Today I am going to be looking at “SAGA: Curse of the Shadow” and we will analyze why it is a better “Dungeons & Dragons” film. Be warned, however, if you are expecting a trashy B-Movie you will be disappointed. Everything about the film is a cut above what you expect from a low-budget fantasy genre film, including: production quality, acting, and direction.
When it first came out I had been on fantasy hiatus for sometime, this was around 2013 when the film was first released. Now, I can safely say when picking it up a few years later I wasn’t expecting much. But, there was a promise of fun to be had and a close friend suggested it to me. Yet, I was still skeptical and expecting to be underwhelmed. This may have been the needed recipe to enjoy the film, so if this review ups your expectation and you are in turned less than impressed when watching it I wholeheartedly apologize. I have had it on a couple of times now and it has been enjoyable each time.
First, a little history.
SAGA: Curse of the Shadow
SAGA’s production was a journey, one which could have ended in the Utah waste where it began, yet, found footing and became the film we know today. As you watch the film you will notice that there is a different feel to the opening as to the rest of the film. That is because the opening scene, “Nemyt vs Fangtor” was shot as a concept with the potential to be made into a web series at a later date, though it ended as a full feature film. The opening was made in Snow Canyon State Park after one day of filming. This was in 2012 and you can tell that the 19 year old Danielle Chuchran (the performer for Nemyt) looks younger than in the remainder of the film.
Once complete Mainstay Productions and Arrowstorm Entertainment shopped the project around until they decided to crowd fund the film on Kickstarter.
If you are drawing a blank you may have seen the film marketed under one of its many other names:
- Dragon Lore: Curse of the Shadow
- SAGA: The Shadow Cabal
- Curse of the Dragon Slayer
As I have said, SAGA is a better DnD film for a number of reasons. None more apparent as the setting.
SAGA offers up a clean LotR setting, one that is more than believable and avoids the pitfalls which other fantasy films often find themselves in. By using a pure LotR implementation of the fantasy genre they are able to safely navigate a world populated with humans, elves, drawves, orcs, and dragons while maintaining a believably real world throughout.
This allows the film to exist without inundating the audience with the lore needed to believe in the world that they are watching on the screen. At this point I would point would point out that this is where LotR makes its biggest contribution to the film. The DnD film franchise would be well served to take a page from this book when developing future films for their franchise. “Dungeons & Dragons” creator Gary Gygax made it clear how important the work was as a influence on his game world.
The world of D&D was influenced by world mythology, history, pulp fiction, and contemporary fantasy novels. The importance of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as an influence on D&D is controversial. The presence in the game of halflings, elves, half-elves, dwarves, orcs, rangers, and the like, draw comparisons to these works. The resemblance was even closer before the threat of copyright action from Tolkien Enterprises prompted the name changes of hobbit to ‘halfling’, ent to ‘treant’, and balrog to ‘balor’. For many years, Gygax played down the influence of Tolkien on the development of the game. However, in an interview in 2000, he acknowledged that Tolkien’s work had a “strong impact” though he also said that the list of other influential authors was long.
You can summarize the story as a reluctant group (elf, paladin, and orc) teams up to stop the end of the world being brought about by the Order of the Shadow and their death god Goth Azul. Sounds big, but they do a good job keeping the whole thing grounded.
The 19/20 year old Danielle Chuchran offers the most striking performance in the film (though her co-stars are not far behind). Through a combination of athletic prowess and competent skills as an actress she brings her elven character to life.
With even a small scale fantasy film you are going to be presented with a sizable cast. Usually that results in miss-direction and wooden performances, both of which can make an otherwise good premise fail. That is not the case here, every role is filled with a fitting performer and they do an admirable job bring that role to life. A feat that, given the budget and size, is nearly herculean in proportions.
When a talented cast is offered an assortment of diverse roles you often get a sense of the creative energy that went into the making of a film. That is what happened with SAGA, and it is clear that the cast had fun bringing the diverse roles to life.
Here is a small sampling of the characters you will meet when entering the world of SAGA. As an aside which character are played by the same actor? There is a good chance that you will not be able to tell from watching the film alone.
As I mentioned already this one has taken a couple of spins in my DVD player already. What I marvel at each viewing is the shear number of costumes, creatures (including mermaids), and locations they were able to fit into the budget. Some sources suggest is was produced on less than a million dollars. If that is true it is simply amazing.
Creature makeup makes up a big part of what went into making this film, and in a style similar to the LotR trilogy much of what you see on the screen is practical. By avoiding the urge to go CG they were able to make a film that looks good, and I might add scales well. Even a little bit of overdone CG can kill an otherwise brilliant film but that can not be said for SAGA. There is some CG but what is there is sparse and sensibly used so as not to ruin the otherwise skilled craftsmanship that went into making the feature.
The orc design comes from a more traditional fantasy setting than many of the fantasy creatures you will encounter in film. That said, many will see them as derivatives from Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy. That might be true to an extent, the similarity lies in the makeup, as they share some fundamental design decisions.
First, the orc prosthetic makeup is traditionally made. That is to say that they are a practical effect, they look like they are in the scene because they really were. Latex foam masks were used to allow the preforms a chance to emote. By using practical effects they were able to achieve quality closer to LotR than other attempts made in the past.
While the technique used is the same the facial designs are unique to the film. The same cannot be as easily said about the costumes. Here are some screens of the orcs from SAGA to give you a better understanding of what I mean.
Mix all of this together and add in a production team with a clear vision and you have an enjoyable (low-budget) fantasy adventure. It makes you wonder what they would have been able to achieve with a bigger budget. Maybe we will see someday. Until then we have SAGA!