The 16 Most Underrated Fantasy Films, Part One (1944-1981)
With the first installment of the epic adaptation “The Hobbit” on its way to theaters December 14th, entitled “An Unexpected Journey,” I thought I’d take an equally epic look at the more underrated fantasy films of yore. This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but instead highly subjective, so if your favorites didn’t make the cut, feel free to chime in with some more down below in the comment section! Keep in mind as well that the list is chronological, so it only goes so far back, so if your faves didn’t make the list this time out, they still could in the future.
In this first list, we take it back- waaaaay back- all the way to the 1940s, before heading into more familiar waters in the early 80’s. In true epic fashion, I opted to split the list into sections, just like the movies. Don’t worry- unlike “The Hobbit,” you won’t have to wait three years for the list to be complete. Instead, I’ll deliver a new list every now & again until my job is done! So, without further ado, I bring you part one.
From legendary horror producer Val Lewton (“The Body Snatcher,” “Bedlam”) comes this follow-up to the classic “Cat People.” It also marks the first directing gig for the legendary Robert Wise, who went on to enormous success in a wide variety of genres, notably musicals (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”), sci-fi (“The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Andromeda Strain”) and horror (“The Haunting,” “Audrey Rose”).
Sadly, this production was troubled from the get-go, with Wise taking over for another director, and audiences and critics alike highly disappointed when what they thought would be more of the same from “Cat People” turned out to be another animal altogether- pun definitely intended. Instead of a straight horror picture, Lewton and Co. opted to create more of a haunting fairy tale of a movie, with a surreal dream-like quality wholly unlike the original. Think more along the lines of Cocteau’s 1946 version of “Beauty and the Beast” (not to be confused with Disney’s), only this came out first.
Most of the main cast from the original does return, but the exotic Simone Simon, whose character died in the first film, plays a ghost. At no point does she terrorize anyone as in the original, despite ads of the time claiming otherwise, which didn’t help with the film’s reception. Instead, the film revolves around Simon’s character’s boyfriend, who has hooked up with his co-worker from the original and now has a child who is withdrawn and strange. She discovers a picture of the late Irene (Simon) and her ghost appears to the girl and things progress from there. It’s a mesmerizing, hypnotic venture that deserved a better reception than it got, but time has been kind to the film, which has rightfully been reassessed and restored to some acclaim.
If you can somehow manage to see the film as a completely separate entity from the first film and you prefer fantasy to horror anyway, you may find you prefer this film to the original. As much as I love the original, personally, this film holds its own for me, and is well worth your time, especially if you like modern-day fairy tales.
Another much-maligned film that was ahead of its time, this marks an early adaptation of a work by the legendary Dr. Seuss, who wrote both the story upon which it is based and the screenplay as well. He also wrote the lyrics to the songs that appear in the film, which is partially a musical. It was also one of the last films to be shot in Technicolor. Though an enormous flop at the time, and completely disowned by its creator- Seuss, in typically verbose fashion, referred to it as a “debaculous fiasco”- the film has obtained cult status over the years, with many fans citing it as the best of the Seuss filmic adaptations, which also include “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat,” which while financially successful, were largely critical failures.
To be sure, it’s not for everyone, but if you’re a die-hard Seuss fan, you owe it to yourself to see this, as it is the only film he actively participated in- and boy, does it show. The film is structured similarly to “The Wizard of Oz,” with the fantastical events taking place in the dream of a child- this time a boy who is forced to play an enormous piano at the behest of the villainous Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried, best known for voicing Captain Hook in Disney’s “Peter Pan”); a reflection of his activity before drifting off, where he was engaged in piano lessons- shades of “Alice in Wonderland” as well. It’s definitely trippy, and not for everyone, but a must for fans of the weird. Fans include writers of “The Simpsons,” who coined Sideshow Bob’s last name after Dr. T. and “Futurama,” who based the Robot Devil’s voice on Conried’s voice. The band Mr. Bungle also covered the song “3rd Floor Dungeon” regularly in concert. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t soon forget it!
This was a tough choice, as I am a huge fan of the legendary special effects and stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who created the memorable effects for all the “Sinbad” films back in the 60s and 70s- including “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,””The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger,” as well as the original “Clash of the Titans.” (Yep, he was the first to “release the Kraken.”) All of those are well worth seeing, to be sure, but if I must pick just one, it’s this one, which I saw at a revival theater way back in the day.
Fans of the third “Evil Dead” installment “Army of Darkness” will know why instantly, as this is the film Sam Raimi cribbed the army of skeletons from. (“Argo” fans will also find some surprises here.) The film is based on the quest of the titular Jason to capture the mythical Golden Fleece. Along the way, he encounters Hercules, Hermes, is besieged by the likes of a monstrous statue (shades of a similar one in “Lost”), harpies, a merman (hello, “Cabin in the Woods”!), a Hydra, and, most spectacularly, the aforementioned skeleton army. Sure, the effects are dated by today’s standards, but I defy you to show any of these films to little boys and not have them be transfixed once the beasties arrive on the scene. Probably more than a few of the girls, too. This one also has Honor Blackman, aka “Pussy Galore” from the Bond adventure “Goldfinger” as well, so there’s that.
Honestly, you could easily interchange any of these films I mentioned here and I wouldn’t complain. They’re all classics and well worth your time. Harryhausen rules!
The only entry from Japan on the list, this is actually comprised of four different, unrelated stories, also known as a portmanteau or an anthology film. The title means “ghost story” and though the film is sometimes classified as a horror film, it’s not the type of film one thinks of when one thinks of a typical Japanese horror film, a la “Ringu” or “Ju-on”- though this could indeed be seen as a bit of a predecessor of those sorts of films. Instead, it’s more of a subtle, fairy-tale like effort, not unlike the aforementioned “Curse of the Cat People,” only a little creepier. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and received an award at the Cannes Film Festival, so calling it underrated might be a bit of a stretch, but certainly it’s not widely known by modern audiences, which is sort of the point of this list- particularly this section of it, which highlights some of the older fantasy flicks out there. The look of the film is best described as expressionistic and dreamy- hence the fairy-tale quality.
This one couldn’t be more influential, and those who don’t shy away from foreign films will find a lot to love here, especially if this sounds in your wheelhouse- and one assumes you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise, so there you go. It sometimes crops up on TCM, so keep an eye out (pun definitely intended for those who’ve seen it).
This one comes from the house of Hammer, and if you’re an old-school horror fan, that should ring a bell. If not, think Tim Burton at his most Goth (i.e. “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sweeney Todd”) and you’re in the vicinity. Though the film features Hammer-regulars Peter Cushing (also of “Star Wars” fame) and Christopher Lee (also of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), it’s not actually a horror effort, but more along the lines of an Indiana Jones flick with a feminist spin.
When a professor (Cushing) goes in search of the lost city of Kuma in the African jungle, he finds more than he bargained for when he encounters the immortal Ayesha, played by another Bond girl, Ursula Andress (“Dr. No”). As if that weren’t unexpected enough, his timing isn’t the greatest, as her oppressed people have decided to rise up against her and mayhem ensues. Based on the novel of the same name, this is a lot of fun and though filmed a whopping six times previously (!), this is the version to see. It was a hit back in the day, inspiring a sequel that’s also worth a look: “The Vengeance of She” in 1968. I could watch stuff like this all day, and who doesn’t like to see a strong woman in charge? Ladies, look no further on the list- this is the one you wanna see.
Another remake of a previous success, this is also a Hammer production, somewhat infamous for another lady- only this time played more for sex appeal than strength. Even if you don’t recognize the title, you probably know the star: Raquel Welch. This is the film that made her a star, and you might well be familiar with its most iconic image, that of Welch clad in a fur bikini. It’s also one of those films that choose to ignore history in favor of a good story, well told. In the world of this film, dinosaurs and man co-exist, and when said dinos are brought to life by the aforementioned Ray Harryhausen, you’re in for a good time. (Okay, so I lied about picking just one of his films.) Besides dinos, there are also cavemen types, giant spiders and lizards, and a big battle between said dinos that brings to mind another film that features man and dino living together: “Jurassic Park.” Okay, so the effects aren’t quite up to that high standard, but when you’ve got Welch in a fur bikini, what more do you really need? In a word, awe-inspiring.
Speaking of James Bond, Ian Fleming wrote other things beside the famous creation, including this, which many mistake for a Disney effort. It’s not. However, there most certainly is a Disney connection, as the film is partially a musical, with songs written by the legendary Sherman Brothers, of “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Aristocats” fame, among many other beloved animated classics. “Poppins”-star Dick Van Dyke is also the star here, along with the infamous Benny Hill as a Toymaker, and a genuinely frightening turn by Robert Helpmann as the super-creepy Child Catcher, who more than lives up to his name and made the cut for EW’s “50 Most Vile Villains” list.
It’s a British effort, with a script by no less than Roald Dahl, of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame; along with Ken Hughes, another writer with a Bond connection, having scripted the original version of “Casino Royale,” which bears little relation to the later Daniel Craig version. Bond producer Albert Broccoli also produced this effort, which was not a commercial or critical success, but has since become a cult classic, especially among those who were kids and saw it at a critical juncture and had the crap scared out of them by the Child Catcher- while, at the same time, were charmed by the titular flying car that gives the movie its name. Why not traumatize your own kids? It’ll be fun!
Not to be outdone by a flying car, Disney retaliated with this film, which featured a flying bed, for those too lazy to get themselves into a car. (I kid, everyone knows Disney got there first with the flying Model-T in “The Absent-Minded Professor” in ’61.) Like “Mary Poppins” before it, this one combines live-action and animation for a tale about witches, featuring Angela Lansbury, of “Murder, She Wrote” fame as an apprentice witch, or a witch-in-training. Her relative novice status leads to some misadventures of the slapstick variety.
As with the last film, the Sherman Brothers did the musical honors, though much of their work didn’t make it to the final cut. Thankfully, though the film was a flop back in the day, it has a better reputation now and has been painstakingly restored and given the proper respect it deserved by Disney, who rereleased it on DVD in the most complete edition to date. If your kids love “Poppins,” they’ll likely eat this up as well. Plus, it’s not nearly as scary as parts of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
You’ll want to put the kiddies to bed for this one, a post-modern fairy tale that was well ahead of its time, prefiguring everything from the cult classic “The Company of Wolves” (which you’ll see on the next list) to the likes of “Red Riding Hood” and, yes, even the “Twilight” saga- to say nothing of Anne Rice’s tales of vampires and witches. (Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” came out the following year, in fact.) The film marks the first major role for cult siren Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith, best known for her sexploitation flicks like “Caged Heat,” The Swinging Cheerleaders” and another, even more off-color fairy-tale adaptation, the X-Rated “Cinderella” a mere two years later in 1977. This one isn’t quite as ribald, but it is a bit discomfiting, with its underlying overtones of predatory lesbianism and pedophilia. Smith, then 20, plays Lila Lee, a 13-year old virginal type that is put upon by. well, pretty much everyone, male or female, in the entire film.
We’re not talking Sade’s “Justine” or anything, but more of a milder “Candide.” Basically, the girl can’t win. She encounters gangsters, sleazy guys, vampires- including a lesbian vampire Queen, the titular Lemora, who preys on kids- and even a pervy priest. Perhaps needless to say, it was banned by the League of Catholic Decency. It was forgotten for years until a cult rose up around it and the film was released on DVD to much critical acclaim. Despite the iffy themes here and there and the sometimes noticeable low-budget (keep your eyes on the “trees” as Lila rides by in a carriage), it’s worth mentioning that the film handles it well and in a non-exploitative manner, despite the star’s subsequent skin-tastic B-movie career. You might have to look hard for it, but it’s well worth seeking out.
Right around this time, animated fantasy flicks became all the rage, including three adaptations of Tolkien’s work: “The Hobbit” (1977) and “The Return of the King” (1980) from Rankin/Bass- best known for their Christmas specials, like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”- and 1978’s “The Lord of the Rings,” from the legendary Ralph Bakshi, which was a huge influence on Peter Jackson’s subsequent epic trilogy. A year before that film, however, Bakshi made another fantasy-themed film that’s much lesser-known: “Wizards.” Writing, directing and producing the film himself, this was Bakshi’s first foray into more family-friendly material, after such decidedly adult (but still animated) fare like “Fritz the Cat” and “Heavy Traffic.”
Interestingly, the film, made the same year as “Star Wars,” also features voice-over work from Mark Hamill, who went back and forth between the two films, which led Bakshi to re-title the film from “War Wizards” to just “Wizards” to avoid confusion with the former film. As fans of Hamill know, voice-over work would eventually become his bread and butter (i.e. “The Joker” in the animated “Batman” series) when live-action acting roles dried up, so that makes this film equally important in its own way to his career. Though only a modest hit back in the day and not especially well-received by critics, the film has attained a huge cult following that was so vociferous that it ultimately led to a DVD being put out where there was no intention to do so beforehand. A 35th anniversary Blu-ray was released this year, so by all means, check it out: it’s a pretty nifty film. Bakshi’s “Fire and Ice,” released in 1983 and due for a live-action remake by cult filmmaker Richard Rodriguez (“Machete”), is also worth a look, as it marks a collaboration between him and the equally legendary artist Frank Frazetta.
Another film that may be a matter of personal taste, this was another one I grew up with on VHS, much like “Chitty” and “Bedknobs” and thus, may have more of a personal affinity for. I never hear anyone talk about it, and it doesn’t seem to have been either financially successful or critically so. So, it may just be me- but what are you gonna do? I like what I like, or at least I used to. To be honest, I haven’t seen it in many a moon, but one of these days, I’m gonna track this sucker down, because I remember loving both it and the book it was based on. (I almost included “The Phantom Tollbooth” for the same reasons, but I barely remember that one at all, whereas this one I essentially do.) Whatever the case, it does star James Mason, of “Lolita” fame, so it has that going for it, plus David Tomlinson, of “Bedknobs” and “Mary Poppins” fame as well, so it can’t be all bad. Not-so-fun-fact: In the book- but not the movie, thank God- the main kid dies! (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why it made such an impression- shades of the similar “The Witches,” a novel by Roald Dahl, which was similarly-changed for the film version- which we’ll see in a future list…)
Quite possibly the most traumatizing film I saw as a kid, I saw this on video. My mom bought it for me because I liked rabbits. Rabbits do not fare too well in this film. ‘Nuff said. Based on the brilliant book by Richard Adams, this remains one of my all-time favorite books and movies. Disney, this animated film is not, to say the least. Sure, Disney is notorious for killing off some of its critters, but you don’t tend to see it on screen. Oh, and it’s not just one critter, I might add- it’s a whole bunch. We’re talking bunnies by the bunches, especially in the climatic throw-down, which “The Walking Dead” has nothing on.
Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but trust me, the ten-year old me was not prepared for this one. (Though the bird-brain Kehaar always helps: “I go to Beeeg Water!”) At the same time, I can hardly think of a film that handles death better insofar as kids are concerned, especially in the tear-jerking sequence at the end with Hazel. To this day, I can’t hear that damned “Bright Eyes” song by Art Garfunkel without tearing up. The rabbit origin story at the beginning is pretty nifty, too. Hey, even rabbits deserve a mythos. This is that movie, and boy, is it great. Just watch out for General Woundwort- he’s still out there, I just know it!
Okay, this is the last animated one on the list this time out, I promise. It’s a doozy, though. If “Watership Down” traumatized me a bit, then this one awakened other things within, if you know what I mean and if you’ve seen this, you probably do. Based on the comic-driven magazine of the same name- still going strong after all these years- and probably the first graphic novel I ever read (albeit featuring more than one story- I had the adaptation once upon a time and wish I still did- eBay, where you at?), don’t confuse the name with the music.
Although the soundtrack is pretty awesome, too, and does indeed feature some metal on it, with Black Sabbath especially put to good use in the film. Granted, the film is plenty flawed, with the artwork and storylines wildly varying in quality and content alike, but this is one I give a pass to across the board, regardless. I freaking loved this as a kid, and even better, it was animated, so my mom didn’t have a clue what was going on in it, as she would pop in a video and leave me be. In case you’re not familiar, this is even less one for the kids, as both the movie and magazine are notorious for heavy doses of sex and violence, not metal. The voice cast is aces, too, with John Candy (“Stripes”), Eugene Levy (“American Pie”), and Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters”), among others. The episode called “B-17” is written by “Alien” and “Return of the Living Dead”-scribe Dan O’Bannon and features zombies on a plane- sweet! “So Beautiful So Dangerous” features coke-snorting aliens, “Harry Canyon” is a “Blade Runner”-ish future Film Noir, and my fave has to be the last main story, “Taarna” about a bad-ass, big bird-riding. bodacious babe that lays waste to an army of folks.
If I had but one cosplay dream that I could make a reality, it would be to see my future girlfriend in a Taarna outfit- forget Leia’s slave girl attire. Any takers, ladies? Christmas is just around the corner, after all.
This one presaged all of that stuff that’s all the rage these last few years- you know the stuff I mean, shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Spartacus” and, of course, “Camelot.” In other words, classic tales retold with a hefty dose of sex and violence. This one my parents were wise to, and so they secured me the “PG” version- for shame! Imagine my surprise when I got it on DVD and was like, what the what? Needless to say, you’re gonna want to get the “R-rated” version, which is a whopping 21 minutes longer. Even better, you get to see Helen Mirren in her heyday- not that she looks too shabby nowadays. Put this and the unrated, uncut version of “Caligula” on (accept no substitutes, there’s lots of shortened versions out there)- which is to the new version of “Spartacus” what “Excalibur” is to “Camelot”- and you’ve got yourself one hell of a Mirren double dose.
Here she plays the evil Morgana, a witch that stirs up trouble for King Arthur and Co. Nicol Williamson plays a superb Merlin and Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Ciaran Hinds and Patrick Stewart crop up in early roles, too. Critically derided at the time, the film proved highly influential to the aforementioned shows, as well as many other such films which piled up in the wake of its moderate commercial success, which put aside its visual splendor in exchange for lower budgets and even more sex and violence- but this is the best of the bunch, by far.
Nudity and Disney: not two things you often hear together in the same breath, but this film- somewhat notoriously- marked the first Disney production to feature it, as well as more graphic violence, for whatever that’s worth. I’d blame “Excalibur,” but this was the same year. Paramount co-produced, for the record, which took a little of the heat off Disney (as did the “PG” rating); and the film was released as a wholly Paramount production in the US for those reasons. It also directly led to the formation of Touchstone Pictures, which freed Disney to go nuts on those fronts, which they promptly did with the even more family-friendly “Splash,” which also featured some nudity, albeit less controversially so- though, last I checked, you didn’t see Ariel’s headlights in “The Little Mermaid.”
Anyway, this is a fantastic film, with one of the best dragons you’ll ever see. How awesome is it? Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy”) cited it as his favorite live-action dragon ever, as did no less an authority than George R. R. Martin- perhaps you know him from “Game of Thrones”? (He also ranks the film itself as his fifth-fave fantasy flick of all time- not too shabby, that.) A commercial failure at the time, and another critical failure (though it’s fared better on “Rotten Tomatoes”), this one has attained cult status over the years. I loved it from the time I saw it, and still do. If you’re a fantasy fan and love “LOTR,” and you haven’t seen this, it should be the one must-see on this list.
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, as it was both a commercial and critical success, so call it an even fifteen if you like and forget this one, if you must- call it a bonus feature. Still, it’s old enough that I would be remiss if I didn’t bring it up to possible neophytes. From the ever-demented mind of former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, this was made while the comedic troupe was still together and retains a lot of that wacky sense of humor, plus appearances from MP vets John Cleese (as Robin Hood!) and Michael Palin (who also co-wrote). Also along for the ride are such greats as Sean Connery, Ralph Richardson, Jim Broadbent, David Warner (as Evil, but of course), and Ian Holm (also from the “LOTR” trilogy and “The Hobbit”- he’s the older version of Bilbo). All this, plus more little people than you can shake a stick at, though I wouldn’t recommend that course of action with this lot. I loved this as a kid, and though it’s a bit scary at times, it’s not nearly as trauma-inducing as some of the films on this list. Fun fact: Beatle George Harrison put up some of the money for the film, being a huge Python fan. Good on ya, George- money well spent, indeed.
Well, that does it for part one! Join me for the next installment before too long, and see you at “The Hobbit”! Save a seat for me!