Billy Davis (Ed Harris) is a romantic idealist of the worst kind, one who obsessively glamorizes an antiquated era and yearns for the romanticized moral values of that period, wanting to recapture its strong sense of honor and duty. So zealous and headstrong about living to this strict code of conduct that the pressure of the modern world is a constant intrusion upon his dreams, dispensing nonsensical excuses when asked for his autograph by an admiring fan. Billy, who goes by the moniker "King William," is the leader of a traveling Renaissance Fair troupe that performs often-dangerous joust matches on motorcycles. The success of the show and the financial responsibilities are a heavy strain upon the troupe and Billy, threatening to be the ruin of the group and the friendships formed.
We're first introduced to Billy in the story's opening, which is really a false establishing scene that plays out like the start of some Arthurian fantasy adventure. He wakes up naked next to an also naked Linet (Amy Ingersoll) in the middle of the forest, eyes wandering to the sky and trees as if mystified by the enchanting sounds of nature. A moment later, he stands waist-deep in a pond while whipping himself with a branch. It's an idyllic but also curious sequence, beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael Gornick ('Dawn of the Dead,' 'Creepshow '), that suggests ideas of birth and awakening, which not only feeds into Billy's fairytale, Eden-like fantasy but comes full-circle by film's end with a very apt conclusion. It also reveals the level of his devotion before witnessing his wrath.
However, the fantasy is abruptly broken the instant we see the couple speeding down a wooded highway on motorcycle, albeit dressed in medieval attire and wearing a knight's helmet. Written and directed by George A. Romero, taking a brief hiatus from his usual zombie-horror efforts, the plot's central conceit is essentially conveyed in these few opening moments — the struggle of balancing fictional romances with modern realities. Billy and his traveling troupe want to celebrate the chivalric stereotypes of the Middle Ages but without having to relinquish certain contemporary conveniences, such as turning jousting matches into a violent motorcycle sport. Technically, there's nothing wrong with such anachronisms for the sake of entertainment, but when efforts don't turn a profit, the costs start to overshadow ideals, to which Billy is blinded.
The rest of the story is unfortunately all over the place, an assortment of subplots for many of the other characters and each given ample screen-time. When clocking in at 145 minutes, this tact weighs down the movie to some extent and is arguably its weakest aspect. Tom Savini plays hot-head Morgan with aspirations of becoming a famous stunt performer, but soon learns the grass is only greener on the other side until you actually step on it with bare feet. Gary Lahti is good-hearted and loyal Alan who strikes up a romance with somewhat naïve country gal Julie (Patricia Tallman). Meanwhile, the troupe's mechanic, Angie (Christine Forrest), pines for Morgan's affections and Pippin (Warner Shook) comes to terms with his sexuality. Brother Blue and Ken Foree round out the cast as licensed physician Merlin and stunt organizer Little John.
It's quite a bit to take in and keeping tabs of where the narrative is going, but thankfully, Romero manages to balance the various subplots and bring the drama together in a satisfyingly entertaining fashion. 'Knightriders' is understandably one of Romero's least known films of his career, a significant departure from the familiar gore and violence. Nevertheless, the story of people desiring for the moral values of a bygone, mostly fictional era still enjoys the very subtle biting commentary seen in the filmmaker's better-known zombie repertoire. Fame and riches are today as much a corruption to one's romanticized ideals as they were a thousand years ago. Abstaining from such temptations is what basically makes this troupe feel like real knights of the roundtable, and their personal battles makes for a surprisingly solid watch.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Knightriders' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD50 disc housed inside the standard blue case. At startup, viewers are taken to a basic menu screen with music and full-motion clips.
George A. Romero's lesser known cult action drama rides unto Blu-ray with a surprisingly great-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1). For a thirty-plus year old movie, the source is in outstanding condition, except for a few, poorly-resolved moments, the occasional speck of dirt and vertical scratches that suddenly appear forty minutes into the story. It's the usual mixture of age-related artifacts that are easily forgiven, especially when the rest of the picture is nicely detailed and very well-defined. Fine lines in the foliage, costumes and various other objects are sharp and distinct for a majority of the runtime. Contrast is spot-on and comfortably bright with crisp, clean whites throughout, and black levels are true and often inky with strong shadow delineation. Primaries are bold and accurate while secondary hues are warm, and flesh tones appear natural.
In the audio department, the movie makes a slightly better impression even though there's not a whole bunch going on in the overall design. The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack comes with broad imaging that's welcoming and highly engaging. The elements have been nicely cleaned up, exhibiting superb clarity and fidelity, as individual crickets are plainly heard in the background. The mid-range is detailed and surprisingly extensive for a low-budget feature of this vintage, reaching the higher frequencies effortlessly and without a hint of distortion, which adds the soundstage's expansiveness. The music of Donald Rubinstein benefits the most, as each instrument comes through cleanly. Although low bass may seem lacking, it's actually appropriate and falls in the upper ranges. With intelligible and well-prioritized vocals in the center, the lossless mix exceeds expectations and sure to satisfy fans.
English subtitles for the hearing-impaired are also included.
Following the trials and tribulations of an idealist and his traveling Renaissance Faire troupe, 'Knightriders' is one of George A. Romero's lesser known features but has acquired quite the cult following. A departure from his usual forte of horror mayhem, the action drama flick is a strong and satisfying piece of entertainment for devoted fans of the director. The Blu-ray arrives with solid picture quality and a slightly stronger audio presentation. With a decent of assortment of supplements, the overall package will please cult enthusiasts while the curious can play it safe with a rental.