31 Monsters #10: Vermithrax Pejorative
The 1981 Disney/Paramount co-production Dragonslayer remains one of the great fantasy films, with arguably the best dragon ever captured on the big screen. Director Guillermo del Toro certainly wouldn’t argue that latter point, which means that he’s set himself quite a challenge in crafting Smaug for his upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.
The first thing that was notable about Dragonslayer‘s creature was its full name: Vermithrax Pejorative. Trying saying it out loud. Verm-i-thrax Pe-jor-a-tive. Don’t you love the sound that makes? Allegedly, the Latin translates to “The Worm of Thrace Who Makes Things Worse.”
While there have been many film dragons, none has matched Vermithrax for being such a mother of a mover. The bat-winged beast screamed through the clouds like an F-16 fighter jet, blasting the landscape with its flamethrower breath.
Dragonslayer came near the end of the pre-CGI era of special effects, which made its groundbreaking advance in the art of stop-motion animation ironic in hindsight. In a few years, it would be rendered moot by ever-improving computer graphics.
One of the problems with traditional stop-motion–in which an articulated model is moved a fraction of a inch before the next frame of film is exposed–is that each moment is in perfect focus. A real-life moving object leaves a slightly blurred image on each film frame, so even the smoothest stop-motion animation has a strange, unrealistic quality.
For Vermithrax, animator Phil Tippett employed a technique he called “go motion,” which added computer-guided movements during each exposure to blur the image. The effect was startling, and helped make the dragon one of the most convincing movie monsters ever.
But perhaps the most unusual thing about Dragonslayer was its bleak depiction of a high-fantasy medieval setting. Keep in mind that while it was released in the U.S. by Paramount, it was a Disney co-production. Yet there were no singing animals or colorful dresses. The baby dragons weren’t cute, merchandisable critters, but foul slugs seen biting bloody chunks out of the corpse of the brave, young princess. That it wasn’t what the Disney audience expected is a vast understatement.