So here we are on the last day of my 80’s blog-a-thon (you guys been diggin’ it?) and I couldn’t leave without doing something on Fantasy Films of the 80’s. Why you ask? Well, because they are a pretty special bunch of films that’s why. Interesting thing about these fantasy films of the 80’s is that a lot of them where box office failures but have endured even to our day because people discover them after the fact and fall in love with them, and continue to watch them. But why if these films where good, did they fail at the box office? Well, certain elements factor into the failure equation, for example Willow was bashed by critics for being too similar to Star Wars, Adventures of Baron Munchausen suffered because of a shift in management at Columbia, Return to Oz was considered too dark for an Oz movie and audiences rejected it. Legend was a huge fiasco; a whole stage was burned down because of a gas line that went out of control. To make matters worse, Ridley Scott got cold feet and re-edited the whole film so it could be more “hip”, apparently he was afraid of rejection from the MTV generation. The film flopped anyways. Masters of the Universe (and Superman IV combined) literally shut down Cannon Films! Labyrinth had David Bowies crotch in 3-D and so on…but for whatever the reason, studios kept making their fantasy films! Thank the movie gods for that!
A scene from Ridley Scott's Legend (1985)
But not all of them were failures of course. For every five fantasy failures, one of these films would be a huge success. Good examples of this are Conan The Barbarian which was huge at the box office; so was Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. But whatever, success or not at the box office, what matters to us is if the movie is good or not, if they make some sort of lasting impression. If they stay with us, and well, if these movies made it onto my list of Quintessential 80’s Fantasy Films, well, they must have something special about them. What I like about a lot of these 80’s films is that a lot of them where actually original fantasy films and weren’t based on any books or previous films, a lot of them weren’t remakes or anything. A lot of them had original elements to them and that’s something you don’t see a lot of these days. Most of them weren’t 90% computer generated, nope, these babies were hand crafted with tender loving care. So sit back, relax, and check this list out, there’s bound to be one or two on here that you’ll want to either experience for the first time, or revisit for good old times sake. Enjoy!
Comments: Krull tells the tale of Prince Colwyn, a young man whose wedding to Princess Lyssa is interrupted by an alien invasion! You see, there’s this villain called ‘Beast’ who travels around the galaxy on a flying mountain/castle thing, which never stays in the same place, the mountain castle is always traveling around making all the more difficult to catch the guy. But The Beast suddenly has eyes for Lyssa and has his soldiers kidnap her, so he can marry her. Colwyn must search for his love and rescue her from the clutches of The Beast, but first he must find the magical Glave, will he find it? This one, like many fantasy films from this era is all about the main villain falling in love with goodness. If you remember correctly, the same thing happens in Labyrinth and Legend, the purely evil villain is attracted by the innocence and purity of good.
Quote: “A girl of ancient name shall become queen and she shall choose a king, together they will rule the world and their son will rule the galaxy”
Title: Legend (1985)
Comments: This one has always been one of my favorite fantasy films from the 80’s, but also, one of my favorite fantasy films, period. The world of Legend is so rich, so complex, so visually stunning, that I can’t help but revisit it over and over again. The reason for this films richness is the director behind it, Ridley Scott who is the kind of director who’ll make the unbelievable, believable. At the basis of this story is a battle between the forces of good and innocence embodied by the characters of Jack and Lilly and the darkest form of evil, a villain by the name of ‘Darkness’. What holds the tale together is the purest form of love that Jack and Lilly have for each other. Darkness represents the animal side of human nature, the dark side, the primal side; in one moment of the film Darkness tells Lilly “we are all animals my dear” referring to this. I love that battle between light and dark, one in need of the other, “for what is light, without dark?” As you can see, the script for this film is great and gets quite poetic at times. Darkness is one of the most amazing make up effects creations along with the rest of the creatures that inhabit this film. Rob Bottin was responsible for the creature effects on this show, this film is a great showcase of his work. Darkness is a striking image, as well as the swamp witch known as ‘Meg Mucklebones’, it’s a true delight watching these creatures come to life. Tim Curry out does himself in the role of Darkness, though he is unrecognizable under tons of makeup. Mia Sarah and Tom Cruise do a fantastic job of looking young and innocent and deeply in love. David Bennent also delivers an outstanding performance as ‘Gump’. This is a special kind of fantasy film, if you haven’t experienced it yet, it’s about time you did!
Title: Willow (1988)
Comments: Willow got a lot of heat when it was first released back in ’88 because critics thought it was too similar to George Luca’s Star Wars films and since it was Lucas producing Willow, well, they thought he was just rehashing old ideas. I have to say that yeah, it’s true, for every character in Willow you can find its counterpart in Star Wars, but still, who the hell cares, Willow has enough original elements to set it apart from the Star Wars universe. First up, this is a fantasy film, and with that comes magic, witches, sorcerers and dragons! This film was made during a time when genre films were making that jump from using stop motion effects to full CGI creations, so on Willow we get a mix of both. We have one scene in which Fin Raziel, a witch, transforms from one animal to the next until she finally reaches her true human form, all through the use of morphing techniques, which were in diapers back in those days but at the same time we also get stop motion creatures like the two headed ‘Eborsisk Dragon’ which still looks pretty damn cool in my book, a highlight of the film no doubt. Then we have the great cast rounding things out, Val Kilmer plays ‘Madmartigan’, the Han Solo type and Warwick Davis plays Willow Ufgood, the Luke Skywalker type; together they must stop Queen Bavmorda, the Emperor Palpatine of this movie. Okay, so what if it is like Star Wars, Willo is still an extremely enjoyable fantasy film that wallows deep in its fantasy roots, something that sets it apart from anything seen on Star Wars. If you ask me, what Willow was truly influenced by was J.R.R. Tolkiens Lord of the Rings novels.
Quote: “Magic is the bloodstream of the universe. Forget all you know or think you know. All that you require is your intuition”
Title: Excalibur (1981)
Comments: Excalibur is director John Boorman’s take on the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s a film that depicts a time when “the old ways” (meaning magic) and the “new ways” (meaning Christianity) where clashing with one another and Christianity was beginning to win the battle. Magic was seen as something that was fading away, something pagan and evil; now Jesus was everyone’s savior. This is a story in which human passion makes people do some really stupid things, totally blinded by lust and desire. It happens to the best of us what can I say? The films strongest aspect are its visuals, which director John Boorman executed with old school filmmaking techniques. Highly recommend it, as in my opinion it is one of the best retellings of the story.
Quote: “You are not listening. Well, your heart is not. Love is deaf as well as blind.”
Title: Clash of the Titans (1981)
Comments: Clash of the Titans was such a spectacle when it was first released, back then, stop motion animation was as far as special effects technology had gotten and this was the pinnacle of that form of visual effects. It had gained huge momentum with films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) The Valley of Gwangi (1969) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) amongst many others. All of these films had one thing in common, stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was the man responsible for the stop motion animation of all these wonderful creatures that appear on all of these films, but Clash of the Titans was the pinnacle of his carreer, it was the last film that Harryhausen ever animated, so it was his last hurrah, his cinematic swan song and what a song it was! I remember being amazed by this film in theaters, my dad took me to see it and it was a special event for me. This film had a very true sense of adventure, romance and heroism. It tells the tale of Perseus and his adventures in trying to kill The Kraken, a giant beast from the sea to whom the love of his life, Andromeda, will be sacrificed to. Most of the stop motion animation is awesome, some isn’t. For example, the animation on Pegasus, the flying horse, wasn’t the best. This was probably because it was very difficult to animate all the feathers on Pegasus. But creatures like The Kraken and Medusa? True showstoppers! That scene with the good guys entering Medusa’s temple is so effective it almost feels like a horror film. Highly recommend checking this one out, in my opinion it is superior to the remake in many ways.
Quote: “For the insult you have done to me, and the cruel injury inflicted upon my son, I demand the life of Andromeda, in 30 days.”
Title: Dragonslayer (1981)
Comments: Peter MacNicol plays Galen, a sorcerer’s apprentice who needs to find a way to kill ‘Vermithrax Pejorative’, the fire breathing dragon with whom the king of the realm has made a pact. The pact consists in the dragon getting a virgin sacrificed to her every year, in turn; the dragon leaves the realm alone. If the dragon doesn’t get its yearly virgin, then the realm gets burned to smithereens. But killing an old dragon of this magnitude is no easy task, and so Galen employs the help of his mentor, Ulrich the Sorcerer. Still, to this day, there is no better Dragon movie than Dragonslayer. Some have come close to being as good, but they never reach the level of awesomeness that this film reaches. For example, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films has awesome looking dragons, but the film isn’t about dragons, it only features them in certain scenes. Dragonslayer is a film centered entirely on the mythical creatures, and it’s the best film on the subject, bar none. The special effects work is astounding, even to this day thanks in no small part to the wondrous stop motion work of Phil Tippett. The tone of the film isn’t goofy or silly like some dragon movies I could mention, Dungeons and Dragons I’m looking at you kid! Nope, this movies tone is serious and realistic, which makes it more believable. The films tagline always made perfect sense for me: “When dragons were real”.
Quote: “I am Galen Brandwarden, inheritor of Ulrich’s craft and knowledge. I am the sorcerer you seek!”
Title: Time Bandits (1981)
Comments: Terry Gilliam lives and breathes fantasy and escapism perhaps more than any other director in film history. Sure there are a couple of heavy contenders out there (Guillermo del Toro being one of them) but no director has done fantasy as consistently and with such dedication and appreciation for fantasy as Terry Gilliam has. Right from the very beginning of his career with films like Jabberwocky (1977), it’s always been fantasy that has taken the lead in his work. In Time Bandits Gilliam tells the tale of Kevin a young kid who is one day visited by a group of midget/angels who have stolen a map to all the wormholes in the universe from The Supreme Being. That’s right, they stole a map from God! Funny how God has appeared in a lot of these Monty Python/Terry Gilliam films! So anyhow, while running away from The Supreme Being, Kevin and his midget friends embark on a time traveling adventure that takes them to meet everyone from Robin Hood to Napoleon! Kind of like a Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure type of film, but with no telephone booth. Like many of Gilliam’s films, this one features excellent miniature work and imaginative special effects. David Warner plays ‘Evil’, basically, he is Satan himself. He wants the map of the universe so he can conquer it. Best part about the film is that because Gilliam comes from Monty Python, the dialog and situations are infused with some truly funny comedy. But deep down inside, this film is very philosophical, it explores the ideas of God and the Devil, good vs. evil, and asks such philosophical questions as “Why does there have to be evil?“
Comments: This is another of Jim Hensons films, he was a busy guy during the 80’s. He made all those Muppet movies, produced the Muppet Show and directed both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but this last one he collaborated with Frank Oz in directing. This one is a bit different than Labyrinth because there is not a human in sight, everything on the screen is puppets or people handling puppets, but not a single human is seen on screen. The Dark Crystal is a pure fantasy film, not unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The film tells the story of Jen and Kira, two Gelflins on the quest for a magical crystal shard that will bring unity and peace to their world. Will they ever find it?
Quote: “What was sundered and undone shall be whole, the two made one”
Title: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Comments: During the 80’s and after the success of films like Time Bandit’s, The Meaning of Life and getting critical acclaim for Brazil, Gilliam went on to direct what would be his biggest film ever, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. What’s interesting about this film is that it was Gilliam’s last ultra big budget film, after flopping in theaters, he was never entrusted the mega kajillions again. From here on in he would continue making films, but with fewer millions at his disposal. Sad part is that it was not his fault, this movie was victim of corporate changes at Columbia Pictures. Head Honchos change, and the films that previous studio heads were backing, suddenly get the shaft from the new management, Baron Munchausen was one of the ones that got the shaft during one of those turn arounds at Columbia. Sadly this movie did not deserve to be a flop, it’s such a high quality production, such a beautiful film to look at, so lavish, so epic, that it’s a true tragedy that because of poor marketing techniques, the film went by unseen and undiscovered by audiences. The film is about Baron Munchausen and his attempts to twart an invasion by “The Turks”, he tries to distract the populace by telling them tales of his fantastic battles against the Turks. Are these stories real or are they tall tales? The films highlight is seeing the Baron’s tales come to life on the screen, these tales involve meeting the ‘King of the Moon’ (played by a hilarious Robin Williams) and falling in love with Venus played by a very young and beautiful Uma Thurman. But the incredible cast doesn’t stop there, we also get Eric Idle, Oliver Reed and Sarah Polly as the little girl urging the Baron to not give up his battle against life. Highly recommend this amazing fantasy film if you haven’t given it a go. It is a one of a kind movie experience.
Quote: “I have a galaxy to run, I don’t have time for flatulence and orgasms!”
Title: Conan The Barbarian (1982) and Conan The Destroyer (1984)
Comments: Though both of these films are vastly different in tone and feel, both are about Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation: Conan the Barbarian, a thief, an adventurer and in the end, also a King! Both of these films are vastly superior then the god awful Marcus Nispel directed, Conan The Barbarian (2011). My advice is skip that horrid take on the character and just watch the first two Conan films. Now the first one is a very anti-religious film about Conan looking to avenge the death of his family and his people at the hands of a religious snake worshipping cult lead by a man known as Thulsa Doom. It’s a serious take on the character, which is something I love about the movie. Its fantasy, but it’s told with a very realistic tone, you almost believe that this world exists. The second one is a different animal all together because it’s more of a comic book movie; still a highly enjoyable film in my book. Here’s where we see the difference that a director can give a project! The first one was written by Oliver Stone and directed by John Millius, two very serious filmmakers who most of the time write and direct films revolving around war. The second was directed by Richard Fleischer, the guy behind Red Sonja (1985) and Amityville 3-D (1983). This is something I love about changing creative teams on a franchise, the different elements they add to each project makes each film unique. Both of these films helped catapult Schwarzenegger to stardom, to this day it is still one of his most recognized characters.
Quote: “You killed my mother! You killed my father! You killed my people!”
Title: The Never Ending Story (1984)
Comments: I can’t think of 80’s fantasy films without thinking about The Never Ending Story. The book is amazing, if you’re looking to read an amazing fantasy novel, The Never Ending Story is an amazing book so full of ideas and creatures that when the time came to make the film, they only filmed have of the story. In the book, Bastian visits Fantasia and becomes their leader and a despot! But the film only left the story half way there. I think it was a wise choice because the book tells an epic story! They decided to tell the other half of the story in the horrible sequel, The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990) sadly, that sequel didn’t do the book any justice at all. And I don’t even count the third film The Never Ending Story III (1994) because that third entry is one of those films that’s so bad, you’ll freaking blush when you see it. But back to the first film which is a solid, well produced and directed piece of fantasy cinema. On that one we meet Bastian, a young boy who tries to avoid reality by escaping into his fantasy novels. That’s all fine and dandy, the problem is that one of the books he ends up reading is ‘The Never Ending Story’ a magical book that makes its reader a part of the story. So soon, Bastian finds himself entwined in The Never Ending Story, battling against the Gomork and the terrible Nothing which is eating up fantasia.
Quote: “The more wishes you make, the more magnificent fantasia will become”
Title: Highlander (1986)
Comments: With these Highlander films, I’m of the opinion that they should have never done any sequels. And if they did plan on making some sequels then dammit, at least make them good. But no, they went and over complicated things to the point of incomprehension with Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) which is to me tough to link to the original which was simply put a very original fantasy film about Immortals who roam the earth. All they want to do is kill each other so they can obtain ‘the gift’. What is this gift that they so covet? Well, apparently, once you’ve killed all of the Immortals of the earth, and it’s just you, then you’ll know everything and become the most gifted mind in the world, or something to that effect, it’s never clearly explained. My favorite parts of the original Highlander are those that take place in The Highlands of Scottland, where Connor McLeod, the titular highlander comes from. You see, this film serves as an origin story and so we get to see how McLeod first discovers that he is an immortal and he has Sean Connery to show him the ways of immortality! I love everything about this movie, right down to its rock and roll soundtrack by Queen. This franchise is begging for a reboot, a film that will take everything we’ve come to know about Highlanders and re-package it all and finally make these films make some sense. But this original one? A solid piece of fantasy! Highly recommend it!
Quote: “From the dawn of time we came, moving silently down through the centuries, living many secret lives…struggling to reach the time of the gathering.”
Title: Masters of the Universe (1987)
Comments: Masters of the Universe is a love it or hate film, I fall on the love it category. Some people feel they didn’t really get a He-Man film. They wanted battle cat and they wanted Skeletor to have a yellow skull. They wanted Orko instead of ‘Gwuildor’ and so forth. But for me, even though I was a big fan of the toys, which along with G.I. Joe’s made up a huge part of my childhood, I still liked the movie just the way it is. It’s kind of difficult not to like this one. It’s an excellent production with top notch visual effects. The film was conceptualized by French artist Jean Giraud, a master comic book artist/fantasist who sadly passed away in 2012. Giraud’s involvement is the reason why all the characters look so damn cool. Sure the film has a couple of flaws here and there (where’s the people of earth at?) but overall, it’s a good he-man film. You will see He-man wielding his sword of power and screaming “I have the power!” You will see Skeletor trying to destroy him; you will see Castle Greyskull and someone actually becoming a Master of the Universe. It’s a big film with some cheesy dialog here and there, but overall, on the fun-o-meter, this one rates pretty high. Visually speaking, Lundgren looks like He-Man come to life, but it’s Frank Langella who steals the show as Skeletor!
Quote: “The Alpha and the Omega, death and rebirth, and as you die, so shall I be reborn!”
Title: The Princess Bride (1987)
Comments: The Princess Bride is a classic fairy tale filled with castles, witches, swordfights and princesses that need to be rescued from the clutches of an evil prince. We also get a peasant boy who falls in love with a woman who is completely out of his league. You see, The Princess Bride is all about a farm boy named Westley who falls head over heels in love for Princess Buttercup. To avoid Buttercup’s marriage to Humperdink, Westley kidnaps Buttercup and takes her with him to the forest; but will Buttercup still love Wesley even after he's been gone for so many years? Can she deal with the fact that he is now a pirate? This film unfolds like a fairy tale right from the get go; with a grandfather reading a fairy tale to his grandson. “In my time, television was called books” he tells his grandson. As the grandfather reads the story to his grandson, we see it come to life. One of the best things about the film is that it is perfectly cast! Billy Crystal, Cary Elwes, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Fred Savage, Peter Falk… a truly excellent cast that livens up the film, everyone seems to understand the tongue in cheek tone of the film, nobody takes themselves too seriously. Well, all except Indigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patinkin) who wants revenge for the death of his father, which reminds me: this is an extremely quotable film!
Quote: “My name is Indigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”
Title: Return to Oz (1985)
Comments: A great sequel to the classic film from the 30’s, Return to Oz is so criminally underrated it’s not even funny. Upon it’s release, it was a failure at the box office, but that was only due to the fact that people couldn’t accept a darker version of the Oz universe. Return to Oz is a distinctively grimmer film when compared to the multicolored musical classic. But that’s okay by me, I love dark and spooky and Return to Oz is exactly that. On this one Dorothy is in a mental asylum about to receive electro shock therapy because she’s always talking about Oz. When she finally makes it to Oz, she confronts Queen Mombi, a witch that switches heads all the time, a Gnome King that is made of rock (and is allergic to chickens) and a talking chicken named Bellina and for that matter, a talking couch! There’s more spooky/weird stuff, but I’ll let you discover the wonders of this film all by yourself. This film is a rarity, a dark, “scary” film that comes from the shinny happy people at Disney.
Title: Red Sonja (1985)
Comments: True this movie is considered bad and I’m not going to lie, the dialog is simply atroicious, as if no time was truly given to what these characters would say, somebody just wrote this thing and got a pay check, but I do enjoy certain aspects of the film. Like for example its production values arent all that bad. Effects wise, we don’t really get much save for a metal dragon that they encounter in a lake, which is a pretty cool scene. The film ultimately ends up commenting on weapons of mass destruction, and the power that their wielder holds on humanity. On this film, an evil Queen Gedren want’s to posses this magical orb that can bring destruction upon her enemies. The only problem is that the orb can’t really be controlled, and so it isn’t long before Gedren has the orb bringing forth uncontrollable destruction upon the land. It’s an allegory for nuclear weapons, we gotta remember, this theme was always reoccurring in films of the 80’s because of the fear of nuclear meltdown. On the day Red Sonja premiered Arnold’s wife Maria whispered onto Arnold’s ear and said: “If this movie doesn’t destroy your career, nothing will” Obviously Arnold's charisma took him way further and this movie didn't make a dent, but still, the movie is an interesting curiosity. He looks like Conan in the film, but he isn't playing Conan. Basically, De Laurentis told Arnold he was supposed to play a glorified cameo, truth is Arnold ended up playing a huge part in the film.
Comments: Basically, if you lived through the 80’s and had cable, there was no way you were going to miss Beastmaster, it was on all the time! It has to be one of the most replayed movies ever. The idea is a pretty interesting one; through the use of black magic, Dar is a human born from a cow who ends up with the ability to communicate with animals! Dar’s on a quest to avenge the death of his family and his people, there’s a crazy religious cult that enjoys destroying little villages, and one of them was Dar’s. On his quest, Dar befriends some people and even some animals that end up helping through his adventure. This one is cheesy to the max and it might even feel a little like a Conan Rip Off, but it is still highly enjoyable. Marc Singer brings The Beastmaster to life; a role he would revisit two more times in the sequels. Tanya Robert’s also stars on this film and on it she looks sexier than ever, exploiting her sexuality every step of the way. Speaking of which, if you can’t get enough of sexy Mrs. Robert’s, you should check her out in Sheena (1984), a film she made after Beastmaster which resembles Beastmaster in many ways, right down to her having abilities to communicate with animals!
Quote: “The gods have put that mark upon you, and someday, you’ll find out why.”
Title: Labyrinth (1986)
Comments: Anyone who was a kid during the 80’s holds this one close to their heart, it’s a film that has many great things going for it, let’s see, it was produced by George Lucas, it was directed by Muppet creator Jim Henson, written by Monty Python alumni Terry Jones and stars Jennifer Connelly and the one and only David Bowie who by the way wrote and performed most of the songs in the film, which are pretty memorable I might add, this is one of my favorite soundtracks ever. With a cast and crew like that one, it’s no wonder this film is so special. Like many of Jim Henson’s films, this one is populated mostly by puppets, which is what makes it even more special. The beautiful Jennifer Connelly stars on this one as Sarah, the young girl who takes everything for granted. Will she ever get her baby brother back from the clutches of Jareth The Goblin King?
Comments: Ralph Bakshi’s animated films have a unique element to them, most of the time they are very sketchy in nature, very old school because the techniques they used were traditional animation techniques. But even for traditional animation, Bakshi’s films had a rawness to them that was very tangible,a style all his own. But to me, Fire and Ice is one of Bakshi’s most polished films, this could have something to do with the fact that he was working alongside master fantasist/painter Frank Frazetta. Frazetta was a legend amongst fantasy artists, stories say that some of the painters that collaborated with him on Fire and Ice found the task so daunting that they actually fainted. Now that’s what I call being an intimidating person! But seriously, Frazetta’s influence is felt on the film, one of the characters even looks like one of his most famous paintings “The Death Dealer”. At the end of the day it’s us the audience who comes out winning because the result is an amalgamation of two very creative individuals. Recommended for lovers of old school animation, also, anyone who is a fan of Masters of the Universe should love this movie as well, Fire and Ice has many similarities with the classic animated series. It is not a perfect film, it is not without its flaws, but it’s certainly worth a watch, if only, for the amazing artistry that went into making it.