6. The Tic-Tac-Dough Dragon
This behemoth bedeviled the tactical warriors who played the late-'70s-to-mid-'80s version of the game show favorite, hosted by Wink Martindale. Initially, the object of the "Beat the Dragon" bonus round was, obviously, to avoid the Dragon's visage. Later in the run, however, contestants pulled from the audience were invited to boldly "Find the Dragon."
5. Sokura's Gate Guard
The honored art of stop-motion animation has given us a number of fine traditional dragons, like the one into whom the evil wizard transforms himself at the cliamx of 1962's Jack the Giant Killer, or the gaudy, jeweled specimen taken on by Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (also 1962).
But no stop-motion dragon can match the beauty (animated by Ray Harryhausen) who's chained up at the entrance to the lair of the wicked wizard Sokura (Torin Thatcher) in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), but who is loosed at the climax and wrestles with the Cyclops. This behemoth always struck me as sweetly canine in the way he ambles along behind his maniacal master.
4. Q (1982)
Stop-motion was also responsible for the onscreen realization of a Pre-Columbian American dragon, Quetzalcoatl, Q for short, the title character of Larry Cohen's erratic, preposterous, brilliantly-acted Manhattan fantasy. Neurotic small-time crook Michael Moriarty - in, no joke, one of his very best performances - stumbles upon the knowledge that this Aztec deity is roosting (and nesting!) in the spire of the Chrysler building. Toward the end, there's a battle between New York's finest, hanging off the side of the building, and Q, swooping around them on the wing; sort of like King Kong in reverse.
Star Trek: The Animated Series, offered us a pretty nice version of the Mayan variation of this god, Kukulkan, in the second-season episode "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth":
Along with the Reluctant One (see above) and Pete's companion, Disney has offered many dragons over the decades, from the nattering Chinese dracunculus voiced by Eddie Murphy in Mulan to the grand terror that Susan Sarandon turns into at the climax of Enchanted. But who is likely to argue that the most ass-kicking of Disney's dragons is the sleek, black, stylized serpent into which the evil Maleficent transforms herself at the end of Sleeping Beauty (1959)?
Imposing as she is in the film (especially, as in his clip, in French), it's in her role in the "Disney Princess" version of the card game Uno, which I occasional play with (and at which I am usually defeated by) my kid, by which I've been most outraged by Maleficent, or rather by Disney's apparent containment policy toward her.
Here's the problem: Most of the cards feature one or another of the various Disney Princesses - Snow White, Belle, Jasmine - but occasionally one's opponent plays a Dragon Card, depicting the Sleeping Beauty dragon.
Confronted with this beast, one must discard, or draw from the deck until one finds, a card depicting a Princess in the clinch with her designated Prince, such cards being called "Dragonslayers."
Now, this strikes me as suggesting to the young players that you need a man around for whatever dragon shows up in your life, that you're powerless to pick up a sword & slay the freakin' dragon yourself. Doesn't it? Or am I just being excruciatingly politically correct?
2. The Imoogi
The 2007 Korean production Dragon Wars: D-War, set and at least partly shot in the USA, was an instant so-bad-it's-good classic. It involves a pair of star-crossed lovers - Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks, who look like they grew right out of a compost heap of theatre-major head shots - caught up in the return to Earth of an army of legendary Korean dragon-serpents, the Imugi, or "Imoogi" as they're spelled in the subtitles. These two crazy mixed-up kids soon learn that they're reincarnations of a pair of lovers from medieval Korea who also have a history with dragons.
The dialogue is eye-wideningly terrible, as is most of the acting by the largely American cast. Keenest sympathies are reserved for that sterling actor Robert Forster, who plays a sage antique dealer and who has the unenviable task of delivering pages and pages of expository narration. He sounds like he'd rather be just about anywhere else on the planet.
The dragon themselves, however, are quite wonderful. The computer-generated special effects are near-seamless, and the director, Hyung-rae Shim, has a real flair for large-scale spectacle. When the snaky, furious-faced beasts loom over tree lines or coil themselves around skyscrapers, or when flocks of leathery-winged monsters endlessly dogfight with helicopters, the movie generates a wild-and-wooly energy that few attempts at gargantuan fantasy have equaled. The dragon designs have a mythic beauty to them, too; when a good dragon finally shows up to defend the young lovers - "It's the good Imoogi!" our hero helpfully observes - it has the ornate elegance we want from an Asian specimen of dragon, and its clash with the "bad Imoogi" looks like a Molly Hatchet album cover come to life.
1. Vermithrax Pejorative
But if we must pick a single greatest non-Smaug dragon of the modern era, I would argue that it might just be the virgin-gobbling bane from the fine, full-blooded 1981 fantasy Dragonslayer. I haven't seen the film since the '80s - when I saw it repeatedly - and I'm a little reluctant to: I'm afraid that Vermithrax won't have aged as well as she has in my memory. She was traditional in form but innovative, and entirely convincing, in execution; a mixture of full-sized animatronic pieces and Phil Tippet's "go motion" technique, which added movement to the single-frame takes, thus smoothing out the familiar "jerkiness" of stop-motion.
VP was commanding aurally as well as visually. Few who have seen the movie can forget (spoiler!) her terrible wail of enraged grief when she discovers that her nest has been violated. Here, as with most great monsters, our fright at her is complicated by empathy.
Previous articles by M.V. Moorhead: