cajole her into marrying him and he can hijack the prophecy. Colwyn survives, however, and is found by Ynyr the Old One (Freddie Jones), this movie’s gruff Gandalf equivalent, who tells him off for crying over 99% of everyone he knows dying and the love of his life being kidnapped because there’s no crying allowed on quests to save the world.

First, they retrieve the Glaive – in defiance of the actual meaning of that word (it’s a type of sword), for the purposes of this movie it’s a mystical five-armed frisbee with switchblades in the arms – and then they voyage to find the Black Fortress. In typical 1980s sword and sorcery movie style, they pick up a rag-tag bunch of party members along the way, and one of the strengths of the movie is that this time they’re at least a reasonably vivid and interesting bunch.

OK, David Battley’s comic relief wizard – the incompetent shapeshifter Ergo the Magnificent – is desperately annoying in the way that comic relief in 1980s movies tended to be. But you also have the likes of the Emerald Seer (John Welsh), a blind prophet, and his child apprentice Titch (Graham McGrath), whose sequences usually amp up the aesthetic weirdness which is the best aspect of the movie, and Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and his group of bandits (including a young Lian Neeson and Robbie Coltrane) who provide a somewhat grimmer and edgier group of allies than you usually get in this sort of movie – such characters are usually the sorts to get bested by the heroes in an early fight scene instead. Perhaps the best supporting character, however, is Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw); in this setting Cyclopes are cursed with foreknowledge of their deaths, which when you keep it in mind adds a particularly melancholy and heroic note to Rell’s character arc.

From here the usual 1980s sword and sorcery formula applies – a string of setpieces as the quest progresses, a few deaths of supporting characters, and a final fight at the big bad’s fortress. Red Sonja, in particular, followed more or less the exact same formula, except it actually had a woman who wasn’t either incapable of doing stuff or demonised for having her own agenda. There’s a set-piece sequence here in which Ynyr does his big act of heroism for the party by, and I am not shitting you here, agreeing to go have a chat with one of his exes. Whilst that is indeed a terrible fate, the way she’s depicted as a sinister witch – the Widow of the Web (played by Francesca Annis under a ton of makeup) who’s become evil and bitter because of romantic rejection is pretty awful (particularly since there’s a “she killed her child when it was born out of spite” angle which, I guess, could be read as an oblique anti-abortion sentiment, and then she and Ynyr effectively redeem themselves with a suicide pact). Aside from Lyssa in full on damsel in distress mode, literally the only other women in the film are some peasant women who show up and flirt with the characters a bit (one of whom being one of Liam Neeson’s many wives).

The other main deficiency of the movie is that it somehow manages to work its particular formula competently enough when it comes to the individual components, but when it comes to stitching them all together it doesn’t quite hit the pacing well. There’s a few too many sequences of obvious runtime-padding – a little too much time spent strolling through a swamp without anything happening, a little too much time spent watching the gang riding Shadowfaxian superhorses to the Black Fortress, a little too much time spent watching the Black Fortress slowly meander through space at the beginning or teleporting at the start and end of each day. A little of this is fine for the sake of drinking in the imagery, but it extends a little too far into empty padding at points.

What makes Krull worth watching is the mixture of the weird-arse visual feast it offers and some of the most unusual choices when it comes to acting and direction of any movie of this ilk. Some of the death sequences positively linger over the demise of the bandits – there’s a bit where they’re in one of those classic spikes-come-out-of-the-walls traps which is particularly vicious, as is the death of Rell himself. (Oh come on, that’s not a spoiler, if he wasn’t going to die his foreknowledge of his death wouldn’t have been relevant, would it?) The absurdity of the frisbee-based final fight has to be seen to be believed, not least because the Beast’s rubber suit is shot out of focus all the time which, if you’re being charitable, makes it look alien and unworldly, but was most likely intended to obscure the costume’s deficiencies. Watch it if you want pretty pictures you can occasionally look at and be bemused by whilst you are doing something else, like assembling Necromunda miniatures or something.

2 thoughts on “Krude But Functional

  1. John

    Krull is still one of my favorite bad movies, pacing be damned. I like the pretty pictures, especially everything with the Beast. The Black Fortress, the Slayers and the little weasel things that pop out when they die, the Changeling. They’re much weirder than the LOTR knock-offs that were my introduction to fantasy. The fortress was the strongest part of the movie, with organic curves and sharp points and shifting architecture. For most of the movie I thought the Black Fortress WAS the Beast, what with all the eye- and claw- and teeth imagery, before we found out the Beast was an out of focus rubber suit.


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