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25 Fantasy Films of the 80's – Part I

27 Sep

Frank Frazetta's Conan of Cimmeria

It’s been very busy in the world of Hollywood news since last spring.  Particularly, the world of Fantasy Films has been ripe with news and proclamations since the spring flowers began to bloom.  We had wonderful announcements regarding classic sword and sorcery staples such as Conan of Cimmeria returning to the screen (ConanMovieBlog.com) and rumors of attempts to bring Flash Gordon back to the big screen.  There was even the pronouncement on May 10, 2001 that one of the masters of fantasy art, Frank Frazetta, had passed away (NY Times article).

Frazetta's Buck Rogers

The news of Frazetta passing saddened many fans of the genre the world over.  From his beautiful paintings of Buck Rogers, and his fantastical portrayals of Amazonian Jungle Women, to his barbaric depictions of Conan and Tarzan wrestling with the most ghastly of creatures, the imaginative portrayals of fantasy’s biggest characters inspired many to delve into the world of fantasy fiction themselves.

The 80’s saw many of these characters, and more importantly, this genre of fantasy/sword and sorcery, brought to life in a slew of feature films.  In fact, Frazetta himself, along with famed filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, worked on an animated feature, “Fire and Ice”, which itself was responsible for inspiring future filmmakers, such as Robert Rodriquez (who himself announced days after Frazetta’s death that he is going to remake the film (www.aintitcoolnews.com)).

Frazetta's Tarzan

Frazetta's Sheena-like Jungle Queen

Because of all this news, I’ve decided to bring to the masses my personal reviews of 25 Fantasy Films of the 80’s, in a 5 part blog (all of this leading up to the 31 Days of Howl-oween!).  There are some true gems, as well as some steaming piles.  I hope you enjoy the posts, and let me know your thoughts (as well as any I may have missed!).

25 Fantasy Films of the 80’s

Part I

Film #1

~ Hawk the Slayer~

Director:  Terry Marcel
Year:  1980
Cast:  Jack Palance, John Terry, Bernard Bresslaw, Ray Charleson, Peter O’Farrell, William Morgan Sheppard
Language:  English
Country:  United Kingdom
Specs:  90 mins. / Color / OAR 1.85:1 / MPAA Rating: PG

Voltan (Palance), evil older brother to Hawk (Terry) kills their father for refusing to give him a magical sword.  When he then raids a convent and kidnaps a nun (Crosbie), Hawk recruits a ragtag group of warriors, including an elf, a giant, and a dwarf, to try to stop him.  In possession of the sword and its powerful amulet orb, Hawk engages in a battle of good vs. evil, and brother vs. brother.

To begin, this film features 80’s synth music at its “best” (is there a symbol for sarcasm?).  This British sword and sorcery tale is not to be confused with an episode of “Dr. Who”, though it is of the same video quality and cheesy effects as the esteemed Dr. is known for.  At times, it is unclear if this kooky film were intended to be a spoof of the sword and sorcery genre, or it simply came across that way.  Matte paintings that are noticeably obvious, edits that are so horrendous it appeared my scratch-free DVD had gouges deeper than the Grand Canyon many times throughout the film, and character acting that makes even the looniest of Terry Gilliam films seem like chef-d’oeuvre.  The obvious reuse of footage is droll, as is the most basic of sets and costumes.  The hammy acting is either enjoyable or excruciating to watch (the robotic performance of the elf character is case in point), for reasons I’m certain the filmmakers never intended.

In fact, the film is so memorable for its corny production, it has been spoofed and/or mentioned in other productions, such as the wonderful British show “Spaced”, from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

No question, this film is one I’ll never forget.  Sadly, it is for all the wrong reasons.

My Rating** / D+

Available from Amazon: Hawk the Slayer

Film #2

~ Tarzan, the Ape Man~

Director:  John Derek
Year:  1981
Cast:  Bo Derek, Richard Harris, Miles O’Keefe
Language:  English
Country:  United States
Specs:  107 mins. / Color / OAR 1.85:1 / MPAA Rating: R

Jane Parker (Derek) visits her estranged father James (Harris) on an expedition for the mythical “white ape” in the jungles of Africa.  They learn that the beast is actually Tarzan (O’Keefe), a beastly man of the jungle raised by apes.  As the expedition seeks to track and capture Tarzan, Jane is kidnapped by the “Lord of the Jungle”, where she introduces him to a world of sexual experience, and decides to protect him from her maniacal father.  Once Jane is captured by a leading tribe to be the sex slave to its tribal leader, Tarzan must seek out and rescue his mate and protector.

The only cool thing about this film was the opening card of Bo Derek’s “Jane”, beautifully painted by Frazetta.  Sadly, this is a very very strange film from start to finish.  For starters, James Parker does little more than run around screaming at the top of his crazy minded lungs the entire film, to the point of utter annoyance (especially given the stifling of the 2x Oscar nominated actor.)  The dialogue he is given, as well as the rest of the cast, is arguably the most hackneyed dribble every captured on film.  The actions of the characters are just plain silly and uninspired in every way (Jane “falls” off the dock into the water, Jane strips naked any chance she can get, the photographer “falls” off the dock into the water, Jane strips naked even more, Jane wrestles topless with an orangutan, Jane gets naked yet again).

Direction of the film is equally puzzling.  Common with many productions found on the local cable access, there is an abundance of strange video toaster wipes and star zooms, apparently to pay homage to the serials of long ago.  Adding to that already bungling editorial decision, there is the use of slow motion EVERY time Tarzan swings through the air, the 3 MINUTE slow motion dissolving mess that is the snake wrestling scene, the absolutely dreadful framing (Harris is “mourning” the death of his ex-wife he “hated” in what is supposed to be a pivotal point to his character, while the framing of his face is obscured by a piece of cloth hanging from the tent!”)

Simply put, I am amazed at how this film got made, other than the pitch must have been “Bo Derek standing, bathing, and running topless through visually stunning landscapes”.

The Gap Band said it best.  BOMB.

My Rating* / F

Available from Amazon: Tarzan, The Ape Man
or Amazon Video on Demand: Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)

Film #3

~ Clash of the Titans~

Director:  Desmond Davis
Year:  1981
Cast:  Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith
Language:  English
Country:  United States
Specs:  118 mins. / Color / OAR 1.85:1 / MPAA Rating: PG

Perseus (Hamlin), son of Zeus (Olivier), is smitten with Princess Andromeda (Bowker) of the kingdom of Joppa.  Once she is kidnapped by Calibos (Neil McCarthy), the jealous son of a fellow god, Perseus, along with winged horse Pegasus as his steed, undertakes a series of perilous quests, where he must answer puzzling riddles, slay the beast Medusa, and destroy the Kraken, the beast controlled by Poseidon, god of the sea, before she becomes another of the monsters sacrificial vestal virgins.

What can be said of Ray Harryhausen’s work in any film?  Simply put, one word can be used to describe it.  Spectacular!  This film based on ancient Greek Mythology (with some liberties taken, natch) is a wonderful tale of monsters, creatures, fables, and flying horses.  While some of the acting is rather stale and one dimensional (does Perseus have any emotions?), the story is engrossing and stimulating, enhanced by the wonderful creature effects of the talented Mr. Harryhausen.

As I’ve written before, if certain elements of a film lend to the character development in an intelligent way, or propel the story forward in a way that excising the scene would impede, I have little problem.  Unfortunately, this film is hurt in a number of scenes by what amounts to little more than unneeded, gratuitous, and perplexing additions.  The opening montage of Perseus as a boy and his mother features a topless shot of her and a full rear nude shot of her walking down the beach, sadly completely out of place and unneeded.  There is a brief side topless shot and full rear nude shot of Andromeda getting out of a bath in preparation for her virginal sacrifice at the end of the film, which is equally as out of place, taking the film completely out of the realm of viewing for children (which otherwise feels like a film to whom it is geared).  A few lines about virginity and a graphic scene of a man being burned at the stake round out the only other content that may be too much for younger viewers.

It is without question that the film holds up well after nearly 20 years.  The costuming, the sets, and as mentioned, the special effects are wonderful, lending a realm of believability to this film.  A treat and joy to watch, with the exceptions of the previously mentioned content.

My Rating **** / B

Available from Amazon: Clash of the Titans [Blu-ray]
or Amazon Video on Demand: Clash of the Titans

Film #4

~ Dragonslayer~

Director:  Matthew Robbins
Year:  1981
Cast:  Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam
Language:  English
Country:  United States
Specs:  109 mins. / Color / OAR 2.20:1 / MPAA Rating: PG

Young magicians apprentice Galen Bradwarden (MacNicol), after witnessing the murder of his master, Ulrich (Richardson), takes on a quest to slay the evil dragon Vermithrax Pejorative, thus ending the yearly ritual of sacrificing an unsuspecting virgin to the fire breathing beast.  Standing in his way is the pacifist monarch, who captures and confiscates Galen’s magic amulet.  Once the kings own daughter is chosen to be the next sacrifice, Galen determines to steal back his amulet and rescue the princess while completing his initial crusade.

Upon this films opening scene, I commented to myself how wonderful the sound was.  I wrote down in my notepad how this film, just minutes in, was proof how sound can propel a film into excellence on it’s own merits (not that this film needed the help).  It came as little surprise at the end of the film to see just why the films sound was so spectacular (I’ll get to the rest of the aspects of the film in a moment).  Francis Ford Coppola.  Not his name, per se, but his company, American Zoetrope. Coppola was an ardent fan of sound, and recognized the importance of it himself.  He in fact pushed his protégé, George Lucas, to embrace this fact on his first directorial efforts (“THX-1138”, and of course, “Star Wars”).  Simply stated, Zoetrope delivered in this film.  The cavernous echos, the dragons breathing in before he delivers his scorching flame, even the footsteps on the rocks are all excellently mixed and recorded, delivering a true gratifying experience to the senses.

The epic tale was so spectacularly photographed, so beautifully scored, and so amazingly realized through the wonderful work of Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren, that it is no wonder how it garnered so many award nominations upon its initial release.  The “go-motion” developed by Tippett and Lucas’ ILM is spectacular, and puts to shame any modern CG effects that surely would be used to create the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative were it to be remade today.

The film is said to be the first from Disney to feature nudity (a partial and very brief shot of a rear-end and breast under water), and violence of the nature it is seen here (some baby dragons eat the body of one of their victims).  However, to label this film with such fanfare is unjust, as the film is one of the tamest sword and sorcery fantasy tales of it’s era.  The film was a joint effort by Disney and Paramount (noteworthy that just a few years after this films release, second in command at Paramount, Michael Eisner, would become CEO at Disney).

While the film did not earn back its budget on its initial release, it surely has and will continue to on the many forms of home entertainment for years to come.  A true gem of a film.

I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t announced their plans to remake this film.  Hmmm….

My Rating***** / A

Available from Amazon: Dragonslayer: When Dragons Were Real
or Amazon Video on Demand: Dragonslayer

Film #5

~ The Sword and the Sorcerer~

Director:  Albert Pyun
Year:  1982
Cast:  Lee Horsley, Richard Lynch, Richard Moll, Kathleen Beller
Language:  English
Country:  United States
Specs:  100 mins. / Color / OAR 1.85:1 / MPAA Rating: R

Eleven years after King Cromwell (Lynch) summons and betrays the evil demonic sorcerer Xusia (Moll) in his quest to seize the distant land of Ehdan, lone Ehdanian survivor Prince Talon (Horsley) returns from hiding to avenge his fathers death.  Armed with a special three-bladed sword bequeathed to him by his father, the King of Ehdan, and accompanied by a rag tag group of mercenaries, Talon races to face Cromwell to the death, while concurrently a long dormant Xusia plots his revenge from his underground lair.

Such an interesting title (and poster) wasted on such a stinker of a film.  The film is so cheesy, I’m tempted to compare it to a box of Kraft Cheesier Macaroni.

The acting in this tawdry flick is worthy of the D-list.  The story, directing, and special effects don’t fare much better, if at all.  For starters, we are treated to graphic gore that is so over-the-top unbelievable, the original “Friday the 13th” film looks like a masterpiece in comparison.  Furthermore, the wire-fu in this film is so out of place, unrealistic, and poorly executed the Shaw Brothers must be spinning in their 5 Deadly Graves.  Couple that with the dialogue given the actors (which would easily have made Robert De Niro look bad), the choreography of fight scenes straight from an episode of “Knight Rider”, the comical elements, sound effects, and musical score more befitting of an episode of “Voyagers!”, and the blatant attempts to model the character of Talon off of a cross between Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (or Nathan Fillion’s Mal (“Firefly”)) and Indiana Jones, and you have yourself an accurate description of this “Mystery Science Theater” fodder.

The worst (head scratchingly) part of this film is the odd crucifixion scene, where we are witness to the most spectacular of recoveries ever caught on film.  SPOILER ALERT:  Talon, having hung on a “cross” for the length of a wedding feast/wedding, suddenly yanks his hands off the contraption, nails and all, whereupon he grabs a sword, fights the most comically intense battle (the climax of the film here), jumps up one floor onto a balcony from a standing position, and nearly single handedly saves the day by destroying the demon and the evil king, all the while finding time to “bed” the heroin as a reward.   Classic.

To think a sequel was planned (and teased in the end credits)!  I only hope the stated revisiting of those plans (www.aintitcoolnews.com) is ostensible at best.

If that happens before the long delayed “Hobbit”, Xusia help us all.

My Rating: ** / D

Available from Amazon: The Sword and the Sorcerer

To Be Continued…

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Posted by on September 27, 2010 in Movies

 

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