The condemned: Knights of The Damned (2017)
The plot: Were you one of those kids who would spend hours concocting fantasy pop culture scenarios with your friends? Like, “Hey, what do you think it would be like if the A-Team joined forces with the Mission: Impossible team? I think it might go a little something… a-like this.” Was that you? It was certainly me. It is absolutely, 100 percent the creative minds behind Knights Of The Damned, a film that seems to exist largely because someone noticed Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead are both very popular, so it only stands to reason that a movie that combined the most noteworthy fantastical elements from both shows—dragons and zombies—would become the most popular thing ever made in human history. Somehow Knights Of The Damned failed to accomplish that; I’m just spitballing here, but it may be that a lack of money and talent, manifesting in a film that often resembles home-movie footage of Ren faire cosplay, isn’t the most surefire way to achieve four-quadrant success.
It was probably a blast making this movie, because at no point does it look like anyone got yelled at for a doing a bad job. The film tells the tale of the kingdom of Nazroth, which has suddenly found itself under attack from an angry dragon after generations of peace. The king dispatches his 12 best warriors to hunt and kill it, but before the film even opens, eight of them have been killed—presumably due to mortal wounds inflicted by budgetary constraints—so we get four knights facing down a dragon (one promptly falls off a cliff, so really, it’s three). The three knights track the dragon, hoping to kill it so they can finally return home. It’s mentioned several times over the course of their journey that they’ve uncovered the dragon’s weakness and now know how to kill it. Does this information come back into play later on? It does not.
As the men make their way back in the direction of home, they learn of a strange new plague killing people of the kingdom. It’s called “the fury,” but it’s zombies: People are turning into the undead and attacking their neighbors. One night as the men stop at a tavern (also referred to by someone in this medieval-seeming fantasy as “a bar”) they encounter several warrior women from a nearby kingdom, and after a night of bonding, one of our three heroes is scratched, and begins the transformation into a fury. Fighting their way through villages of the fury, they team up with the women and return home to the castle, where they’re confronted with some ugly news: The people have almost all fled thanks to the ongoing attacks, and the sadistic prince has absconded to safety, heartlessly leaving his sister, the princess, unguarded. As the men realize the prince had been hoarding dragon eggs in the basement—thus precipitating the winged creature’s attacks—the dragon returns, tears apart the castle, and claims its eggs (most of them, anyway), while the remaining two knights battle an onslaught of furies and finally manage to ferret away the princess to safety. It ends with the princess solemnly intoning, “There’s a war coming,” and we get a cliffhanger, announced at the start of the end credits: “Knights Of The Damned is followed by The Dark Kingdom.” Those are some optimistic credits.
Over-the-top box copy: “Award-winning executive producer Chris Newman, Game Of Thrones, also known for Star Wars & Band Of Brothers.” It is indeed true that Chris Newman is a producer on Game Of Thrones, and his main gig is first assistant director, which he did on The Phantom Menace and Band Of Brothers. However, it’s very unclear what, if anything, his involvement was in this movie. IMDB doesn’t list him, so it’s possible his involvement extends to giving his blessing and 50 bucks to someone involved in the movie.
The descent: I don’t want to say this looks like an Uwe Boll film, because Uwe Boll usually has relatively decent sound editors and lighting crews, two areas in which this film really suffers. A more apt comparison would be something like a film by American “mockbuster” production company The Asylum, purveyors of disposable hungover-Sundays garbage like Transmorphers and San Andreas Quake (as well as the Sharknado franchise, still chugging along and somehow amusing again). There’s the attendant atrocious CGI and casting of extremely wooden actors in common, and the goal here seems to be the sole purpose of tricking fans of the aforementioned TV shows into giving this a shot, and hopefully gaining the film a spot in Redboxes around the country. But even The Asylum has a certain degree of quality control that is lacking in Knights Of The Damned, and when your film is suffering in comparison to 5-Headed Shark Attack, it might be time to reconsider your approach to filmmaking.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Who among us doesn’t drool at the thought of watching a low-budget European production that Game Of Thrones line producer turned producer Chris Newman may or may not have had a hand in? Truthfully, I was just curious to see how the dragons-vs.-zombies thing played out, cartoonish CGI be damned.
The execution: Not since your 8-year-old self grabbed a garbage can lid and yelled, “I’m an ancient knight!” while jumping around the tree in your backyard has there been such a display of ye olde verisimilitude regarding medieval times. A movie like this tends to live or die by how well it can conjure some approximation of the “so bad it’s good” recommendation. As in, “It was a failure of directing, action, screenplay, cinematography, editing, lighting, sound, and CGI, and I very much enjoyed it.” All of which applies to Knights Of The Damned, except for the “I enjoyed it” part. Too grim-faced to be campy, too prudish to be gratuitous, and definitely too padded with stock-footage shots of nature that had zero connection to the events surrounding them, the film is almost shockingly inept at times. Is it really that hard to balance the sound of two actors talking at the same volume in post?
On the plus side, if you enjoy tonally jarring anachronisms and Ed Wood-level shot choices, you might be in for a treat at times. The fun begins with the dialogue: This is clearly intended to be a GOT-style application of archaic language patterns and formal sentence structure, but the outdated speech habits are abandoned at regular intervals for no real reason other than the screenwriters periodically forgot to keep up the practice. Thus, you often go from “vouchsafe”s and “thou”s to a moment when the three knights explore a seemingly empty village, and, sensing trouble, one of them says, “Let’s get out of here before something bad happens.” Ah, Old English. Also, have a look at the guitar this “bard” is playing in the tavern, and take a moment to savor the distinctly modern-folk-pop stylings of the tune:
But more entertaining still is the discrepancy in names. Despite all the lands and regions bearing names like “Nazroth,” “Zaldah,” and occasional characters called “Xhalvador” and “Tybalt,” our heroes are George, Richard, and Thomas. That clash between blandly traditional English names and more fantasy-based ones leads to some delightfully and unintentionally funny exchanges, such as a moment before the climactic fight when George orders a lesser-ranking knight to accompany him by saying, “Ralph, with me.” Ralph? There’s literally an entire John Goodman movie about how that’s a wacky name for a serious honorific. But the best one is this:
The script has bigger problems than simply clashing tendencies in naming. There’s a lot of screenwriting 101 missteps here, starting with the tendency to drop in expository dialogue in the least-realistic ways imaginable. After the initial showdown with the dragon that kicks off the film’s opening seconds, Richard says to the other two, “We have chased it from one side of the land to the next. It has ravaged our numbers.” Considering that an eighth of your company just died, they probably knew that already, Richard. Later, as they’re getting ready to leave the tavern from the above clip, Richard again helpfully reminds everyone of their status, which hasn’t changed since the opening minutes:
It also suffers from a tendency toward the unnecessary. There’s an entire scene in which a minor character—a guy who starts a fight with the knights at the tavern and is promptly knocked out—wanders the woods with a young woman, Millie. He’s ostensibly hunting, though whether it’s the fury or animals for food is unclear. He flirts with her, and she laughs in his face. Then five seconds later, she kisses him. So far, so inexplicable and extraneous, having nothing to do with our story. But then, they spy a bear, and apropos of nothing, he hands her his spear and tells her to kill it. As she says, she’s literally never killed even a bug before, and he sits and watches while she goes off to attack. Before the bear can maul her, though, our cartoon dragon appears behind her and devours her, which is when you realize the entire scene was just to have another excuse to show the dragon kill someone, relevance be damned.
Another entertainingly strange bit of nonsense is that the film doesn’t know what to do with its zombies. They all move at different speeds and capacities. For instance, at first, they seem to be of the shambling, slow-moving variety. But by movie’s end, they’re grabbing swords and axes and engaging in hand-to-combat with the knights. Some of them can run fast, à la 28 Days Later; some move with the ambling slowness of the George Romero undead. There is no rhyme or reason to the vast difference in skill sets among the recently deceased, so maybe some zombies don’t pick up weapons and run toward living humans to eat them because they’re just really lazy, and they know nobody’s coming to inquire why they haven’t picked up the pace. Here’s George fighting a bunch of them, until our dragon friend comes along and blasts a huge gust of fire, which George survives because he… holds a shield over his head? (Note, too, the swordplay is strictly of the “hit people only, we don’t have money for stabbing effects” variety.)
Performance-wise, there’s not a lot of great work here. Admittedly, when you’re saddled with dialogue and direction like this, even Michael Fassbender might have a tough time convincingly portraying one of these people. Even so, the quality runs the gamut from so-so (the guy playing Richard was actually the Lord Of Bones on Game Of Thrones) to truly execrable. The winner of the latter might be the guy playing the evil Prince Favian, who gets a scene where he’s supposed to emphasize a certain word. As you’ll see, he really gives Gary Oldman in The Professional a run for his money, if by “a run” you mean “genuine groundedness,” and by “his money,” you mean “in comparison to this guy.”
It’s a real bummer when something like Knights Of The Damned comes along to make you long for the relative virtues of a Syfy creature feature. I can’t really recommend it, even for fans of grade-Z cinema, which makes it a rarity among Home Video Hell entries. Instead, I’ll stop this assessment with the opening info dump: This is how much exposition the film thought it needed before Richard and his “there are three of us” tips come along.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Nil.
Damnable commentary track or special feature? I watched it online, but there’s a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew for those who buy the DVD—though frankly, I’d prefer something that explained why the hells there are mermaids in this thing that are referred to as “water demons.” Did I mention the mermaids? All they do is sit and stare. It’s… uncomfortable.