Dragon Knight - The New Indie Fantasy Saga From Hex Studios, Reviewed

Courtesy: Hex Studios

Director/producer Lawrie Brewster, writer/producer Sarah Daly, and their Scottish production company Hex Studios have built up quite the reputation in the indie horror world during the last decade or so. The filmmaker duo have used their Hex brand to independently produce and release a string of very good, very ambitious, and genuinely very creepy and atmospheric horror films with a distinctive blend of the Lovecraftian, Hammer-style gothic, occasional touches of giallo, and modern indie horror sensibilities. 2013's Lord of Tears (aka The Owlman), 2016's The Unkindness of Ravens, 2017's The Black Gloves, and 2019's The Devil's Machine have all taken Brewster and Daly's horror sensibilities in different stylistic directions while keeping a decidedly cohesive voice, with increasing scale and ambition as their Kickstarter-funded budgets have gotten larger. Now the duo have made their most ambitious project yet, and it is also the first project which sees them leave horror altogether and tell a very different kind of story. Dragon Knight (once again written by Daly, directed by Brewster, produced by both) is a sword and sorcery tale in a post-Game of Thrones, post-Lord of the Rings vein; the type of genre which typically requires a very large budget due to the period setting and intricate costumes involved, not to mention the need to realize things like dragons in CGI. Despite my love of their previous work and my faith in their filmmaking abilities, this made me feel more than a bit nervous that they may have bitten off more than they could chew this time around, attempting such a wildly ambitious project using their usual crowdsourced indie methods, although I was equally excited to see them work in a very different genre space. 

Courtesy: Hex Studios
The opening prologue validated some of my concerns, with a bit too much not-great CGI front and center, and a striking dissonance between the impressively-realized period costuming and the very modern-looking digital quality to the film. From this somewhat shaky start, however, it only took a few minutes for the movie to start winning me over, thanks to Daly's strong script, Brewster's strong grasp of atmosphere, and an emphasis on practical stunts and combat, keeping the somewhat dodgy CGI thankfully to a minimum. Evidence of the film's modest (less than $100,000) indie budget definitely shows here and there, as the medieval fantasy-adventure style is simply much less forgiving in that regard than a modern-set film like Lord of Tears or The Unkindness of Ravens with little to no CGI required, but on the whole Dragon Knight is an astonishingly successful fantasy epic. It really swings for the fences, deliberately pushes the limits of their indie budget bracket and their filmmaking capabilities, and mostly succeeds admirably. 

Dragon Knight is set in a medieval realm ravaged by a century of war, as the demon-lord Abaddon has sought to conquer humanity. For most of that century Abaddon's army was held back by an order of dragon knights, and the dragons they fought beside, but now the dragons are thought to be extinct, and only one knight remains, struggling to convince the remaining people of the realm to fight back when defeat seems inevitable. But when he hears a prophecy about one surviving dragon imprisoned in a far-off cave, the Dragon Knight and two unlikely allies embark on a quest to find one last hope of victory. It is a premise which wears its fantasy influences on its sleeve, to be sure, but it's also a film where the familiarity of certain plot elements doesn't really matter, because the story is told with both conviction and great love for the genre, and Sarah Daly sells the plot and the world very well. These days it would be quite hard indeed to write a sword-and-sorcery epic that feels totally original, but Dragon Knight at the very least is very well-told. The world is given a sense of depth that feels quite lived-in, and the mythology is very effective, with Abaddon feeling like a mix between a Sauron-type classic fantasy villain and a Lovecraftian Old One. As the Dragon Knight and his compatriots go on their journey, we also encounter an impressive amount of backstory and worldbuilding, including a couple detours into horror-adjacent territory a bit more in the vein of previous Hex productions, where Lawrie Brewster's talent for atmosphere really shines.

Courtesy: Hex Studios 

Along the way, our trio of heroes have to fight through a whole army of Abaddon's masked black knights, and this is where the film most distinguishes itself, with Brewster really rising to the occasion of the genre. The combat in the film appears to be almost entirely practical, and it is great. Heavy, impactful sword fights that really have weight to them, with impressive fight choreography and equally impressive camerawork. There is quite a lot of it too - a serious accomplishment for an indie like this, especially when it comes to the climactic battle, which has a much larger scale than I had ever expected (speaking in terms of the amount of extras actually engaged in battlefield combat, not merely digitally-augmented crowds). After the film's dragon-forward prologue, CGI is thankfully used quite sparingly, and Brewster clearly knows that practical effects are where the film's greatest strengths are, and leans into those strengths. When the CGI does appear, mostly when dragons are on-screen, it is a mixed bag: as a rule, I found that the close-ups of the dragons that focus on the creatures' faces look quite good, and the creature design on the whole is very strong, while the full-body motion shots are more uneven, and the compositing of the effects can be a bit dodgy. Overall it works reasonably well though, probably better than one might expect even, and for a modestly-budgeted indie like this, I found it easy to be forgiving of CGI done without the power of a big studio behind it, especially when the bulk of the film's battle scenes consist of such strong practical work. Being a Scottish film, it also has the luxury of stunning practical locations, including actual castles, which help anchor it in reality, and the costumes and armor look first-rate.

The film's cast is a bit of a mixed bag. I must say, I found Ryan Livingstone to be a bit one-dimensional as the titular Dragon Knight, giving a performance that is effectively stoic and badass, delivering his lines in a perpetual growl, but not offering too much character depth or humanity beneath that surface. He is a strong physical presence, but somewhat one-note, and feels a bit more like a video game character than a film lead. Regan Walker, as the Dragon Knight's inexperienced, less-than-brave squire, was a pleasant surprise: his character starts out seeming similarly one-note and frankly a bit irritating, as the several-degrees-too-much comic relief, but over the course of the film his character grows quite a bit, and Walker handles his evolution very well, turning him into a likable, sympathetic character who we really come to root for. The real standout in the cast is without a doubt Megan Tremethick, who gets the story's most complex character, as an assassin for Abaddon who changes sides and seeks redemption. She brings a lot of depth and emotion to the character, and really fleshes out her antihero's redemptive journey and tortured backstory. She also does a fantastic job with the movie's action scenes and fight choreography, with a strong action-hero presence. She is definitely the rising star to watch for among this cast, and I hope and suspect we will see her again as a recurring actor in the Hex Studios ensemble.

Courtesy: Hex Studios 

Dragon Knight is a truly impressive, seemingly Quixotean undertaking: a large-scale medieval fantasy epic, trying to do on a small indie budget what usually requires a huge studio one. It isn't always successful, with some rough-around-the-edges CGI and some uneven performances, but for the most part it genuinely pulls it off. Sarah Daly's script is a very well-written version of a classic fantasy saga, Lawrie Brewster does a great job with the action choreography as well as the atmosphere, and the film has a very strong lead actress in Megan Tremethick. It also has that intrinsically likeable charm of being a film clearly made by passionate fans of the genre, which goes a long way. Overall the strengths definitely outweigh the flaws, and while it may not be my favorite Hex production, I had a very good time with it, and it is a world I would happily revisit. Indie film fans will be quite impressed with what Brewster and company were able to pull off here, and fantasy fans will find a lot to enjoy.

Dragon Knight, as well as the other Hex Studios films mentioned in the intro, is available to stream on Prime, and is available as a basic DVD through major retailers or as a 3-disc collector's edition blu-ray/DVD set through the Hex Studios store.

- Christopher S. Jordan 

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