Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Hawk the Slayer
Every so often, we come back to the notion that conviction can overcome just about any technical hurdle a filmmaker may face. Granted, the result will be cheesy, but you are left admiring the fact a director and their crew soldiered on and made something at once silly, but also at completely at peace with itself. That is doubly true for a film which doesn’t wear its limitations on its sleeve. Deathstalker II, one of our favorite cheesy movies ever, leans into its shoddy production values and makes it part of the charm. But this weekend’s cheesy movie, Hawk the Slayer, never winks about its budget. And, as it happens, it is a stronger cheese fest for it.
The plot concerns Lord Hawk (John Terry), the younger son of an apparently powerful magician and/or warrior in a land that may or may not be Dungeons & Dragons inspired. His older brother Voltan (Jack Palance) desperately wants the secret of their father’s power. But when the old man refuses, Voltan sticks him with the pointy end. He lives just long enough to offer Hawk the secret of the incredibly potent Mind Sword — the most powerful blade in all the land. Following this, Hawk roams the land in search of Voltan and adventure.
Sometime later, Voltan and his men camp near the Abby of Canterbury, where a survivor of one of his raids, Ranulf (Morgan Sheppard), has fled for sanctuary and aid. The Abbess of Canterbury (Annette Crosbie) nurses him back to health, but soon Voltan kidnaps her demanding 2,000 gold pieces for her safe return. It’s all a ruse so Voltan can lure Hawk to Canterbury and fulfill a deal he made with a dark wizard. But not knowing that, the High Abbot (Harry Andrews) sends Ranulf to find Hawk.
Around the same time, Hawk helps a sorceress (Patricia Quinn) out of jam. In return, she offers him the use of her magicks whenever they are required. It’s a lucky break as Ranulf finds Hawk and the legendary swordsman finds he needs to put his old adventuring party back together. The sorceress’s magick allows him to fast travel to the present locations of the giant Gort (Bernard Bresslaw), the elf Crow (Ray Charleson), and the dwarf Baldin (Peter O’Farrell). Once united, the party attempts to fortify the Abby, obtain the ransom money from a nasty slaver (Declan Mulholland), and fend off an attack from Voltan’s adopted son Drogo (Shane Briant). Oh, also, Hawk’s revenge story goes a bit deeper than dear old dad. It turns out Voltan killed his wife when she refused to dump Hawk and live with him. His face was also badly burned during the incident.
And if all of this sounds like a rough D&D campaign outlined by a 15-year-old whose read too many fantasy novels, that’s part of the charm. Devised by director Terry Marcel and producer Harry Robertson, the seeming goal here was to create an enduring fantasy world by dumping all of the clichés established by 1979 into it. It has an elf archer, a giant for a tank, a heroic man as the warrior and a dwarf from the Iron Hills as … well, he must be the guy in the group who just can’t take D&D seriously. And that’s presuming Marcel and Robertson were familiar with the game, which was only a handful of years old at the time. If not, a rich tradition of fantasy writing clearly established a lot of these particulars which Marcel and Robertson used as a shorthand to get to their story; which often feels as much as a Western as it does an arch fantasy epic.
Of course, the writing is only half the story as Hawk the Slayer does something remarkable for a film released in 1980 — it looks like a 1989 BBC television production. Somehow, the project, shot on film, possesses the visual characteristics of video in many scenes and the staccato editing of the fight scenes feels very reminiscent of the Beeb’s view on action during the 1980s. That is to say, Marcel cuts around it to hide wonky choreography and the fact he could not get an arrow to land properly.
And like those BBC productions, the film benefits from the fantasy setting of England itself. The availability of old forests, bogs, and rivers means the film has plenty of production value when on location, but this immediately vanishes when it returns to one of its two standing sets — the Abby main chamber and the Grant Abbot’s living space. Sparse walls, cheap looking doors, and the conspicuousness of the Abby as the film’s only major interior setting should make the film less enjoyable, but it manages to become sort of sweet in its way. If you can imagine a bunch of British guys getting into D&D real early in its run and making a film based on their campaign, it would only look marginally worse than Hawk the Slayer.
But — and this is the important thing — Marcel never winces about the production shortfalls. He embraces the fact he only has the one Abby set and must redress it for church services, meals, and the final battle with Voltan. He accepts he will never be able to make Crow’s prowess with a bow and arrow look cool, so he just reuses the same shot of him setting an arrow several times and then cutting to the results. See also: Ranulf’s crossbow. He never worries about the fact that Hawk and his crew are severely overpowered. He just commits to having Hawk say time and again that they are “outnumbered.”
This absolute conviction finds its way into the performances as well, starting with Palance’s scenery-chewing take on Voltan. To put it mildly, he’s loud in every line delivery, movement, and hiss when the pain of Voltan’s face becomes too great. It should be one of his worst performances, and yet it is a delight to watch because the villain in a fantasy movie like this should be a cartoon. Terry, meanwhile, never falters as Hawk. He’s dedicated to playing an American hero in a fantasy milieu. Sure, it’s stiff, but that feels right for the madness surrounding him. If he winked or felt above the material, it would make Hawk a much less enjoyable lead. Charleson, meanwhile, delivers an undeniably terrible performance. Yet, at the same time, you can see he was attempting to make his elf character seem different from the others. Bresslaw — who you may remember as the Cyclops in Krull — and O’Farrell (an elf in Santa Claus: The Movie) just about pull off a fantasy Laurel & Hardy routine. It only falters because the movie really doesn’t have time for it.
One thing it does have time for, though, is scenes of Terry on horseback while the genuinely kick-ass Hawk the Slayer theme plays. It’s clearly an attempt to pad out the runtime, but damn if it isn’t the exact right sort of padding.
All that said, the film is a low-budget relic from 1980. And as a consequence, you may find it a little too slow and goofy. But if you can get with its sense of conviction, Hawk the Slayer can provide the sort of cheesy delight you’re looking for from the fantasy genre.
Hawk the Slayer is available to rent on Amazon and streaming with adds on Tubi. It also available on DVD.