The 17 Most Underrated Fantasy Films, Part Two (1982-88)
It’s been a long time coming, but I’m back with the second installment of my favorite underrated fantasy films list. (Check out list number one here.)This one covers the bulk of the 80’s- the heyday of my childhood, for the most part. That means these films in particular are the ones I hold most near and dear, having grown up with them pretty much always in my life. I’ll allow that some of them are a little on the cheesy side, but come on, we all have our guilty pleasures. So, without further ado, I bring you my fave fantasy films from 1982-88!
Holy crap, do I love this one. It’s by one of my favorite genre directors, Don Coscarelli, best known for the “Phantasm” series, “Bubba Ho-Tep” and the more recent “John Dies at the End,” all of which are equally awesome. This one has a great B-movie cast, including erstwhile “Charlie’s Angel” and Bond Girl Tanya Roberts, who instilled in me a love of redheads that lasted to this day; Rip Torn (“30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show”), Marc Singer (the original “V” series) and John Amos (“The West Wing”). But, of course, the real scene-stealers were the animals, particularly those two ferrets, which if I recall correctly, were named Cheech and Chong! This one was a mainstay on cable, spawned two sequels and a TV series, but was only a modest box office success, all things considered. Think “Conan the Barbarian”-meets-“Dr. Doolittle” and you’ve basically got the premise. It’s silly but fun, with a surprising amount of violence and nudity for a PG film. Those were the days.
AKA the movie in which Muppets gave you nightmares. Yep, none other than Jim Henson and Frank Oz teamed up for this epic fantasy film, with designs by famed illustrator Brian Froud. It’s kind of like “Lord of the Rings”-lite, but it’s still pretty engaging, thanks in no small part to those puppets, which are incredible. The scary ones are the Skeksis, who use the power of the titular crystal to stay immortal, while the wizards known as Mystics try to keep them in check. If the elfin Jen can find a hidden shard of the crystal before the Skeksis do, he can stop their reign of terror. I loved the little fuzzy mascot, Fizzgig as a kid, and named a pet after it. It’s kind of like a more manageable “Critter,” but cuter. Visually stunning, the same team also worked on #13 together, so those films would make for a nice double feature.
A more adult-oriented fantasy film, this one was more in the “Excalibur” and “Conan” mode than the previous films on the list, which means it was much more violent and R-rated, so it’s probably not for the faint of heart. The special effects still hold up pretty well, and the lead actress, Kathleen Beller (on “Dynasty” at the time) is lovely. The cast is not well known to modern audiences, but does feature two cult movie regulars, perennial bad guy Richard Lynch (“Bad Dreams,” the “Halloween” remake) and super-tall Richard Moll (“Ghost Shark,” “Scary Movie 2”). Both are great in this, and dig that three-bladed sword! If you like your fantasy a bit more hard-edged, you’ll want to see this, and maybe check out “Deathstalker,” “Ator” and “Hawk the Slayer” as well, if you can find them.
Speaking of wacky-bladed weapons, this one is known best for its spinning Chinese Star-like device, which is a big, metal, multi-pronged thingee that sprouts blades on each strand and is called a “Glaive.” It’s kind of like an “Excalibur”-type movie, but with sci-fi trimmings. A prince and princess from rival kingdoms plan to marry to join forces to combat the evil “Beast” and his army of “Slayers” who zip around in their spaceship the mountain-like “Black Fortress,” making it hard for the land-bound residents of the titular Krull to defeat them. Unfortunately, the wedding is attacked (sound familiar, “GOT” fans?) before the nuptials are finished and the princess kidnapped. The only survivor is the prince, who must rescue her and save his planet. No pressure. It’s a bit poky at times by today’s standards, and plays like an art-house fantasy film, but it’s still pretty influential, and unlike many of the films on this list, has a fairly well-known cast, including Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” films), Ken Marshall (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), Freddie Jones (most of David Lynch’s films, including the also-underrated “Dune”), and Lysette Anthony (“Dracula: Dead and Loving It”). The director is Peter Yates, best known for “Bullitt,” “The Deep” and “Breaking Away.”
Making her second appearance on this list, Tanya Roberts stars as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, based on the comic book of the same name. It bombed big time in its day and got nominated for a bunch of Golden Raspberry Awards, but it’s a hoot and a half for bad movie lovers, thanks to an unintentionally hilarious script and some florid performances from…well, pretty much everyone, really. Like “The Beastmaster,” it was pretty risqué for a PG film, with Roberts once again doing the honors, this time as a blonde. Only here, she’s the one who “talks” to the animals, including riding around on her trusty zebra! It’s ridiculous but a lot of fun, and boy, did I love this one as a kid, too. It hasn’t aged well, but the on-location shooting in Africa helps and animal lovers will dig it. Definitely would make for a good double feature with “Beastmaster.”
An early film from Neil Jordan, of “The Crying Game” and “Interview with the Vampire,” this is a variation of the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale, only better than the more recent “Red Riding Hood.” Combining the basic structure of “Alice in Wonderland” and incorporating other fairy tales, the film features a whole lot of freaky dream sequences that will stick with you. Grandma is played by none other than “Murder, She Wrote”-star Angela Lansbury, and also features “Crying Game”-star Stephen Rea, genre favorite David Warner (“The Omen,” “Time Bandits”), and the lovely Sarah Patterson in the “Red” role, who also went on to play “Snow White” in a movie of the same name. The effects are stunning, and the visuals are arresting. It’s sort of like an adult fairy tale, with a sexy, more violent spin than the genre usually gets. It kind of plays like an anthology, with a series of stories incorporated within the main familiar tale. If you like edgier takes on fairy tales, you’ll eat this up- no pun intended.
Though it deviates considerably from the novel it was based on by Michael Eade (who sued to halt production and lost, obviously), this is still a much-beloved fantasy flick that kids will enjoy considerably, as I did myself back in the day. It spawned two sequels, which I can’t vouch for, but this one is engaging and unique. Part of it comes from the fact that it was a German production- in fact, it was the most expensive non-US film ever made at the time. It’s also director Wolfgang Peterson’s first English language film, who went on to make such hits as “Outbreak,” “Air Force One” and “The Perfect Storm,” among others. Famed musician Giorgio Moroder, best-known for his work with Donna Summer, did the hit theme song, with vocals by Limahl, of 80s one-hit-wonder band Kajagoogoo (“Too Shy”). It was also covered by New Found Glory more recently, if the title sounds familiar. Most people remember the furry flying and talking beast that the main protagonist rides on, if they remember it at all. It’s a cute, innocuous flick that holds up well, thanks in no small part to the unique, foreign feel of the film, which helps immeasurably.
One of Disney’s darkest animated films, this one tanked big time back in the day, and is widely considered one of their biggest flops. A notoriously troubled production, it was heavily edited, and its release was delayed for six months while extensive retooling occurred. The end result is a bit compromised and toned down from the filmmakers’ original intent, but it’s still worth a look as a bit of an anomaly in the Disney canon that could have been an edgier route for them in the time their animation division was flagging (they would later bounce back in ’89, with “The Little Mermaid”). It was the first Disney animated feature to get a PG rating, in fact, and it’s still a bit scary, even by Disney standards- mind you, they were notorious for killing parents (“Bambi,” “The Lion King”) and scary sequences (“Snow White,” “Alice in Wonderland”), lest you forget. There are witches and zombies and various other kinds of freaky stuff happening here, and if it doesn’t quite hold up to classic Disney standards, it might just be dark enough to convert some skeptics. If that isn’t enough for you, Tim Burton worked on the film and it’s their first flick to use CGI. I loved the hell out of it, but it’s not for the kiddies, admittedly.
Another film with a name cast, this one was directed by Richard Donner, best known for the first two “Superman” films, the “Lethal Weapon” series, the original “The Omen” and the much-beloved kids’ classic “The Goonies.” This one stars a pre-“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer, then hot off of “Scarface,” and a post-“Blade Runner” Rutger Hauer in the leading roles. The storyline is really neat, as Pfeiffer plays a woman trapped in a hawk’s body by day, while Hauer plays a man trapped in a wolf by night- the victims of a demonic curse cast by a jealous man meant to keep them separated as lovers. With the help of Broderick, who plays a thief saved from execution by Hauer, they seek to kill the man responsible and hopefully break the curse in the process. It’s kind of an old-fashioned sort of movie, so guys might roll their eyes at the more romantic elements, but give it a shot if the plot sounds interesting to you, as it’s a nicely underrated little film.
Another film known to induce nightmares in the kiddies, this one really puts the old adage of “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” to the test. Fairuza Balk (best known as the witchy woman in “The Craft”) plays Dorothy this time out, in this direct sequel to the classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Only when she returns Oz isn’t looking so good, with Emerald City in ruins. It’s up to Dorothy and a new gang of pals- including one named “Tik-Tok,” which should ring a bell for all you Ke$ha fans- to right things. Somebody must have spiked Disney’s punch in the 80s, because between this, “The Black Cauldron,” “The Black Hole,” “Watcher in the Woods” and “Something Wicked this Way Comes” Disney was better known for traumatizing kids than entertaining them! I really like this take on the Oz books, which is visually spectacular and more engaging than generally given credit for, though I’ll allow that the more recent “Oz, the Great and Powerful” was better all around.
I freaking loved this one as a kid, and it’s really underrated all around. Check out this pedigree: it’s directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Blade Runner”); stars a young Tom Cruise, a pre-“Ferris Bueller” Mia Sara, and “Rocky Horror Show”-star Tim Curry as the, ahem, “Lord of Darkness.” Living up to his name, the dark lord is on a mission to kill all the unicorns in the land, and also kidnaps Sara for good measure, who he falls in love with! It’s a little twisted, to be sure, and a bit sexually-charged for a PG film, but then I guess that was de rigueur for the 70s and 80s, which is why the PG-13 rating came about. Tim Curry is fantastic and looks amazing, like the demon from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in “Fantasia” brought to life. Bonus points for the synth-driven Tangerine Dream soundtrack, a big influence on the Electro-clash movement of the late 90s-early 2000s. This might actually be my favorite Tom Cruise film, save maybe “Minority Report.” Hide your unicorns!
The very definition of a cult classic, this wacked-out flick bombed in theaters but has become a beloved B-movie favorite over the years. The film marked yet another collaboration between the legendary John Carpenter (“Halloween”) and fave star Kurt Russell, with whom he did the justly celebrated “The Thing” remake and “Escape from New York” previously. It’s a bizarre homage to Asian fantasy flicks that audiences didn’t know what to make of at the time. It may stick out like a sore thumb in the Carpenter canon, but it’s a lot of fun if you forget about the films he’s better known for and just enjoy the ride. The effects are wonderfully imaginative, and the largely Asian cast features a lot of familiar faces for fans of Eastern cinema, like James Hong (“Blade Runner” and Victor Wong (“The Last Emperor”), plus a pre-“Sex and the City” Kim Cattrall. It’s awesome.
Another film featuring freaky Muppets, this also has a creeper after a young girl, a la “Legend.” In this case, it’s no less than David Bowie, who also performs some songs in the movie, with the girl played by a young Jennifer Connelly. As with “The Dark Crystal,” Brian Froud designed a lot of the creatures, so this would be a perfect double feature with that film. Not as dark as “Crystal,” the movie nonetheless freaked out more than a few youngsters back in the day. I think it’s even better than “Crystal,” personally, though that film is more ambitious in its vision overall.
Another fantasy flick with Michelle Pfeiffer, this one has her playing a witchy woman alongside no less than Cher and Susan Sarandon, with Jack Nicholson as the man they conjure up to fulfill all their fantasies. (A dubious choice, indeed, granted.) As one might expect, three women sharing one man does not go well, and things go dark fast, ending in a completely mental finale that has to be seen to be believed. Easily the most star-packed film on my list, it was nonetheless not a huge hit, faring better on video than in theaters. The book, by John Updike, is even better. It spawned a short-lived TV show, but it could easily be remade and made more faithful to the book, which also spawned a sequel ripe for adaptation. Nicholson is worth the price of admission, though he sadly outshines the ladies, which is precisely why it should be remade, as it’s the witches of Eastwick, not the guy who’s sleeping with the witches of Eastwick. Also, if you were a woman who could conjure up the man of your dreams, would it really be him? Don’t think so. It’d be like a gender reversal version in which a group of guys conjured up Kristen Stewart. Um, no- just, no. Still, if you can get past that, it’s a lot of fun, and the speech Nicholson gives at the end is right up there with his rant in “The Shining.”
The most obscure film on my list, this bizarre adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” puts Tim Burton’s half-assed version to shame in the weirdness department. Imagine if the people behind those Tool videos with the stop-motion animation did the effects and combined them with a real-life actress deftly interacting with the animated elements surrounding her. It kind of has to be seen to be believed, but check out the trailer for an idea of what to expect. The film was made by a Czechoslovakian director who also did a short film adaptation of writer Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” It’s amazing, if you like that sort of thing. Think those old-school “Rudolph” TV specials or “Nightmare Before Christmas,” only way darker and you’re halfway there.
Though it wasn’t a huge hit at the box office and served as an easy punch-line on the recent Ricky Gervais endeavor “Life’s Too Short,” this team-up between director Ron Howard and George Lucas is well-worth a look for fans of either and fantasy fans in general, though it admittedly isn’t up to their typical standards. But hey, I’d still rather watch it than the first two “Star Wars” prequels. And come on, its diminutive lead Warwick Davis’ bright, shining moment, so it can’t be all bad! (Points off for those who said “Leprechaun” just now- um, no.) It also has Val Kilmer before he started taking himself too seriously- although he was a hoot on “Short” as well, spoofing himself- and another legendary little person, Billy Barty (also in, appropriately enough, “Legend” and “Foul Play”). Co-star Joanne Whalley was such a babe Kilmer had to marry her. It spawned a series of novels sketched out by Lucas and written by hugely-influential comics guy Chris Claremont. It’s a sword and sorcery flick, so if you like that sort of thing, you shouldn’t be disappointed.
Last but definitely not least is what may be my favorite film on this list, and arguably former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam’s most underrated effort to date, and that’s saying something for a guy who’s output includes not only his famed work with that troupe, but “Time Bandits,” “12 Monkeys,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Many of the Pythons appear here, as does a young Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley, plus Oliver Reed and Sting! John Neville of “The X-Files” plays the titular hero, and it’s his finest hour, to be sure. Loaded with imaginative special effects, a nifty framing device, and some great scenes and visuals you won’t soon forget. If you like Python’s quirky sense of humor and Gilliam’s other films, this is a must-see. Honestly, they should just give Gilliam free rein to do whatever he wants by this point, if you ask me. He’s one of the best directors there is and this is one of his best efforts, IMHO.
Well, that does it for round two. Be sure to check out installment number three, coming sometime before the year’s out, and let me know if I left out any of your favorites!