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Good Fantasy Movies (1985-90): Beyond the Rally of the Dolls

MassieTwins2The late 80s continued to boom for the film industry, largely due to the burgeoning successes of blockbusters and partly because of the growing accessibility of technology. Falling prices on cameras and other equipment complemented the rise in VCR/VHS usage and the onset of video rental storefronts.

More and more, the ability to produce low-resource ideas and generate independent cinema would flood the market with theatrical (or straight-to-video) materials and a wide array of creative visions, many taking advantage of shoestring budgets. Matched with this was the influx in marketing, which could turn small projects into hugely rewarding manufacturing enterprises. ~ Massie Twins

The New Hollywood and the Underground Movement

The rise of the New Hollywood movement (with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese) saw major stars take over genre epics or historically-entrenched pictures, which surfaced commercially and critically through their exploitation ingredients to become comprehensive masterpieces (such as ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Scarface’).

These, of course, battled the underground movement, which grew out of the unexpected successes of ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ – smaller, human stories that refueled a more abstract narrative and the relevancy of socially conscious Italian cinema, respectively. From there, the subversive, daring likes of David Lynch, John Waters, Peter Greenaway, and Tim Burton were yielded, crafting strange yet mainstream-appealing works.

Specifically contributing to the evolution of the Fantasy genre were David Cronenberg, with his body-horror/techno-surrealist mindtrip ‘Videodrome’; ‘Conan the Destroyer’, arriving in 1984, to prove Arnold Schwarzenegger as a rising action hero and the sword-and-sandal subgenre as a thriving moneymaker; Ivan Reitman’s ‘Ghostbusters’ combined science-fiction, fantasy, comedy, and horror for a lucrative media franchise (including animated television shows, video games, and a theatrical sequel); Joe Dante’s ‘Gremlins’, teamed up notable writer Chris Columbus and executive producer Steven Spielberg for an evil-Muppet-filled thriller. ‘Gremlins’, along with ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, notoriously contributed to the MPAA’s push toward the PG-13 rating, which opened the doors for a distinct separation in marketing for young adult and mature audiences.


Plethoric Fantasy Movie Recommendations

‘Ewoks: The Battle for Endor’ (Jim Wheat and Ken Wheat, 1985)

Although it picks up almost immediately after the events of the first ill-conceived, live-action Ewok adventure (‘Caravan of Courage’), this sequel uses many of the same cast members, sets, and concepts.

But it’s instantly darker, with several of those returning characters killed off at the start. The plot doesn’t get much better than in the previous feature, but the tone and villains are of a much more menacing, genuinely threatening nature.

The most inexplicable element about this sci-fi/fantasy endeavor is that, though George Lucas produced and presided over the script-writing process, there’s very little here that looks or feels like ‘Star Wars’.

Following more along the lines of ‘Willow’ but with the childish concepts of ‘Heidi’ thrown in, this routinely bland endeavor fails to use the thundering score by John Williams or any hint of an existence of the Force.

Instead, it’s a generic tale of a little girl and her surrogate father facing off against alien marauders, who use traditional shape-shifting black magic (via a witch) and laser weapons instead of the Dark Side – or the classic metal beasts of the Galactic Empire.

‘Return to Oz’ (Walter Murch, 1985)

Widely considered to be the most faithful cinematic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s unsurpassed fantasy books, this obscure Disney feature borrows a few minor components from MGM’s hugely popular 1939 vision (including the ruby slippers, an invention that deviated from the source material), but adds numerous new bits that are wholly Oz-worthy – such as Wheelers, Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-tok, and the Nome King.

Best of all for the distribution was that the property had fallen into the public domain by 85, requiring no approval for any of the modifications or translations.

Although ‘Return to Oz’ would receive mixed reviews and take in less than half of its production costs at the box office, the film eventually gained a cult following and even an Academy Award nomination for its visual effects.

The lack of critical and commercial success is likely attributed to the bleakness of the story and its characters, many of which are indistinguishable as protagonists or antagonists. Off-putting as they may be, they do make striking images – from the deer-like Gump transport (a magic carpet mingle-mangle) to Billina the talking chicken.

‘Mannequin’ (Michael Gottlieb, 1987)

Though predominantly a romantic comedy, its rooting in fantasy concepts is unmistakable. It’s also quite an enjoyable idea, retooling the ultimate male pipe dream from ‘Weird Science’ into a decidedly more feminine design.

Although the lead male character is the one who wins out, it’s still a universally ego-boosting, self-esteem-escalating scheme targeted toward teen girls, resonating like ‘Splash’ mixed with ‘Working Girl’ for an uplifting, sometimes edgy update on the familiar plot of ‘One Touch of Venus’.

Andrew McCarthy, a relative unknown – but someone who appealed highly to female test audiences in the ‘80s – plays Jonathan Switcher, a struggling artist who designs a department store mannequin so perfect that it becomes the first aesthetic endeavor for which he can be truly proud. And, as an added bonus, it comes to life to assume the role of his ideal girlfriend (a young Kim Cattrall), much to the dismay of jealous, conniving associates, including James Spader in an early role, who are out to destroy the instantly successful window-dresser.

‘Mio in the Land of Faraway’ (Vladimir Grammatikov, 1987)

One of the most obscure productions to reach the United States, ‘Mio in the Land of Faraway’ was adapted from a distinguished novel by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, widely known for her children’s books – and most popular outside of her homeland for creating Pippi Longstocking.

While this particular picture didn’t stray far from typical fantasy formulas (including a golden apple, an enslaved genie, an enchanted land, a whispering well, a secret princeship, and a magic sword), it does contain an unusually dark yarn of an evil and literally iron-fisted knight who rips out kidnapped children’s hearts and replaces them with stones (or turns them into birds that must eternally encircle his castle.

The film also features Christian Bale in his film debut (playing dual roles, no less) and Christopher Lee as his standard – yet no less spectacularly monstrous – black-cloaked, white-haired sorcerer.

The project is also linked significantly to history in that its Russian shooting schedule (primarily in Moscow) occurred right around the same time as the Chernobyl disaster, which forced the cast and crew to evacuate Ukraine. Ironically, actor Lee complained extensively about the unpalatable food, the inadequate sanitation, and the ubiquitous political influences – all accepted components of filming in the USSR – rather than the immediate dangers of radiation poisoning.

‘Santa Sangre’ (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)

No stranger to exceptionally weird filmmaking, director Jodorowsky, with his fifth ultra-low-budget Mexican-Italian indie, crafts a surrealistic nightmare of angst, violence, revenge, and mutilation. It is fantasy in the darkest sense, considering that most of the inexplicably strange events take place in the mind of an asylum patient, who negotiates with his identity and existence through hallucinatory flashbacks and flash-forwards, which chronicle redemptive attempts at reasoning with a horribly trauma-ravaged soul.
A family of circus-performers-cum-cult-leaders finds infidelity and jealousy manifested into abominable acts of savagery. Murder, elephant-carcass-consumption, hypnotism, and suicide are the more straightforward concepts explored in ‘Santa Sangre’, while the far more diabolical actions of rape, dousing genitals in acid, arm-severing, and throat-slitting make the original NC-17 cut difficult to digest.
If all that sounds irredeemably dreadful, it’s worth noting that ‘Santa Sangre’ received rave reviews from major critics and was awarded a spot on Empire magazine’s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.


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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