There was a time, long before iPhones, long before the Internet, prior even to the advent of the DVD and stadium seating in movie theaters, when fantasy movies were not the big budget blockbusters they are today. Before Peter Jackson was ordained from on high to grace us with a (relatively) faithful, three-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy as a genre in Hollywood was pretty dead. The 1990s in particular was a drought of fantasy so extreme that people did crazy things, like listen to Limp Bizkit and dance the Macarena (Wikipedia those if you have questions). There weren’t even any good B movies; the fantasy movie-going public were left with pitiful dregs the likes of Dragonheart, Kull the Conqueror, and Encino Man. (Just kidding about that last one. Encino Man is a documentary about Pauly Shore.)
But let’s go back a decade, to a more magical time: the 1980s. Yes, that one, the one you know from theme parties and Taylor Swift’s new album. The one with music made by people older than your parents. This was Nuncle Jim’s early childhood, a time of Transformers and Capri Sun and Ronald Reagan. People still smoked cigarettes indoors, back then, and there were payphones. There were actually quite a few fantasy movies made during the ’80s. It was a good time for fantasy, in the sense that at least it was getting made. This was probably due both to legitimate popularity (a lot of modern classic fantasy novels were written or begun in the 1980s), and the fact that Hollywood still made movies that weren’t expected to make $1 billion internationally. Like I said, it was a different time.
And in addition to all the wonderful books Nuncle Jim read, there were lots of wonderful (and not so wonderful) movies that he watched that influenced the geeky course of his life going forward. And if he’s being honest, he probably owes just as much to these pulpy, low-budget films as he does to the books he’s read. So here’s a list of the ones that stand out in Nuncle Jim’s memory.
I will now end this belabored narrative device and switch to the first person, so as to list the influential movies in question, which are listed with a short explanation in no particular order.
A young, pre-crazy Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, and Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness? This movie is by turns preternatural, saccharine, and bold, not to mention gorgeous. It’s full of overacting, broad themes of good and evil, and dramatic musical numbers. There are also elves, dwarves, fairies, and goblins, not to mention swords. Oh, and unicorns, but let’s overlook that for the moment. It was written and directed by Ridley Scott (which explains why it’s pretty). There’s a fairy tale quality to it, intentionally so, and Scott and his writing partners deliberately drew on classic Disney movies for inspiration.
Another mid-80s fantasy film dominated by a single, larger than life actor playing a memorable character: David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King. Watching Labyrinth is sort of like doing mushrooms with Jim Henson: yes, there are muppets. But it’s also a beautiful film with classic themes and incredibly memorable characters. And who could forget the musical numbers? I mean, if you’ve got David Bowie, you’ve got to use him, right? I dare you to not get “Magic Dance” stuck in your head as soon as you hear it. It’s visually stunning, and it stars Jennifer Connelly. She doesn’t get naked, unfortunately, but it’s really not that kind of film.
Further proving that 1985 was an incredible year for first-wave modern fantasy films, Ladyhawke is one of the few films on this list that actually garnered positive reviews from critics upon it’s release. Set in a fantasy medieval Europe, Ladyhawke is a tale of forbidden love between a noble woman and a bishops captain of the guard. When their tryst is discovered by the bishop, who is madly in love with the woman, he curses them to be “eternally together, forever apart.” By day, the guard captain, Etienne of Navarre, is a man, but by night he becomes a great black wolf. His love, Isabeau, is likewise a hawk during the day and a woman at night. The result is that they cannot be together in their human form. It’s a great adventure, and it features a funny, well-acted lens character played by Matthew Broderick. Definitely a classic.
The plot of this one’s pretty straight forward: there’s a wizard, a wizard’s apprentice, a princess, and a dragon. Adventure ensues. What makes it truly memorable, besides the evocative portrayal of a fantasy Dark Ages Europe, is Vermithrax, the dragon himself, still one of the greatest filmic depictions of a dragon. Plus the wizard’s apprentice kills the dragon with a badass custom-forged spear.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember much about Krull besides the Glaive. Because it was badass looking. And after I saw it, every jagged aluminum can top was instantly transformed into a glaive from that moment forward. It’s also one of two films on this list to unexpectedly feature Liam Neeson.
Seriously? 1985 was a fucking awesome year for cheesy fantasy movies. I used to have an unhealthy obsession with this one, mostly because of its focus on sword fighting. The eponymous heroine, whose actual name was Red Sonja, was played by Brigitte Nielsen before she went off the deep end and started hitting the crazy sauce. She was pretty hot as a redhead, which maybe also explains my prepubescent obsession with this movie. And of course you’ve got Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Conan–er, Lord Kalidor, a slightly better dressed direct rip-off of Conan the Barbarian. Ironically, the original character Red Sonja was created by Robert E. Howard, who also created Conan the Cimmerian. This movie was set during the same mythical “Hyborian Age” as the Conan movies. So apparently Conesy has a long-lost twin out there, running around the steppes to a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.
Is there anything left to be said about this masterpiece of cinema? Much like The Godfather, Star Wars, or The Big Lebowski, Conan the Barbarian has an undeniable I Ching quality to it. It offers seemingly limitless wisdom applicable to a broad range of situations. Suffice it to say that when someone asks you what is best in life, you’ll know the answer. Those who fail to recognize its greatness can contemplate their failure on the tree of woe.
The Ralph Bakshi animated version of The Lord of the Rings was the only film or TV adaptation available when I was young, and I’m pretty sure I wore out my local video store’s VHS copy of it sometime around 1990. Bakshi used a technique called rotoscoping to animate parts of it, which involved having live actors act out much of the story and then animating over it. (The same technique was used to animate the original lightsaber effects in Star Wars.) Thus the characters were drawn in a simplistic, cartoony style, but moved like real people. The result is by turns trippy and eerie and absurd, but always interesting. The film was originally intended to be part one of two films, but the sequel was never made, so the story ends after Gandalf shows up with the Riders of Rohirrim to save Aragorn and Theoden at Helm’s Deep. Rankin-Bass later made The Return of the King in animated form, but it was in no way a stylistic continuation of Bakshi’s work and pales in comparison. Peter Jackson has cited it as inspiration, and visually alluded to it at at least once in The Fellowship of the Ring (“Proudfeet!”). This was a formative movie for me, just having read the books for the first time. It was atmospheric and frightening at points: Bakshi made the Ring Wraiths come alive. I still occasionally find myself quoting the Black Riders’ taunts to Frodo at the Ford of Bruinen: “Come back, come back–to Mordor we will take you!”
The movie that spawned a hundred thousand pet ferrets. Kodo and Podo alone make this worth watching, but if mischievous ferret companions isn’t enough for you, the rest of Dar’s bestiary includes a black tiger (I believe there’s a funny story out there about how they had to dye a panther black during production, but I couldn’t find it for this post) and an eagle, all of which he can commune with psychically, of course. The story involves Dar being a lost prince, revenge, human sacrifice, bird-people who kill their prey by dissolving them in leathery wings, Rip Torn as a bloodthirsty high priest, and a satisfyingly classic ending involving the Beastmaster (with his animal bros and the hot girl he saved, of course) heading off for further adventures.
If I had to pick one of these films to represent the rest as the quintessential fantasy film that stoked the fires of my young love of fantasy, it would probably be John Boorman’s Excalibur. It’s still the best movie adaptation of the Arthur legend to date, and aside from stunning cinematography and excellent music (O, Fortuna!), it features a powerhouse cast of future superstars, including Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, and Ciaran Hinds. The story is true fantasy, a distillation of the King Arthur legends told grippingly for the silver screen, depicting a lost world of chivalry, single combat, courtly love, and magic. Unlike more recent attempts to tell the Arthur story, Excalibur makes no claim to “historical” accuracy: there is no mention of Roman Britain, the knights ride around in 15th Century plate armor in a time clearly intended to be pre- or early Middle Ages, and Merlin is an out and out sorceror, not the learned philosopher of Mary Stewart or the tribal leader portrayed by Stephen Dillane in Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 film King Arthur. The story is purer and better for it. This movie was the first real telling of the King Arthur legend for me, and to this day remains my favorite. I can still recite the Charm of Making from memory.
A story of pure adventure, the tale of Perseus, the first hero, was already ancient when Socrates walked the streets of Athens. Another film with an incredible cast, this time made up primarily of movie legends getting on in years (Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, Maggie Smith as Thetis, and Burgess Meredith as a cranky old poet). Much like Excalibur was for the Arthur legend, Clash of the Titans was the movie that made me fall in love with the Greek myths. It combines the familiar figures of the Olympian pantheon and their scions with the tropes of classical and modern fantasy: the quest archetype, magical gifts, demigods, and heroes slaying monsters. The stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen (whose monumental The 7th Voyage of Sinbad almost got included in this list despite being made in 1958) was a big part of what made this movie great: the Kraken, so simple compared to the CGI monstrosities concocted for the recent reboots, nonetheless still feels somehow more massive and terrifying. And then there’s Bubo, the mechanical owl. Because everybody needs a goddamn mechanical owl.
This list isn’t comprehensive; in fact, I didn’t want it to be, because I’m interested in what all of you have to add. I know I’m far from the only one who loved all of these movies, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.