Life can be challenging as a fantasy fan. Sure, we’ve got the best games, sure we’ve got the best books, and we’ve even reared our heads in the film industry with celebrated movies like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But, outside those few blockbusters, seeking out a really excellent sword and sorcery movie can be… well, hard. When I log in to Netflix to see if the fantasy section will actually offer something new and exciting, I don’t actually expect to find something. A few things will pop up with the word “dragon” in the name, they’ll inevitably feature some washed-up side character from Battlestar Galactica, and most importantly, they will be terrible.
This is what I was expecting when I came across Curse of the Dragon Slayer on Netflix’s instant watch. I didn’t instantly recognize anyone from Battlestar Galactica but it was safe to assume they’d be there, the synopsis mentioned something about an elf and a cult and blah blah blah. I was pretty certain it was gonna suck.
I was wrong. It was awesome.
I’d like to first address that this film has at least four different titles. If you see a film with any of these titles:
- Curse of the Dragon Slayer
- SAGA: Curse of the Shadow
- SAGA: The Shadow Cabal
- Dragon Lore: Curse of the Shadow
Then it is the same movie. Considering that the film does not prominently contain any actual dragons, I find that the second title is the most accurate. As such, from here out I shall be referring to this movie as Saga.
Note for the confused and curious: Despite a similarity in names, starring the same actor, and having been released two years later, Curse of the Dragon Slayer is not a sequel to the film Dawn of the Dragon Slayer and is in no way related. How about that?
This brings me to the movie itself. Saga was a breath of fresh air – an independent fantasy film with a budget that, amazingly, exceeds “shoestring.” All of the major characters have subplots that tie together into a significant story. The characters are distinct and multi-layered. The morality is complex. The sets are beautiful. And the world itself is an imaginative blend of fantasy genres that leaves the entire thing both familiar and satisfying.
But that’s speaking in broad terms. Let me back up.
Saga gives us three central characters. Each of them is enjoyable in different ways, each has their own motivations and storyline that ties in together with the rest of the movie as a whole. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
The first character introduced is Nemyt Akaia (Danielle Chuchran), a young high elf bounty hunter. To my estimation, she is Chaotic Neutral. While she portrays herself as a renegade with a justified vendetta, Nemyt is a greedy, sociopathic, racist murderer. Weren’t expecting that in a main character, were you? In her youth, Nemyt’s homeland was wiped out by the invading orc tribes – they killed the men and the women, but they spared the children. Now a grown woman, Nemyt becomes a bounty hunter, determined to slaughter every orc she encounters. She does not consider them worth sparing or worth honor. It is in her hunt for orcs that the story begins – the orc she encounters is a shaman, and a disciple of the Shadow, a death-worshipping cult. When she kills him, he passes on the “mark,” a mysterious black tattoo that appears on her wrist. This will end up being quite significant.
Next we have Keltus the Wanderer (Richard McWilliams), a human zealot. He is described as a “cleric” at one point, though he uses a sword and is more of an interrogator/inquisitor/crusader than anything else. Keltus is Lawful Neutral (though moves towards Lawful Good by the film’s climax) and follows the orders of “The Prophetess,” a mysterious woman that he visits in a strange dreamscape when he meditates upon her. The Prophetess wants Keltus to bring down the Shadow, and she doesn’t care how he does it. In fact, her advice is usually awful – Keltus is not encouraged to hold any loyalties or treat anyone with respect or honor. He will kill, torture, and betray as he sees fit to continue his quest in destroying the evil of the Shadow. He meets up with Nemyt when she winds up in a city dungeon – turns out that the tattoo on her wrist is well-known by everyone as a mark of the Shadow, and she gets locked up after a brief struggle. He plans to use her as an infiltrator to seek out the cult, in exchange for freeing her from the dungeon and having the Prophetess remove the mark on her arm.
The third, last, and best central character that Saga offers is Kullimon the Black (Paul D. Hunt), an orcish ex-warchief. Before I go into further detail on him specifically, I need to briefly mention some developments on the orcs themselves in this setting.
Saga‘s orcs resemble, visually, the orcs in Lord of the Rings (Actually, a lot of things do. Nemyt’s sword is an exact replica of Arwen’s, and a later antagonist has a replica of the Witch-King’s sword – I recognize them from catalogs. Yes, I’m a dork.), though they’re slightly larger and slightly greener. The interesting bit is that they actually take a glance at the orcs’ culture in this, and it finds a sort of strange balance between the savage, psychotic “classic” orcs and the more shamanic, honorable “Klingon-style” orcs that we saw later on in settings like Warcraft and Warhammer. The shift is done cleanly, being expressed with a clash between two leaders – the peaceful, honorable one is Kullimon, whereas his rival, who ends up betraying and usurping him, is warlike and brutal. Whether this was done accidentally as a way to make the orcs seem more interesting, or was done specifically as a sort of study on the orc culture, I’m unsure. But either way, it’s appreciated.
Anyway, back to Kullimon. He is Neutral Good and is absolutely fantastic, standing out strongly as my favorite character of the bunch. He’s boisterous, funny, noble, and determined – after he is betrayed and loses leadership over his tribe, he is beaten, exiled, and crucified. When Keltus and Nemyt find him (and after Keltus prevents Nemyt from slaughtering him where he kneels, unarmed) he insists that he travel with them… after all, the relic they’re seeking (what, you didn’t think they’d be seeking a relic? It may be a good fantasy flick but it’s still a fantasy flick) lays with his old tribe, who are turning towards evil and falling into the clutches of the Shadow.
And so, our merry band forms. Each seeks out the Shadow for their own reasons, and after Nemyt has some secret plans explained to her by a kooked-out Shadow cultist (he saw the tattoo on her arm) they have to find some items and do various things with them. The exact nature of their little quest is entertaining but doesn’t stand out, but the story is entirely character-driven. Each character has their own motivations and different plans on how to best carry them out – Nemyt holds no loyalty to either of them (and in fact wants to kill Kullimon by virtue of being an orc at all), Keltus plans to use Nemyt as an infiltrator and then dispose of her (in his defense, she is kind of a freak), and Kullimon himself, well… actually he’s just a pretty cool guy about the whole thing. While he isn’t beholden to his new comrades, he is grateful and loyal to them, treats them with respect, doesn’t try to get in their way, and is all-around helpful. This is reflected at one point – when the sub-Baddie of the film uses an area of effect to put the mark of the Shadow on everyone nearby, the only person it doesn’t effect is Kullimon. While he’s violent and tribal, he’s so good-natured that the death god (Goth Azul) can’t get a hold on him. He remains untainted.
So, what else is there to say? The action’s good, the costumes are good, the acting is solid enough to support the strong characters and dialogue, and the film’s three (!) villains are all exciting and worthwhile, ranging from personal (the other chief), to globally significant (Goth Azul and the dark rider), to just random and awesome (the dwarf maniac). The ending is satisfying, and, perhaps most importantly…
…It contains a zombie Minotaur.
You heard me.
A zombie Minotaur.
A Minotaur that’s also a zombie.
I can die happy now.