Hearing about the recent 25th anniversary of the release of The Princess Bride made me think of that most cherished of film sub-genres: the 1980s fantasy flick. Defined by films such as the aforementioned Bride, as well as Willow, Krull, The Neverending Story, Excalibur and Ladyhawke, all of these motion pictures were marked by an anarchic sense of humour, picaresque adventure and often, unfortunately, some truly terrible scripts, acting and dialogue. Quite what prompted this mini-boom in over the top fantasy movies is something of a mystery. Maybe it was a reaction against the in-yer-face realism of 1970s cinema that saw Hollywood fall so insatiably in love with fantasy films in the ’80s. Or maybe it was the optical effects triumphs of the late ’70s sci-fi films that convinced film-makers that they could finally mount stories of this kind convincingly. Whatever the reason, the ’80s was a decade of mythical adventures in thrilling, faraway lands, ruled over by wicked, dark forces. It was a time of callow, would-be warriors setting off on life-changing quests against dastardly enemies and finding love – or at least lust – on the way. Let’s take a magical mystery tour through the era of excess in fantasy films.
Hawk the Slayer was made on a pocket money budget and fettered by a lead actor – charisma vacuum John Terry (not the footballer!) – who seemed a stranger to basic human emotions. Although Hawk was staggeringly badly made, it was anything but boring and, watching it, it’s almost impossible not to be caught up in its tawdry charms. There’s a lot to enjoy here, from Jack Palance’s high camp Voltan and the moronic dialogue (“I will give you a message. The message of death!”), to the roll-call of British character actors from Roy Kinnear to Bernard Bresslaw. Then there’s Krull, a film which certainly looked handsome, with its brutal fusion of the futuristic and the medieval, but was ultimately only a middling success. It was at the time a colossal production. Budgeted at $45 million, it stretched across 10 sound stages at Pinewood Studios and saw location work from the Canary Islands to Italy (rather than the usual fantasy film reliables of North Wales and Ireland!). It was pretty standard stuff, however, with a swashbuckling prince on a mission to save a captured princess from the clutches of ‘The Beast’ and his army of Slayers and, despite its vaulting ambition and being birthed from so much cash, it ultimately faltered at the box office.
Rather more fondly remembered are The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, the Jim Henson Company’s twin attempts to create something more ambitious and complex than the Muppets. Two of the finest fantasy films of the decade, both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth look satisfyingly real when compared with today’s CGI-drenched fantasy films and over 25 years have worn staggeringly well (David Bowie’s fright-wig aside!). In light of this it’s rather unfortunate that there’s no sign that the Henson bunch are looking to create any new fantasy worlds to really test the imaginations of their puppet designers and scriptwriters – and that’s a darn shame. Also well remembered is The Neverending Story, although in all likelihood that’s for the most part due to its brain-latching theme song (courtesy of wire-haircutted Kajagoogoo front man Limahl). The film follows a withdrawn schoolboy, Bastian Balthazar Bux, ignored by his father and bullied at school, who steals a book and finds himself in thrall to the point where he is called upon to enter its world and save the magical land of Fantasia. The ‘story’ proved to be not quite ‘neverending’, as the film spawned just a couple of sequels. A remake is on the way, although intriguingly it promises to examine the more nuanced details of the novel by Michael Ende on which the original film was based.
I could go on and on, given the surprisingly long list of fantasy flicks that were produced in the decade that taste forgot. For instance there’s Dragonslayer, an unusually adult-orientated fantasy from the Disney stable, which features a dragon that was described by the almost-director of the forthcoming Hobbit films, Guillermo del Toro, as his favourite cinematic dragon ever. Then there’s Ladyhawke, a film which somehow manages to be much less than the sum of its parts, despite featuring a villain played by Rutger ‘android from Blade Runner‘ Hauer, a sidekick played by Matthew ‘Ferris Bueller’ Broderick, and being directed by Richard ‘Superman’ Donner. Fortunately this sub-genre also features rather more promising fare in the form of Highlander, Beastmaster and Conan the Barbarian. A special mention must go out, however, to Masters of the Universe, which earned the dubious distinction of being described by its star Dolph Lundgren, no stranger to the embarrassment of direct-to-video-bin-fodder, as his ‘lowest point as an actor’!
As the above whistle-stop tour hopefully shows, despite the avalanche of fantasy films made in the ’80s, very few were actually hits at the time. It was through VHS (and later DVD and the internet) that these films found cult status with their mostly teenage audience. As cheesy, hammy and occasionally exploitative and low-rent as some of these movies were, they are now embraced as almost a genre unto themselves. These were, after all, the last fantasy epics to be made before the twin demons of irony and CGI changed the game forever, and for this reason we should celebrate them. Then there’s the fact that, for every Krull or Ladyhawke-sized failure, there’s a Princess Bride or Highlander – films that remain as watchable today as they were when they were first released – and that’s definitely something to be thankful for.