Barbarians and stop-motion monsters: 5 fantasy films from the 1980s


By Rob Walker

Ever since the first The Lord of the Rings film hit theaters in 2001, fantasy properties have been everywhere in the entertainment landscape. The one-two punch of Tolkien and Rowling to the big screen, has sent a ripple effect through the entertainment industry and now you can’t throw a rock in Best Buy (I don’t recommend you throw rocks in Best Buy) without hitting a recent film that has to do with sorcery, mythology or magic. Because of this current climate in entertainment, where one of the best shows on television has dragons and ice demons, it may be easy to forget that there were fantasy films before Frodo ever set foot out of the celluloid Shire. Looking back at fantasy cinema, one of the biggest decades for sword and sorcery films was the 1980s. It is with this decade and genre in mind, I’ve compiled a list of 5 fantasy films from the 1980s which, if you’re a fan of the genre, you should definitely check out.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

This film follows the exploits of Conan, a warrior-rogue, as he seeks to find the sorcerer who destroyed his people. Conan’s adventures are episodic in nature and include: sex with a sorceress, heists, gladiator battles and snake cults. The plot is a grab bag and can come off a little like a D&D adventure at times. However, this film should be noted for bringing the less noble side of the genre to the screen. Conan isn’t interested in altruistic pursuits, as much as he craves revenge and thievery. Directed by John Milius (Red Dawn), and starring up and comer Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan The Barbarian gives us a fantasy landscape that is is a harsh wasteland, a place where only a barbarian would flourish.

Willow (1988)

There’s no denying that this film has some similarities to both The Hobbit and Star Wars, but Willow uses these similarities to create a fantastic tale all its own. Willow Ufgood, a wannabe sorcerer, is sent on a quest to protect a special baby from the the designs and armies of the evil Queen Bavmorda. Along the way he faces fairies, brownies, trolls, a sorceress, a dragon and the greatest swordsman who ever lived. This movie is a fun, lighthearted adventure with memorable characters and a story that will leave you begging for more adventures featuring this colorful cast of characters.

Legend (1985)

Ridley Scott doesn’t do story, he works in concepts and visuals. Which is why, despite this film’s overly dramatic plot, Legend stands out as a cult classic. Tim Curry is unrecognizable as the demonic “Darkness”, who is intent on destroying the last unicorn and casting the world in eternal night. Jack, played by a young (and I’m assuming less crazy) Tom Cruise, must journey to the underworld to stop the Demon-Lord from killing the unicorn (Uni-cide?) and marrying Princess Lilli. With its sinister, dreamlike visuals, Legend stands out as a stunning and disturbing entry in the genre. If you watch this movie, and you should, watch the 2002 “Director’s Cut” with Jerry Goldsmith’s original score.

Ladyhawke (1985)

This movie is criminally overlooked, which is a shame, because it spins a wonderful tapestry of high adventure, comedy and romance. I’d be lying if I said this Ladyhawke isn’t dated (particularly with the 80s synth/rock score), but dynamic direction from Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies) and engaging performances from Broderick, Hauer, Pfeiffer elevate this movie beyond the genre’s melodramatic trappings, making the final product an exciting and entertaining film.

Clash of the Titans (1981)

I’m not talking about the 2010 abomination, I mean the real Clash of the Titans. Clash of the Titans follows (loosely) the Greek myth of Perseus, human son of Zeus, as he fights against the petty gods to save his love Andromeda, and prove himself a hero. This film is more theatrical and has a brilliant cast of classically-trained British actors (Lawrence Olivier & Maggie Smith), as well as a wonderful comedic turn by character actor, Burgess Meredith. It should also be noted that Ray Harryhausen, master of stop motion animation, created two of his most iconic characters in this film, the robotic owl Bubo and The Kraken. Unfortunately, the industry changed and this was the last film to feature Harryhausen’s brilliant work.

[Editor’s note: Yes, I know we’ve missed some other cool fantasy films like The NeverEnding Story, Excalibur and many more.]

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