Black Angel

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Black Angel
"In the space of 22 minutes, Roger Pratt's cinematography revolutionised the genre."

The late Seventies and early Eighties were the heyday of the fantasy film, when men were Real Men, monsters were truly monstrous and women were mainly decorative, if present at all. Looking back, you may remember titles like Conan The Barbarian, Krull and Legend, but numerous others are lost in the mists of time. So how is it that one short film, made on a modest budget and released only briefly in a support slot, is still being talked about to this day, its possible remake causing worldwide excitement? What is it about Black Angel that made such an impression?

Some of it, undoubtedly, was about being in the right place at the right time. Director Roger Christian had won an Oscar for his set decoration on Star Wars and he and George Lucas had become firm friends, so when a supporting film was sought for The Empire Strikes Back he was perfectly positioned to get the job. What he produced, however, went well beyond the usual supporting feature remit and ended up influencing the main feature - as well as many films that followed. It became one of few fantasy films to really make its mark in the wider history of cinema.

Let's start with the plot. It's simple - even slight - but Christian has said that he wanted it to feel like a myth, and in that he was successful. Tony Vogel plays Sir Maddox, a haggard knight who returns from a long journey to find that his home is in ruins, his family slain, and the few surviving local villagers are suffering from some kind of plague. Vowing to help them, he sets off through the forest on his horse, eventually coming to a river. Unfortunately he falls in, but as his heavy armour drags him to the bottom he sees a vision of a mysterious maiden, who somehow saves him. Upon emerging from the water and learning that she is the prisoner of a sinister knight - the eponymous Black Angel - he vows to free her, despite her begging him to flee. Has he taken on more than he can overcome?

It's a poetic tale marred by a couple of unfortunate details: Sir Maddox's helmet is one of the silliest in the genre, even accounting for Monty Python And The Holy Grail; and he doesn't so much fall into the river as jump in feet first, for no apparent reason. The plot, however, isn't really the point, and Vogel's performance is sufficient to keep viewers invested. What made Black Angel so impressive was the way it's shot. In the space of 22 minutes, Roger Pratt's cinematography revolutionised the genre. One of its key fight sequences, where Christian suddenly halves the camera's shutter speed to create a dream-like effect, was the precursor to Luke's iconic fight against Darth Vader in the cave in The Empire Strikes Back. Its slow pans and its use of moisture in the air to change the quality of the light were a heavy influence on John Boorman's Excalibur. A sweeping score by Trevor Jones adds to the sense of awe that these visual effects create, and credit must go also to Charles Knode's costumes which - silly hat aside - contribute to the sense that here is something otherwordly.

All in all, Black Angel punches well above its weight. Now that it has been restored, after being lost for 30 years, it's something everyone with an interest in the craft of film should see. Of course, what was magical in 1980 no longer quite has that impact today, but if Christian can be half as innovative in his feature length remake, it will be well worth seeing.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2015
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A knight sets out to rescue an imperiled damsel in this short film originally shown before The Empire Strikes Back.

Director: Roger Christian

Writer: Roger Christian

Starring: Patricia Christian, James Gibb, Tony Vogel

Year: 1980

Runtime: 22 minutes

Country: Canada, UK

Festivals:

Glasgow 2014

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