A couple of days ago, I watched the second season of the Witcher. It’s very much modern tv fantasy — endlessly elaborate backstory, CG monsters and brutal (but perfectly choreographed) fight scenes.
The following day, I happened to watch LadyHawke, a Fantasy movie from 1986 made on a budget of nothing very much. It has a simple but effective premise, slightly laughable fight scenes and is incredibly sparing in its use of special effects. Honestly, it’s just as good.
Anyway, it got me thinking about Fantasy movies of the 1980s, so I decided to write a post about some. Here is part 1 the first 5 of my Top 10. One of my criteria is: I have to have watched them in the 1980s. I also have to have watched the entire movie start to finish (sorry, Conan, I never made it more than halfway through). And it has to be something I enjoyed at the time, even if I have since cooled on it (hence Hawk the Slayer).
Having said that, this list is definitive, and if you disagree with any of these you are wrong.
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
On paper, this isn’t a terrible idea. What if you had The Seven Samurai, except instead of samurai you had a Dungeons and Dragons adventuring party? The big problems are that the Fantasy elements are conceptually underwhelming but also beyond the film’s budget.
There are some good points. Jack Palance as the scenery chewing villain, is just wonderful. Ray Charleson as the elf, Crow, is excellent, giving a genuine feeling of being not quite human. But other characters are less enjoyable. There’s a giant, for example, and because there’s no budget for effects they just get very tall comic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play him. Bresslaw is played as the straight man against Peter O’Farrell’s dwarf in a series of very unfunny vignettes. But worst of all is the party’s leader Hawk, played without conviction or charisma by John Terry.
But I enjoyed it, though. I was perhaps ten when I first saw it, and it was fun. I liked t
Now this is how you do low-budget fantasy. A strong central premise, rather than a mythology grab-bag. Keep the Fantasy elements simple, and get some charismatic actors to carry the show. In ye olde days, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer were lovers, but were cursed by an evil bishop. Now, Pfeiffer turns into a hawk during the day, only becoming human between sunset and sunrise, while Hauer is only human during the day, becoming a wolf after dark. Matthew Broderick is a comedy relief thief whose escape from the bishop’s dungeon offers Hauer a chance to get to the bishop, but the show is completely stolen by Australian actor Leo McKern as a disgraced monk.
It’s slow, slightly overlong and the fight scenes are mostly a bit crap. On the other hand, it has sympathetic characters that you want to see emerge victorious, and that’s what you need in a movie.
The Last Unicorn (1982)
Slow. Very slow. But worth it. Some 80s Fantasy is slow because it simply doesn’t have enough ideas to keep busy (I’m looking at you, Krull) but some, like Last Unicorn, are slow to give the ideas a chance to breathe.
A unicorn, discovering she is the last of her kind, sets out to find where the other unicorns have gone. After being captured by a side-show, she escapes, teams up with an incompetent magician, a Robin Hood wannabe and a Maid Marian wannabe. The Unicorn becomes a human and falls in love, before finding that the unicorns have been driven in the sea by the monstrous Red Bull.
Last Unicorn is sort of an antidote to Conan style Fantasy, all about power and gore. Instead it looks at themes of identity and control. It is an animated film, which helps keep the Fantastic and mundane elements visually consistent with one another, allowing impressive fantasy sequences at a budget.
If the Last Unicorn is a warning against trying too hard to control Fantasy, Labyrinth is about not letting Fantasy control you. A teenager called Sarah (Jenifer Connolly) , annoyed at having to look after her baby brother, asks the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take him away. Immediately regretting this (extremely bad) call, she demands the child’s return. The Goblin King says he will only do so if Sarah can reach his palace at the centre of a terrible maze. Sarah succeeds and returns home, seemingly having abandoned the friends she made in the Labyrinth, only to decide that she would go back to them from time to time, when she needed to.
It’s a good looking movie. One of two 1980s collaborations between British Fantasy artist Brian Froud and American puppeteer Jim Henson, it’s just the right mixture of weird and beautiful. The plot is extremely episodic, so it seldom flags or slows, and the relationship between the Goblin King and Sarah juuust manages to avoid being as creepy as it might be. Great fun.
Themes… Ideas… Bleh! So there are these guys who are immortal (called The Immortals) and they can’t die, unless they’re beheaded. They are also compelled to fight each other, with fights leading to beaheading. The last one alive something something… look, who cares, swordfights and beheadings from medaeval Scotland to modern New York.
It’s a fun movie with a great soundtrack. Mostly, it’s to be admired for it’s premise, which is the most perfectly efficient piece of storytelling machinery you could imagine for churning out swordfights to a rockin’ soundtrack. The film opens with a WWF match, which is almost perfect foreshadowing. It’s pro-wrestling with swords. There have been a bunch of sequels and a TV series, all completely unnecessary. Highlander is what it is: 1980s machismo, perfected.