Knightriders (1981) d. George A. Romero (USA)
As the recognized godfather of the modern horror era, it’s a bit depressing to realize just how little joy George A. Romero derived from the majority of his genre output. Pigeonholed early on into the fright flick biz by an inflexible Hollywood, the great independent from Pittsburgh kept trying to wiggle his way out but found few doors open to him. However, following the worldwide success of Dawn of the Dead, he struck a three-picture deal with executive producer and distributor Salah A. Hassanein, securing creative autonomy under the sole contingency that one of the three would be a sequel to Dawn (the resulting film being 1985’s Day of the Dead). The other two were his 1982 EC Comics tribute with Stephen King, Creepshow, and a long, rambling, idealistic, at times naïve but extremely personal and heartfelt tale of motorcycle-riding knights attempting to live by an old-world code in a modern get-rich-quick world. One became a huge financial smash and beloved kitschy treat, while the other was virtually unseen by the movie-going public. The neglected foundling in this case, the one which Romero claims as his second personal favorite (behind 1976’s Martin), is 1981’s Knightriders.
King William (Ed Harris, in his first lead role), or “Billy” to his court, lives an austere lifestyle, attempting to strip away the materialism that he feels has corrupted modern society. He and his mostly merry band travel from town to town, putting on their specific brand of Renaissance Fair with cycles standing in for horses in various jousting tournaments. There are the King’s men, led by the noble Sir Alan (Gary Lahti) and Dame Rocky (Cynthia Adler), opposing the Black Knights, led by the robust and rebellious Morgan (Tom Savini). The two sides batter away at each other for the crowd’s amusement (and ticket receipts), ending each pageant with celebration and camaraderie.
But as the viewer comes on the scene, the seeds of discontent are already being sown. Billy has become so stringent in his etiquette that his rises each dawn to flagellate himself after a night of lovemaking with his increasingly frustrated Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll). Morgan’s attempts to seize the crown through the staged battles become more brutal, while big-city promoters have become aware of the novelty act and hope to package it to the masses. While the familial atmosphere is still intact, there are factions and rivalries and tensions growing every day – it’s only a matter of time before something has to give. When Billy refuses to play ball with a couple of crooked cops, it sets in motion a series of events that compromise his entire “kingdom,” the fantasy he has worked so hard to maintain.
Romero’s seventh narrative feature takes a very long time to say what it wants to say and do what it wants to do – 146 minutes, to be exact. Its languorous tempo and meandering, character-centric plot seems more in keeping with the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, and wildly out of step with a public quickly warming to the whiz-bang thrills of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. But even if a leaner result could have been derived, Romero’s zombie-loving fan base must have been utterly bewildered by this unconventional yarn of morality and honor atop two-wheeling, gasoline-snorting hogs. (That said, the jousting scenes are undeniably thrilling, thanks to the bone-breaking stunts performed by Gary Davis and his Stunts Unlimited team; it’s somewhat surprising that more hasn’t been made of these by action movie aficionados.) This is not to say that Knightriders is an unsuccessful film or even an unsatisfying one – it’s simply an unconventional and slow-paced bit of cinema with more on its mind than cheap thrills.
Unfortunately, this caveat has made it a less appealing item for those approaching the writer/director’s canon. Longtime fans of Romero should be aware by this point of his predilections for addressing social issues and headier themes within the trappings of the genre, but this is not a horror film (by any stretch) and only marginally an exploitation flick. Therefore, audiences in its day arrived unprepared for what to expect from the film, and continue to be stymied today. The buzz for Knightriders barely charts on the radar – it’s become as marginalized as his post-Night of the Living Dead efforts, There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch.
And yet, for the patient and the open-minded, there are many rewards to be revealed, not the least of which being the terrific ensemble performances – every character is vividly detailed and given a special moment by which to be remembered. Savini has never, ever been better, and the intense Harris already possesses the fiery core that would propel him to Hollywood greatness and Oscar nominations. Many key players, such as Lahti, Ingersoll or Warner Shook (as a sexually confused M.C.), never flourished beyond this movie in spite of their superb characterizations, although sharp-eyed Romero devotees will pick out dozens of familiar faces, from John Amplas’ mime to Ken Foree’s blacksmith to Scott Reiniger’s knight to Anthony Dileo’s vendor to Joe Pilato’s disgruntled employee to Christine Forrest’s (aka the former Mrs. Romero) lovelorn grease monkey. Not to mention our memorable “Hoagie Man,” played by none other than Stephen King.
Shout! Factory has done a terrific job of resurrecting this underrated gem for reappraisal by a new generation, with a sharp, high-def picture that captures every dust-slinging maneuver with crystal-clear perfection. The supplements are expectedly bountiful, even if the audio commentary track is recycled from the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD, but I suppose the chances of getting Romero, Savini, Amplas, Chris Stavrakis (stuntman and Savini right-hand-man Taso’s brother) and Forrest all in the same room again these days might be a tall order. Still, there’s a lot of joy in listening to the assembled crew excitedly shout out the names of the many incidental players, as well as invoking production assistants Holly Hunter (yes, that Holly Hunter) and Shari Belafonte. Savini describes the making of the film as “the greatest summer imaginable,” citing the convivial atmosphere that pervaded the nearly three-month shoot. Romero gives innumerable props to his creative team, in particular Donald Rubinstein’s lively and evocative score, and the fearless stuntmen laying it all on the line. “It was the first time I ever realized that people could be put in harm’s way simply to serve one person’s creative whims,” he muses.
For the featurettes, Red Shirt Pictures ups their already impressive ante by landing the film’s A-list star for a warm and thoughtful discussion. In “Conscience of the King,” Harris reveals what the role meant to him and his career – even though he admits that it wasn’t widely seen, the boost to the actor’s confidence, he says, was immeasurable. Romero appears for a new interview entitled “Code of Honor,” still effusive and still frustrated at the film’s low profile. He also reveals that he had a brief meeting with Morgan Freeman about playing Merlin (the role eventually went to be-bop performance artist Brother Blue), but that the actor perceived the part as racist and demeaning – odd when you consider the director’s track record of tolerance and diversity.
“Memories of Morgan” sits down with Savini, who clearly still has regrets that the film didn’t serve as a greater launching pad for his career as an actor – playing a role not far removed from the man himself, it is truly an extremely engaging and joyous incarnation. (One can only wonder how his and Romero’s worlds might have been changed had the picture been a success.) The extras are topped off by Savini’s behind-the-scenes footage of the various motorcycle stunts, some of which look extremely painful, and the theatrical trailer and a couple TV spots.
I do feel obliged to point out one notable subtitling mistake, in the hopes that it will be remedied for future deaf and/or hard-of-hearing generations to come. It comes during Harold Wayne Jones’ gratuitous Marlon Brando impression, about 90 minutes in, re-enacting On the Waterfront’s famous backseat monologue to Rod Steiger, only in this case Jones bemoans the fact that he is forced to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Not my night? You shoulda looked out for me, Charlie, so I wouldn’t be stuck with a lousy piece of meat. I coulda had bass!” Unfortunately, the cheap (but still funny) joke is subtitled as “I coulda had baths!” Um, what???
Knightriders is available Nov. 26 from Shout! Factory and is available for pre-order HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine