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Good Fantasy Movies (1980-85): Fame of Thrones

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The Massie Twins itcherThere’s something inherently fantasy-oriented in the succession and crowning of royalty (no matter how modern) – a subject that would feature prominently in Sweden in 1980 with Princess Victoria and in the Netherlands with Queen Juliana’s abdication – and the pseudo-gladiatorial Olympics, which would be notably boycotted by Jimmy Carter, but would give the world the “Miracle on Ice” during the Winter Olympics in New York. That specific match became a feat so inspirational, it roused a made-for-TV movie the following year (starring Karl Maldon), the 2001 documentary ‘Do You Believe in Miracles?’ and the hugely successful Disney feature, ‘Miracle’ (starring Kurt Russell), in 2004. ~ The Massie Twins

Rejuvenating the Genre

Meanwhile, Rankin and Bass’ high fantasy animated adaptation of ‘Return of the King’ followed on the heels of Ralph Bakshi’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ would open to mixed reviews (despite eventually becoming the most critically acclaimed of the series).

Further, fantasy-minded productions with striking gravity would arrive in the form of Akira Kurosawa’s Palme d’Or-winning ‘Kagemusha’, the musically-momentous space opera ‘Flash Gordon’, and the suppositiously-historical adventure epic, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.

This latter picture would rejuvenate not only the action genre but also fantasy, particularly with its subtle integration of biblical mysticism into an archival environment of educationally-valuable archaeology versus the obvious villainy of the power-hungry Nazis (an easily cinematic matchup of good against evil). In short order, the sequel (or, chronologically, prequel) would arrive (‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, 1984).

And although the routine experimentations with nuclear devices by nearly every leading world power was enough to keep tensions high amidst those caught up in proxy wars, and an assassination attempt on U.S. President Ronald Reagan (famously tied to Jodie Foster’s performance in ‘Taxi Driver’) provided grounds for general paranoia, the film industry seemed intent on churning out more fantasy movies than ever before, giving weary audiences a chance to indulge on a wide array of lighter fare – from the superhero shenanigans of ‘Supergirl’ to the romantic musical fantasy flop of ‘Xanadu’.


Inspirational Fantasy Movie Recommendations

‘Dragonslayer’ (Matthew Robbins, 1981)

“Twice each year, at the Spring and Summer Equinox, the king selects a new victim. Virgins.”

This relatively forgotten, dragon-slaying epic sparked a new divagation for Disney, who partnered with Paramount Pictures for distribution. Earning a slightly harsher rating (PG, though it certainly would have received a PG-13 for its violence and brief nudity had the designation existed in ’81), it would prove to be a controversial piece that would eventually lead to the creation of Touchstone, specifically to handle edgier pictures that might threaten to tarnish Disney’s squeaky-clean image.

The film itself is something of an achievement in special effects, music, and environmental visuals (set designs, costumes, puppetry), going on to garner Academy Award nominations in several categories. The plot, focusing on an unquenchably evil dragon that takes sacrificial virgins on a regular basis, is not without plenty of amusement, especially as it tackles the tropes of high fantasy – including wizards, apprentices, alchemy, princesses, and a soldier named Tyrian – a remarkable coincidence (or homage, if the writers were well-read) to ‘Game of Thrones’, which features Peter Dinklage as Tyrion.

‘Ator, the Fighting Eagle (Ator l’invincibile)’ (Joe D’Amato, 1982)

“Why can’t we marry?”

Although it’s not a terribly contended argument that D’Amato (directing under the pseudonym, David Hills) rapidly manufactured Ator to capitalize on ‘Conan the Barbarian’ from the same year, it doesn’t have much bearing on the independent entertainment value. It may not have as big a budget, or look as polished, but all of the core materials are present for a decent sword-and-sandals adventure (from the stunning, skimpily-clad Laura Gemser as a temptress to the wicked spider-cult ruler Dakar to the incestual romantic crux). And there’s even a bear cub companion that somehow manages to be more useful in Ator’s epic quest than any of the human protagonists.

Perhaps more interesting than the timid exploitation of all things Robert E. Howard is the speed in which sequels were churned out – and the evolution of the lead character, whose ownership would slip in and out of D’Amato’s hands. The follow-up, ‘The Blade Master’, was impossibly pathetic but with oodles of unintentional humor, while the third part, ‘Iron Warrior’, was taken on by a new team altogether (directed by Al Bradley and written in part by Steven Luotto). In ‘Iron Warrior’, all of the backstories and related arcs are dropped, practically redefining Ator – even though the actor is still Miles O’Keefe (with a new hairdo and limited dialogue).

Not content with the blasphemous affront to his creation, D’Amato would reclaim the director’s chair for the fourth Ator entry, which he would, in a blatant dismissal of the previous venture, title ‘Ator III: The Hobgoblin’ (though it would more prominently employ the U.S. titles ‘Quest for the Mighty Sword’ or ‘The Hobgoblin’).

‘The Flight of Dragons’ (Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr., 1982)

“All mankind is facing an epic choice: a world of magic or a world of science. Which will it be?”

Rare for an animation aimed primarily at children, ‘The Flight of Dragons’ delves into the artistic movement of speculative biology (or hard science-fiction) and, more specifically, into the notion that dragons could have existed – solely absent from any recognized clade’s anatomical evolution due to internal acids that would have dissolved fossil evidence shortly after expiry.

On the much more apparent outside is a complex fairy tale about warring mages and their powerful dragon allies, wherein a hapless scientist’s mind is fused with a massive flying lizard. Despite diabolical spells, mystical realms, damsels in distress, evil ogres, woodland elves, and acid-secreting worms, there’s still the underlying theme of science versus magic, which finds the polymath protagonist injecting practical reasoning into the outright sorcery to vanquish the enemy and return to reality.

In the end, he gets the girl but, realistically enough, must sell his magic tools (a flute and shield) to pay his debts.

‘The Sword and the Sorcerer’ (Albert Pyun, 1982)

“I will allow you to live as long as you serve me. Betray me, and I will joyfully send you back to rot in hell.”

Though it boasts one of the most generic titles of the 80s prolific sword-and-sorcery fountainhead, this early picture by the man who would eventually direct a countless number of low-budget sci-fi/fantasy projects (from the ‘Nemesis’ features to various entries in the ‘Kickboxer’ series) contains a couple of unique concepts – including a projectile-shooting sword and a vile necromancy monster, who is gruesomely resurrected from Hell by a witch.

The plot follows Talon (Lee Horsley), who witnesses his family’s death at the hands of the treacherous King Cromwell (Richard Lynch) – not unlike Conan’s theatrical origins – embarking on a perilous quest to satiate his thirst for vengeance, as well as to rescue the rightful heir to the kingdom’s throne.

Through battles with medieval soldiers, the slaughterous monarch himself, and a giant constrictor snake – and somehow surviving and overcoming being crucified alive – Talon winds up as the conquering hero. Humorously, he’s not entirely virtuous, since his mercenary skills cannot be bought by gold – but by Alana’s (Kathleen Beller) offer of a night of passion.

‘The Warrior and the Sorceress’ (John Broderick, 1984)

While Roger Corman’s New Horizons Pictures would churn out more low-budget fantasy fare than almost any other company (his ‘Deathstalker’ and ‘Barbarian Queen’ franchises saw six entries throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s), this incredibly obscure Argentinian co-production features the star power of David Carradine (not too long after TV series ‘Kung Fu’ ended), who was already attempting to amass an enormous filmography, and plenty of blade-wielding bloodshed and combat.

Its story is clearly stolen from ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (itself swiped from ‘Yojimbo’), with Carradine trying his best to channel Clint Eastwood’s famous man-with-no-name. But aside from the overly familiar plot of pitting rivals against one another for profit, ‘The Warrior and the Sorceress’ contains some notable visual motifs, including the torture of a woman by drowning in a tank (paralleling the drought that fuels the warfare in the first place) and the absurdity of a communicative lizard creature that seems to possess more intelligence than its masters.

Plus, there’s a striptease with a four-breasted dancer, which outdoes ‘Total Recall’s’ signature, tri-bosomed prostitute, appearing six years later.


A Wondrous Form of Speculative Fiction

The fantasy genre almost always wanders into the realms of historical, biblical, horror, science-fiction (as in space operas), or quasi-medieval environments, giving it a particularly rich and sweeping range for cinematic inclusions.

Even without visualized magic, mythology, or escapism, this wondrous form of speculative fiction (a term popularized by controversial author Robert Heinlein) provides just as many tremendously famous masterpieces as it does a plethora of overlooked works worthy of closer examination or reevaluation.

Do you have a favorite of the era?

If so, please don’t hesitate to mention it in the comment section below!

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