During the 1970’s, at least 40% of all vans had a “FRODO LIVES” sticker on their bumpers and a glorious airbrushed sub-Vallejo mural involving a wizard attacking a dragon whilst a princess clad in a chain-mail bikini stared lustfully up the wizard’s robes. Fantasy was skunkweed thick in the air, making a Cimmerian haze where guys who couldn’t make it as Robert Plant could pretend to be Conan instead. Where mead and wenches could not be found in the land of polyester, bongwater and a Farah Fawcett poster would suffice. The 1970’s obsession with fantasy gave birth to Dungeons and Dragons, multiple Lord of the Rings prog rock concept albums, and, as the 70’s gave away to the 80’s, there came Hawk the Slayer.
It goes without saying that Hawk the Slayer is my favorite fantasy film. It’s magnificently cheap and tacky like a living paperback cover. It feels like it should have animated yellowed pages flipping over between every scene. The film takes place in a mystical land where dry ice fog is never dissipated by the sun and boa constrictors routinely spend their days draped around trees. The tale is as old as time: a hero (Hawk) must face his brother (Vultan- yes, really) in a titanic battle for good versus evil. This time, however, one brother is a callow youth who looks like he levelled up to a 4th level fighter-mage just last week and the other is, well, Jack Palance in a half-helmet. Hawk is a hero who has his own synth flute motif following him on his quest. Vultan is a man so wicked he threatens nuns by chopping a loaf of bread in twain. Hawk must assemble a crack team of heroes to help him battle Vultan’s hordes. Out of the whole of Mistonia (it might as well be called that as their major export must be mist), he picks: a one-handed man with a mechanical repeating crossbow, an elf whose longbow skills shame Legolas mightily and whose Vulcan-style acting shames Leonard Nimoy mightily, a “giant” who is at least three inches taller than the rest of the cast, a witch who wears a blindfold and uses neon glowing hula hoops to teleport people, and a dwarf who is obsessed with whipping various things. Together, they form the Fellowship of the…well, ransom. Instead of an epic quest, Hawk is mostly concerned with a kidnapping plot. It isn’t until he turns Vultan’s adopted son into dogmeat that any truly epic struggle commences.
The film is filled with odd moments that only a pre-Conan fantasy film would have tried. Rather than adhere to the muscles-and-blood aesthetic employed by the 80’s, Hawk the Slayer keeps its hero clothed and its deaths bloodless. When Hawk’s sword floats through the air on obvious wires to embed itself in a brigand’s stomach, said brigand clutches the blade in his hands and practically bellows “NOW I DIE!” before flopping off-camera. Crow the elf (fantasy rule #287: when in doubt, name your character after an animal) has a miraculous bow technique that consists of looping and speeding up the same shot of him twanging an arrow so the audience understands that he’s really quite fast. The witch manages to employ the whole of her magical skill and coats Vultan’s one guard in silly string fired from her staff. Later, she makes things a bit mistier (as I said, mist is their chief export) and, in her most inspired scene, sends neon rubber “fireballs” hurtling at Vultan’s army. Hawk’s sword of power contains an “Elfin mindstone” that appears to be a plastic egg painted green and lit up from the inside. Vultan consults with his evil master in a neon pink chamber that I like to call “The Vegas Limbo”.
As you can see, the color scheme in this film is very Mordor 54, the happenin’ club for all the cocaine wizards. This fantasy-disco style extends to the very finest element of the film: the soundtrack. Hawk’s synth flute trill is merely the prelude. Every action scene is punctuated with funktastic swells of dance beats and enough flute to make Ian Anderson jealous. Words fail to convey how inappropriately appropriate this soundtrack is. Conan brought in stomping brass and thunderous drums. Hawk the Slayer kept the screen groovin’. For the average viewer, the journey would likely end in anger. For me, it began with a kind of confusion and blossomed into a full-blown love affair.
Hawk the Slayer has its own love affair with the magic of slow motion. Hawk and his horse splash down a stream in slow motion. At least half of everything Crow does is in slow motion. Even the climactic final fight manages to squeeze a few more moments of slow motion out of the film. My only regret is that the film didn’t slow itself down so I could enjoy it for another five or six hours.
Fantasy is a tricky genre for film. Every epic (Conan, Lord of the Rings) has its low-budget analogue (Deathstalker, the Dungeon Siege movie I mentioned earlier), but Hawk the Slayer is no analogue. It’s a singular experience, and, for a film made in 1980, it manages to avoid ripping off Star Wars in almost every way (except Vultan’s helmet, which is like a fly being crossed Darth Vader after a teleport pod accident). It’s got more in common with Terry Brooks or Karl Edward Wagner (in its more lamely gritty moments) than any other fantasy film. This oddly sub-literary quality is source of Hawk the Slayer’s appeal. If you’ve read more than a dozen novels with covers involving sword-wielding men doing battle on vaguely fiery landscapes, then Hawk the Slayer will stir you.
If you haven’t been doing that, then you should start immediately. Then you will watch Hawk the Slayer and hope that Vultan’s sleep of death truly isn’t over. The witch promises she will meet Hawk again. So far, despite a promised sequel, we’re still waiting. And, if you are a Hawkaphile, you join the Quest for the Missing Fantasy Epic.
And, yes, there really is a hunchback, and he does have something to say about the situation. If you want to know what, you’ll have to rent it. The power of the Elfin Mindstone commands you!