AKA The Dwarves of Demrel

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Directed by:
Written by: ,
Starring: , , ,

Available now on DVD and Prime Video

What’s in a title? Maybe this is a question I ask too often, but it’s clear from some of the audience reactions that the promise of a dragon felt like a trick… a reaction which holds some truth. While the eponymous serpent does briefly appear in the opening title sequence it’s clear that this was added after the fact; it’s here for promotional purposes only. This visual effect is never used again, and there are no Peter Jackson style action set pieces on offer. Still, the original title The Dwarves of Demrel is more appropriate, since it describes the central characters. This is a low budget film about dwarves trapped down a mine, and not much else. But it tries to tell a self contained character driven story that hits just enough dramatic marks to work.

The misleading opening does at least establish some details that aide the world building of this story. Not the visuals, but the narration, in which a human led society called ‘The Capital’ uses the skill of dwarves for economic gain. It’s not much to go on, but as things progress there are obvious hints that this isn’t a high fantasy world at all but a mixture of ancient and futuristic. Calling it steam-punk might be a step too far, but there are various elements that mix oil lamps and electric gadgets, steel axes and rubber breathing masks. They even suggest that above ground the human world is becoming mechanised and that mining experts will soon be out of a job. It’s all pretty incidental, but at least it lends it some texture.

The central storyline involves a tunnel collapse which traps Brenn (Robert Morgan) and kills all of his friends. His disdain for his corporate overlords creates a lot of tension as things unfold, and they aren’t made any easier when he finds other survivors. His young colleague and rodent enthusiast Odryd (Brent Bateman) may have a better sense of hearing which comes in useful, but Brenn isn’t about to shake hands. Old book-keeper Calcas (John Hutton) on the other hand knows too much about human machinery for Brenn’s liking and his story about being a new recruit is very suspicious. The trio have various disagreements as they try to make escape plans and their characters are fairly well established. But things are about to become more difficult when they find they are not alone in the inky depths.

Beyond various discussions of low food, water, and oil supplies, there’s also a problem in the shape of a strange creature stalking the tunnels. It’s not exactly the ‘Mines of Moria’ or The Descent, but it’s an interesting inclusion that offers some degree of claustrophobia and suspense. If the main characters can’t trust one another can they figure out simply how to stay alive? Early on they also come across one more survivor, a masked human called Drusso (voiced by Serah Henesey). Brenn won’t waste his resources on her injuries, while Calcas is perhaps too eager to help – despite his own broken foot. There’s a lot of mistrust and bickering throughout, but with a small cast they manage to keep things well paced as various reveals and expository speeches are delivered.

Less effective are the attempts to create a sense of geography in this subterranean space. They discuss East and West tunnels and argue whether it’s best to send help to those who may be trapped further inside the mine or break out. Explosives could make things worse and digging deeper could doom them completely. But directions are confused by choppy editing and low light levels, particularly during moments when characters are rushing to escape danger or angrily breaking equipment. The shadows may be appropriate, and it’s great to see a real cave location being used, (it’s a welcome break from films shot in a forest) but it makes visual storytelling much tougher. Overall there’s just too much wandering about in the dark, without any distinguishable rooms or unique sets.

On a technical front things vary, and while there are some good uses of lamps and burning torches the location does create a few problems. It’s certainly sinister and atmospheric, and the desaturated grading helps the mood. But there are grainy digital artefacts in several dark sequences, and dialogue sometimes feels muffled by equipment sounds. Thankfully things fare better on the production design side of things, with costumes and creature effects looking suitably detailed. The latter again suffers from being shot with flickering lights and sometimes shaky editing to avoid showing too much. But the central characters wear effective outfits whether it’s Brenn’s leather mining gear or the strange diving suit worn by Drusso.

Things work best when the camera is locked down and the dim lights are allowed to create some interesting shots. In these moments the dramatic reveals and characterisation are engaging, and there’s less focus on creeping monsters or swinging axes. As a survival story it goes through various tropes involving what to eat and how to deal with infected wounds, but they’re effective inclusions just the same. It’s bleak and sometimes gruesome, but the moments of compassion also work. It’s not an action film and attempts to add fights in the dark are the weakest elements, but just as a story about miners being trapped it’s a solid effort. There are things to appreciate sprinkled throughout as long as you aren’t expecting siege weapons and giant creatures. Which looking at the poster art I suppose might be the case.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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About Mocata 149 Articles
A sucker for classic epics, 80s science fiction and fantasy kitsch, horror, action, animation, stop motion, world cinema, martial arts and all kinds of assorted stuff and nonsense. If you enjoy a bullet ballet, a good eye ball gag or a story about time travelling robots maybe we can be friends after all.

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