Tag Archives: best fantasy movies of the 1980s

Interlude 3: A child in the 80s. Eighties fantasia.

24 Oct

(Back in the submitting game. In an odd twist of coincidence, the very day I dropped new manuscripts in the mail, I received a rejection for a manuscript that had been out so long I forgot I had submitted it. Weird. The sting has lessened with time, but there’s always a touch of despair. In other news, the pneumonia is gone, but the whole household is suffering from some type of collective nausea.)

On a lark, I was looking for the genesis of the slew of sword and sorcery fantasy movies released in the eighties. I didn’t really find an answer. Was it an escape from the late-stage Cold War? A retreat from the ruin, decay, entropy on such large-scale display in America’s rust belt cities? An on-screen manifestation of the inflation, boom-bust Thatcher/Reagan era economics? Was it the smell of cold hard cash?

The 1990s were weak; the rise of the internet brought with it new science fiction and an onslought of cyber-directed movies. In the fantasy world, Army of Darkness is the best of the decade, with The City of Lost Children a very close second. Dragonheart is watchable, the rest mostly doggerel.

Things were better in the oughts: the movie on everyone’s best-of list, Spirited Away; the genre-defining epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings; Del Toro’s fun-time take on Hellboy, and even better Spanish civil war horror movie, Pan’s Labyrinth; the Manichean epic, Nightwatch (the second part is a major letdown); The Fall, a very fine re-imagining, of sorts, of Baron Munchausen; the excellent Kung Fu Hustle; the remarkable, fabulous The Secret of the Kells, a story of scriptorium monks facing a Viking apocalypse; Coraline, a very fine horror-fantasy that starts slow and builds to a nightmare intensity; and all those comic book adaptations, which by now should be considered its own genre.

Still, the big spectacles of the 2000s deprived the genre of its best asset: charm. The sets, costumes, makeup, the real horses, the stark landscapes of Croatia and Southern Italy and so on, these were rich and fertile soil for the imagination to thrive. The rickety sets matched the subject matter. There’s something off-putting, and charmless, about the immensity of the spectacle trying to capture pre-digital worlds.

The 1980s were better at marbling fantasy into other genres. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Brazil, and Ghostbusters are all great examples. The 1980s were also better at capturing the dream logic of children. As fantasies tried to cater to adults, becoming more explicit in their violence and more realistic in their special effects, they lost the very thing that makes a good fantasy so terrifying: the human capacity to fill in the blanks.

Some great films:

Conan the Barbarian—Slave becomes a destroyer of empires. Remove the succubus scene, whittle down a few others, and you have a superb movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark—Muscular nerd-archeologist bests the Nazis in Northern Africa. A gleeful blast of retro-serial smash and grab adventure, with an impossible plot and oddly affecting moral rectitude.

Time Bandits—A band of time-traveling little people ensnare a little boy as they steal a map of the cosmos from the devil. Spectacularly weird entertainment for adults and children alike.

The Dark Crystal—A personal, mystical, wondrously odd fable of ancient races battling it out on a surreal planet with multiple suns.

A great eighties fantasy. With puppets.

A great eighties fantasy. With puppets.

Ghostbusters—A supernatural comedy that still works, and a great New York movie.

The Never-Ending Story—Superb, imaginative, and for the most part still beautiful to look at.

Brazil—Gilliam’s third best film—behind Twelve Monkeys and Time Bandits—a bizarre mashup of dystopian satire and visual slapstick. The last ten minutes will give you nightmares.

Ladyhawke—Somber, serious, the story of two lovers doomed to forever be almost-within-reach by a fallen priest.

Legend—Ridley Scott’s very fine kids’ movie, about a teenage knight, the last unicorn, and a trio of goblins who inadvertently raise the devil. Fabulous costumes and set design.

Labyrinth—One of the great children’s fantasies, about a teenage girl who wishes her brother into the hands of the goblin king. Weird and wonderful.

Delightful, wild and weird.

Delightful, wild and weird.

Big Trouble in Little China—A not so smart trucker falls afoul of a cosmic kung fu battle between good and evil. It wears its age badly, but still a compulsively watchable movie.

Wings of Desire—Wim Wenders’s best film, and one of the great films of all time, a meditative, moody, yet tender and funny story of angels who can only observe the suffering of humans, and the one angel who decides he wants to experience some of the highs and lows himself.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—Gilliam’s very fine—if also manic and at times oddly mistimed—comic tall-tale romp through the back alleys of the Ottoman Empire.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai—The best science-hero cum rock star alien invasion movie ever made.

A hipster's dream.

A hipster’s dream.

My Neighbor Totoro—My vote for the best kids’ movie of all time. The hero’s virtues are curiosity, fearlessness, humor, and kindness. Two girls make friends with a forest creature, who helps them cope with their mother’s illness.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure—Embodies the late 80s/early 90s excess better than just about any film. The basic message: suffering is just another form of not being cool. Still, a fun ride.

Gremlins—If you removed the sequence of the gremlins at the bar—almost certainly filmed for the trailers—this would be the best horror Christmas movie of all time. A great first horror movie for kids.

The Golden Child—Wearing its age well; the story of a fast-talking private eye who stumbles into an occult plot to turn the Dali Lama into an antichrist.

Alice—Weird disturbed animation/claymation.

Some intriguing, fun as hell genre pieces:

The Beastmaster—Bad but effective; super-powered slave destroys an evil, pagan empire. Made by b-movie extraordinaire Don Coscarelli, director of Phantasm II (itself a very intriguing departure for an intriguing franchise).

Krull—So. Much. Fun. Bad special effects and a very strange assortment of actors, but a killer story.

I love this movie.

I love this movie.

Willow—A misfire in many ways, but kids love it. I did, too.

Sante Sangre—A grisly outing from pseudo-mystical cult favorite Jodorowski, about a circus and a fat slob who cuts off women’s arms.

Return to Oz—Underrated—and highly disturbed—sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Madness, psycho-sexual mania, paranoia, an ancient villain who can manipulate stone complete this tale of Dorothy as she navigates the Kansas prairies and is committed to an asylum for her post-traumatic visions after the tornado.

Excalibur—A very fine retelling of L’Morte D’Arthur, only with pretty terrible acting and poorly timed voice-overs.

Flash Gordon—A delirious piece of madcap fantasia, stupid yet smart, cheesy yet cool.

And some fantastically bad fantasy:

Deathstalker—Miserable, late-night T & A Conan knockoff. Lacking even the basic so-bad-it’s-good criteria.

The Barbarians—Yowza, my vote for one of the best worst movies of all time,  just a terrible movie starring muscle-bound twins who can’t act, can’t sword-fight, and yet run around smiting villains and getting the girls.

Yup. Not a joke.

Yup. Not a joke. Really.

Conan the Destroyer—Worst sequel of all time, replacing the first film’s pagan stoicism with camp nonsense. Execrable.

Sword of the Valiant—An absolute abomination of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Sean Connery playing the green knight as a lecherous, evil villain. Wonderfully, operatically bad.

Barbarian Queen—Don’t remember this one too well. Speaks more than anything I could say about it.

Masters of the Universe—Dolph Lundgren has the power. The big budget He-Man film, not as bad as it sounds, but still worse than it should have been.

Red Sonja—Just terrible, and unfun.