The 1980s were a peculiar time for many reasons. Neon-colored clothes, synthesizer music, big hair and big shoulder pads, the Rubik’s Cube. Add to the list of 1980s oddities a rash of fantasy films that were truly spectacular and bizarre. These were genre mash-up movies that combined medieval sorcery and knights in armour with futuristic sci-fi elements, such as electronic animals and laser beams—some of which were fired from metal swords. There were also wizards, winged horses and leg warmers in these movies. And ironically, none of these films were played for laughs. They all took themselves extremely seriously. So as we plow through the dog days of summer, here are the 10 best fantasy films from the 1980s.
10. Legend (1985)
This film stars a young Tom Cruise and was directed by Ridley Scott hot off his triumphs with sci-fi masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner. The movie is about a demon, played by actor Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), who seeks to create eternal darkness by destroying the last of the unicorns and marrying a fairy princess. Tom Cruise plays a “forest boy” named Jack who fights back against the demon with help from his elven allies. Billed as a “magical fantasy” film, the movie contains a funky synthesizer-fueled soundtrack by the synth-pop group Tangerine Dream, as well as a lot of cloven-hoofed children sporting bows and arrows. Not a movie that comes up a lot when people talk about Tom Cruise’s career.
9. Labyrinth (1986)
Notable for starring singer David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth was a hit when released in the summer of 1986. The movie centres on a 15-year-old girl named Sarah (actress Jennifer Connelly) who accidentally wishes her baby half-brother, Toby, away to the Goblin King Jareth. Turns out the Goblin King is real and he plans to keep Toby unless Sarah finds her way through a dangerous Labyrinth in 13 hours. This movie has not aged well, and rather than look like a goblin or a king, David Bowie looks more like a mid-1980s rocker in skin tight spandex pants, a leather jacket and super teased hair. Like many of these 1980s fantasy films, Labyrinth also features a lot of puppets that, when compared to today’s CGI special effects, look like, well, puppets. Interesting that both George Lucas of Star Wars fame and Jim Henson who created the Muppets were involved in making this movie.
8. The Dark Crystal (1982)
Speaking of puppets, The Dark Crystal is a fantasy film released in 1982 that was made entirely with puppets. Co-directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz (who’s the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars films), The Dark Crystal is set on a distant planet in the far off past, where a race of creatures known as Gelfling embark on a quest to find the missing shard of a magical crystal that is foretold to restore order to their world. Think The Legend of Zelda meets Fraggle Rock. The Dark Crystal also features an evil race of grotesque birdlike lizards called the Skeksis, gnomish dragons who rule their planet with an iron claw, and peace-loving wizards called the Mystics. All of which are puppets, or Muppets, in the hands of Jim Henson and company. A strange but interesting fantasy film.
7. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
A lawyer on the TV show The Simpsons once famously sued the makers of The NeverEnding Story for false advertising. The movie does end, after all. And not a moment too soon for some moviegoers who find this movie to be insufferable. About a young boy named Bastian who is being tormented by bullies at school, the movie shows how Bastian escapes into a book shop where the owner reveals an ancient storybook to him, which he is warned can be dangerous. Shortly after he borrows the book and begins to read it in the school attic, Bastian is drawn into the mythical land of Fantasia, which desperately needs a hero to save it from destruction. Filled with princesses, castles, white horses, goblins and lots of smoke and fog, The NeverEnding Story is one of the best remembered fantasy films from the 1980s. But could someone explain the flying dog to me?
6. Dragonslayer (1981)
A Walt Disney film, 1981’s Dragonslayer has a simple enough premise. It is about a young wizard’s apprentice who is sent to kill an evil dragon who has been eating young girls in a nearby kingdom, because a king has made a pact with the dragon where he sacrifices virgins to it. However, when the king’s own daughter is next on the dragon’s menu, he hires an old wizard and the young apprentice to kill the dragon. This film has it all—kings, knights, a dragon, a princess and plenty of wizard magic. It also has an earnestness that comes with the Disney pedigree. And plenty of synthesizer music too.
5. Excalibur (1981)
The legend of King Arthur and the wizard Merlin are given the full ‘80s treatment in this 1981 gem directed by John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory). Starring a number of notable British thespians such as Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren and Gabriel Byrne, this is the King Arthur movie for the MTV generation. Filled with music video lighting, blowing smoke, shoulder pads, permed hair and plenty of explosions that seem to come out of nowhere, this movie is for diehard fans of the genre. There is also frozen ice and lasers that seem to shoot out whenever the mighty sword Excalibur is used. Although the movie has not aged well over the years, it should be seen as a time capsule and relic from another era. Some good fight sequences help to redeem the movie.
4. The Beastmaster (1982)
The tagline for this fantasy opus is “Born with the courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and the power of a God.” Oh brother. This 1982 classic stars actor Marc Singer (from the original TV series V) as Dar, The Beastmaster who has the ability to talk to and control animals. Dar, who is the son of a king, is hunted by an evil priest after his birth and is sent to grow up in another family for his own protection. When he becomes a man, Dar finds that his new father is murdered by savages. Realizing that he can communicate with animals, Dar sets off to find the evil priest on a quest for revenge in this blatant Conan rip off. In addition to having all the trappings of a 1980s fantasy film—horses, swords, wizards, a princess and hairspray, this movie also features a panther and has actor Marc Singer spend the entire movie in a loincloth a la Tarzan. Few movies can match this one for pure cheese. However, The Beastmaster has developed a cult following over the years and spawned two sequels and a television series—all of which continued to star Marc Singer.
3. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
You cannot make this list without including the original Conan movie. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian, this movie is essentially an origin story that chronicles the rise of Conan from a frail boy to a revenge-fueled barbarian warrior who seeks to get even with the evil sorcerer who killed his parents and whole tribe, for that matter. Also starring James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) as the sorcerer and with a screenplay by Oliver Stone (Platoon and JFK), this movie is one of the best of the 1980s fantasy films. It even shows James Earl Jones’ character transform into a giant snake, and has plenty of women clad in aerobic workout gear running around to keep things interesting. There is also some vintage WWF wrestling moves to be found in the film, including flying suplexes and figure fours. Awesome!
2. Krull (1983)
Wrong in all the right ways, Krull is a genre mash-up movie that has to be seen to be believed. Think “Knights vs. Aliens.” About a prince and a fellowship of companions who set out to rescue the prince’s bride from a fortress of alien invaders who have arrived on their home planet, Krull has it all and then some—horses, swords, axes, aliens, lasers, a one-eyed cyclops and a weird weapon that looks like a cross between a starfish and a Ninja throwing star. This movie is pure 1980s fantasy and was a modest hit when released in the summer of 1983. Audiences got to see it in a double bill at the drive-in along with Superman 3. Starring a cast of complete unknowns with the exception of Liam Neeson in a supporting role, Krull has taken on a life of its own among 1980s aficionados and fantasy enthusiasts. A truly epic piece of pop culture.
1. Clash of the Titans (1981)
The most epic of all 1980s fantasy films and still the best, the original Clash of the Titans features winged pegasuses, witches, monsters from the sea and a mechanical owl. Hard to ask for more. The movie also stars acclaimed British actor Sir Laurence Olivier (who won an Oscar for playing Hamlet) as the God Zeus, and a young pre-L.A. Law Harry Hamlin as the main character Perseus. The movie is about how Perseus unwittingly pisses off the sea goddess Thetis after he falls in love with the Princess Andromeda, who used to be engaged to Thetis’s son. Perseus must undertake one quest after another in the film, with Zeus helping him along the way. The original movie is far superior to the 2010 remake starring actor Sam Worthington. Billed as “An Epic Entertainment Spectacular,” the first Clash of the Titans delivers. Release the Kraken!