Tuesday, January 6, 2009

MERLIN AND THE WAR OF THE DRAGONS

The Asylum is a film production company that specializes in quick, cheap knock-offs of large studio films, designed to catch some of the "buzz" of the blockbusters and catch unwary video renters off guard. Some of their titles include I AM OMEGA, TRANSMORPHERS, DEATH RACERS, SUNDAY SCHOOL MUSICAL and THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED.... as well as their own "takes" on public domain titles like WAR OF THE WORLDS and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. In the trade, their products are occasionally referred to as "mockbusters."

As you might expect, their movies generally are not very good. Oh, some are watchable and even somewhat entertaining, with SciFi Channel-level CGI special effects and some familiar actors whose careers are on the wane (C. Thomas Howell, Judd Nelson, Greg Evigan, Chris Atkins, etc.), but most are tedious, poorly conceived and full of questionable performances.

But I've now seen the exception. An Asylum film that's actually, well, not bad. Actually, it’s fairly good.

Their new release, MERLIN AND THE WAR OF THE DRAGONS, tells the tale of young Merlin and his first "adventure," as he must defend the Normans from a Saxon warlord and a rogue wizard who controls a flock of fire-breathing dragons... and ultimately help Uther Pendragon become king.

Filmed entirely on location in Wales by director/cinematographer/editor Mark Atkins (AALLAN QUARTERMAIN AND THE TEMPLE OF SKULLS), with an almost entirely unknown Welsh cast, the film borrows a bit from 80's fantasy films like EXCALIBUR and DRAGONSLAYER, but manages to work as a solid fantasy story in its own right. Veteran German actor Jurgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT, THE DAVINCI CODE) anchors the film as Merlin's teacher, while newcomer Simon Lloyd Roberts makes a credible young wizard's apprentice on the verge of becoming a legend. The rest of the cast – mostly stage-trained, I assume – is more than competent as well, which makes MERLIN far superior to most Asylum films in the acting catagory.

Costumes, props and art direction are all of surprisingly high quality, and the CGI effects are somewhat better than usual for a direct-to-DVD fantasy film, with some very striking bits of computer animation, well-edited by director Atkins. Nothing looks particularly cheesy. Even the music by Chris Ridenhour is remarkably good; a rich, sweeping score well-suited to a fantasy epic.

Don't get me wrong – this is no LORD OF THE RINGS and Atkins is no Peter Jackson... but he might be, someday. The microscopic budget is sorely evident in the battle scenes, where a handful of extras valiantly attempt to pass as a much larger force, and in the filmmaker's reliance on shooting almost exclusively outdoors among (admittedly picturesque) ruins and caves, rather than on costly interior sets. Still... those outdoor locations are beautiful, and do much to enhance the film's overall "production value"...

I liked it.

For fans of fantasy films, I recommend giving MERLIN AND THE WAR OF THE DRAGONS a rental spin in your DVD player when it hits Hollywood Video in the next month or so. It's not a masterpiece of the genre, but it's a lot better than it has any right to be, considering it was shot in less than two weeks for virtually no money. And it’s definitely better than the low budget sword and sorcery "epics" of my youth, like the DEATHSTALKER series or HUNDRA!

BUY: Merlin and the War of the Dragons