Long before Game of Thrones, there was a time in history when HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s on!” A time when, if you asked for a dragon, you got a puppet instead of CGI. A time when the words “fantasy hero” didn’t call to mind a pensive Viggo Mortenson or a bespectacled Daniel Radcliffe—nay, but a shirtless, bemuscled Arnold Schwarzenegger (or cheaper facsimile) dripping with oil.
I have travelled back to that time to bring forth the Ultimate 1980s Fantasy Epic Ranking List Post! And By Crom, I swear I’ve gotten… most of them. Join me below to celebrate the 1980s fantasy epic, in all of its loincloth-wearing, phallic-sword-waving, secret-wing-unfurling, spandex-bulging, camel-punching glory.
Note: I’ve tried to make this sucker exhaustive, but I’m sure I’ve missed some classics here, so let me know in the comments! Also, this is purely a personal list. These picks in no way represent the opinions of my colleagues at Tor.com, Tor Books, or even my own family. And I’m sorry if The Beastmaster doesn’t rank as high as you think it should, but have you considered that you need professional help?
18. Cave Dwellers (AKA Ator l’invincibile 2, The Blade Master, Day of The Sword Man—1984)
Quote: “Thong, the fish is ready.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: I have watched the MST3K version of this film at least a dozen times, and I still have no idea what it’s about. Miles O’Keeffe is Ator, who is both invincible and a blade master, depending on the translation. He also fights people. Some of them live in caves.
Why It’s Number Eighteen: It was made to capitalize on the post-Conan fantasy boom, and found it’s fullest expression as an MST3K episode.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? ’80s! It sounds like a Casio.
Do We Hear a Single? Gosh I hope not.
How About Video? I’m pretty sure the whole film was shot on video.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Joel and The Bots! But they’re not awkward.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Ator makes a hang-glider!
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? “After the time of the Great Forming, there was a time when the world was populated by wild, cruel, and ignorant men.”
Does Love Conquer All? Sure? I don’t know.
17. Krull (1983)
Quote: “Do not use it until you need it.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Colwyn is supposed to marry Princess Lyssa, but she gets kidnapped by an evil shapeshifting Kraken, so he and his Glaive go on a quest to find her, collecting Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson, a blind seer, a cyclops, and a magician who can turn into a tiger along the way. This film has one truly great scene, when Colwyn’s mentor has to climb into a giant spiderweb to ask for a favor from his ex.
Why It’s Number Seventeen: What this movie’s actually about is the Glaive, but it only gets like ten minutes of screentime. This film was developed as a starring vehicle for the Glaive, the five-bladed boomerang-like weapon wielded by the hero. Unfortunately, the Glaive’s career never really took off: After one too many brawls at the Viper Room, and one two many sunrises spent waking up on the lawns of strangers, the weapon checked itself into a much-needed stint at Hazelden. Deciding that the Hollywood lifestyle just wasn’t enough to fill the void in its soul, the Glaive finally retired to Oregon, where it raises alpacas, and is said to be very happy.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Epic! Also, weirdly reminiscent of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Do We Hear a Single? Nope! Too busy being epic.
How About a Video? Same.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Ergo the Magician, who turns himself into a variety of animals.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? See above.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? We get a standard prophecy about a child who will rule the galaxy.
Does Love Conquer All? The Glaive conquers all. But yeah, love and stuff, I guess.
16. Highlander (1986)
Quotes: “I know! I know everything! I am everything! Oh oh. Oh. Oh. Unh.”
Oh, yeah, and of course: “There can be only one.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: There can be only one! Connor McLeod discovers he’s an Immortal in 16th-century Scotland. Since eventually There Can Be Only One Immortal, he needs to decapitate all the others in order to gain their power and win The Prize. The film skirts around this by supplying The Kurgan, an evil Immortal, who helpfully kills everyone off so that Connor can look like a good guy, instead of killing his friends one by one. Sean Connery shows up as a 2,000-year-old Egyptian dude who spent a few centuries in Spain, goes by the name Ramirez, wields a Japanese sword, and speaks with a Scottish accent. Just go with it.
Why It’s Number Sixteen: Do you want a hero who dresses like your mom? Connor McLeod’s sensible white sneakers and high-waisted, lightwash jeans will be perfect for a trip to the mall… or a decapitation in the mall’s parking lot! Do you also love casual misogyny, homophobia, and rape? Cause you get a lot of that in this film! In the plus column, a cop tells McLeod, “Don’t move pal. Don’t even breathe,” which I’m pretty sure actors were legally required to stop saying at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1989.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Oh, sweet lord, ’80s ’80s ’80s. The soundtrack is by QUEEN, suckers. Here We Are, the Princes of the Universe.
Do We Hear a Single? Several! But probably the best is “Who Wants to Live Forever.”
How About a Video? Of course!
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? There’s a scene where The Kurgan licks a priest?
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Much is made of Ramirez’s Japanese sword—the metal was folded 200 times!—but it isn’t magic or anything.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Both! Sean Connery reads us the opening card that explains who the Immortals are, and then we spend about half of the film in 1980s New York.
Does Love Conquer All? Love mostly makes you miserable when you know you’re going to outlive all of your girlfriends.
15. Masters of the Universe (1987)
Quote: “Don’t say goodbye. Say Good Journey.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: He-Man and friends gets zapped to Earth because of a magical synthesizer. I don’t know. Once they get here, they battle Skeletor with some help from a young Courteney Cox and her be-mulleted boyfriend Kevin, who went on to become Tom Paris on Star Trek: Voyager.
Why It’s Number Fifteen: Skeletor calls Earth “primitive and tasteless.” Teelah sounds like she’s been gargling with razor blades, and Dolph Lundgren sounds like… Dolph Lundgren. But even under his ridiculous rubber mask, Frank Langella makes a compelling and charismatic Skeletor, and Evil-Lyn, as always, is unbearably hot. Oh, and stay until the end of the credits! There’s a stinger!
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Epic! It sounds like a bunch of medieval heralds got free rein over a film score for the first time, and they are NOT going to waste their opportunity.
Do we Hear a Single? Honestly I was expecting a screechy high-pitched heavy metal song over the credits, but apparently they didn’t want to encroach on the glories of heraldry. It sounds like a king is being announced for five full minutes!
How About a Video? Sadly, no.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Say hi to Gwildor, everybody! He’s a troll-like engineer played by Billy Barty, and he’s here to fill this movie’s Orko-shaped hole.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Yeah! It’s the sword that allows He-man to HAAAAVE THE POWERRRRRR.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Both! We hear all about He-Man struggles in Eternia, and then we head over to small-town ’80s America.
Does Love Conquer All? Well, first He-Man’s refusal to bow to tyranny does, but then Courteney Cox decides to stay with her boyfriend, and is able to save her parents.
14. The Black Cauldron (1985)
Quote: “Oh, poor miserable Gurgi deserves fierce smackings and whackings on his poor, tender head. Always left with no munchings and crunchings.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: The Horned King wants to use the Black Cauldron to raise an unstoppable arm of the undead. It’s up to Assistant-Pig-Keeper Taran, Princess Eilonwy, wacky bard Fflewdurr Fflam, and terrifying liminal creature Gurgi to stop him!
Why It’s Number Fourteen: Based on the first two books of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, this was Disney trying to do something different. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. As you can see from the above quotes, the tone of this film ranges from nigh-Jar-Jar levels of annoying childish humor all the way to nigh-Sauron levels of evil, often within a single scene.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? EPIC! This was Elmer Bernstein’s score, and it’s great.
Do We Hear a Single? Nope. This isn’t one of those types of Disney movies.
How About a Video? Again nope, which is just as well.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Gurgi, Fflewdur Flam, Doli, the weird goblin sidekick… Half the movie is comic relief, and all of it’s awkward.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? The magic Sword, named Dyrnwyn in the books and unnamed in the movie; Eilonwy’s bauble, which has unspecified powers and then disappears from the film; the Cauldron itself, which can turn corpses into unstoppable killing machines, which is a handy trick.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? “Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil, that even the Gods feared him. Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron. There his demonic spirit was captured in the form of a great, black cauldron. For uncounted centuries, the black cauldron lay hidden, waiting, while evil men searched for it, knowing whoever possessed it would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors… and with them, rule the world.”
Does Love Conquer All? Well, there is a completely nonsensical resurrection that goes against the film’s internal logic and is never explained, so… I guess Love Did It?
13. The Beastmaster (1982)
Quote: Dar: “We will fight!” [lifts his ferrets triumphantly]
Tell Us About Your Quest: This movie is surprisingly complicated, but here’s the short version: The Beastmaster goes on a quest to defeat Rip Torn, a cult leader who is literally named Maax, which is just Max with an extra ‘a’ in it. Maax keeps chucking children into ceremonial fire in the name of a god who is literally named Ar. Ar. Along the way, he collects a posse of wild animals, a love interest who is his cousin, a young prince, and John Amos in a loincloth, and earns the respect of these terrifying bat creatures that digest people with their wings.
Why It’s Number Thirteen: How you feel about The Beastmaster will depend largely on how you feel about ferrets. Because, make no mistake here, The Beastmaster is not the hero of this film. He does not defeat the villain. He does not make the heroic sacrifice. You want to know who does? A ferret. The Beastmaster also does not rescue any endangered children from sacrifice, because he lets his eagle do that. He does not protect the prince, because he lets the tiger do all of the real muscle work. He is not The Beastmaster, he’s The Beastdelegator, or maybe The Beastshiftmanager. I will also note that if you care about animal welfare, and also want to enjoy this film, do not look at the IMDb’s trivia page.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Epic! They used an Italian orchestra and everything!
Do We Hear a Single? Alas no, but Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time features the straightforward anthem “I Want to be a Hero.” The sequel came out in 1991, and sends The Beastmaster to modern-day Los Angeles!
How About a Video? A deliciously fan-made one, yes.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Podo and Kodo!
How’s Your Local Evil Cult Leader Doing? Rip Torn is second only to James Earl Jones when it comes to Evil Cult Leading. He sacrifices babies for no reason! His followers commit suicide on command! He has a quintet of hags to do spells for him, and a creepy eyeball ring that allows him to spy on people! However, let’s remember: He is defeated by ferrets.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? There’s a multi-edged blade that is sort of a cross between a Glaive and a boomerang! The Beastmaster’s adopted dad passes it down him like it’s a big deal, but then he only uses it twice, and then passes he it on to the prince like it’s a big deal.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Neither, but here’s the tagline: “Born with the courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and the power of a god.” It doesn’t specify which god, but presumably not Ar.
Does Love Conquer All? Nope. Ferrets.
12. Excalibur (1981)
Quote: “I was not born to live a man’s life, but to be the stuff of future memory.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: It’s every King Arthur story in one place for easy reference!
Why It’s Number Twelve: Have you heard of an actor from Ireland or England? Yeah, he’s in this movie. So is she. It’s like the ’80s British version of Law and Order. However, it’s very slow, and a lot of the acting is strained at best, so it doesn’t quite work as the epic Arthurian tragedy it wants to be.
Soundtrack: Epic or 80s? EPIC. Carl Orff wasn’t good enough, so they threw some Wagner in there as well.
Do we Hear a Single? Ummm… Oh Fortuna?
How About a Video? Nope.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? No one laughs at Arthur’s mighty sword.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? I’m pretty sure there is… but I can’t seem to remember the name? Hang on, I’m sure it’ll come to me.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Again, there was something about a sword? I don’t know. It’s probably not important.
Does Love Conquer All? Ummm… love destroys everything. EVERYTHING. Way to go, Lancelot and Guinevere.
11. Clash of the Titans (1981)
Quote: “Release the Kraken!”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Perseus must save Zeus’ last winged horse, defeat a Gorgon, and rescue Andromeda from the monstrous Kraken, all while various gods scheme for and against him.
Why It’s Number Eleven: This movie has everything: a mostly-naked Harry Hamlin, a winged horse, and Bubo, the steampunk owl. Ray Harryhausen did the effects (this was his last film), and each new monster is lovingly hand-crafted and unique. The scene where Perseus outwits Medusa is still legitimately frightening. However, as with a few of these films, the hero runs out of steam before the end, and leaves Bubo to do the actual heavy lifting of rescuing Andromeda from the Kraken.
Soundtrack: Epic or 80s? Epic with occasional jauntiness.
Do We Hear a Single? No.
How About a Video? No.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Bubo! Except he isn’t awkward, cause he’s the best.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? The Gorgon’s head!
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? We begin on Olympus, at a council of gods. I think if the gods are saying it, it counts as prophecy.
Does Love Conquer All? Love, with a little help from Medusa and a clockwork owl.
10. Legend (1985)
Quote: “You think you have won! What is light without dark? What are you without me? I am a part of you all. You can never defeat me. We are brothers eternal!”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Jack, a child of the forest, has to rescue Princess Lily from what appears to be the Judeo-Christian Devil, while also restoring two unicorns to life. Otherwise, the land will remain in frozen darkness forever.
Why It’s Number Ten: Should I be worried that I’m more interested in the love story between Lily and the Devil than Lily and Jack? It’s just, the Devil makes some really solid points, and I think he and Lily make a fabulous couple. Tom Cruise and Mia Sara act by letting their mouths fall open and occasionally panting, which is weird, but it makes them kind of endearing in the same way my dog is when she wants to go for a walk. The unicorns are GREAT, though, and Tim Curry is amazing as the Devil. Lily, our virtuous heroine, is wooed to the Dark Side because an Alexander McQueen mannequin interpretive dances at her. There is a lot of subtext in this film, and I don’t understand it, but I think maybe Ridley Scott wanted evil to win?
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? It’s Tangerine Dream, it sounds like pseudo-medieval British Christmas music, and it’s desperately ’80s.
Do We Hear a Single? Bryan Ferry wants to know, “Is Your Love Strong Enough?”
How About a Video? Oh, yes. Yes there is.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Other than Tom Cruise’s acting? Three goblins named Blix, Blunder, and Pox. They live up to their names.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Lily’s ring, Unicorn horn, Tim Curry’s Satanic Existentialism.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Neither! We just get dropped straight into the magical forest.
Does Love Conquer All? Multiple times! Jack doesn’t shoot Lily, despite her evil appearance; Lily frees the unicorn, despite the Devil’s wrath; Jack defeats the Devil, probably because he loves Lily so much.
9. Willow (1988)
Sorsha: What are you looking at?
Madmartigan: Your leg. I’d like to break it.
Tell Us About Your Quest: Willow has to save little Ellora Danan from the evil witch-queen’s infanticide. Along the way he picks up a crazy swordsman, a sorceress, and a warrior princess, and learns to have confidence in himself.
Why It’s Number Nine: So, the good news: Warwick Davis is charming as hell playing Willow. And Val Kilmer embodies insanity well, so Madmartigan is totally convincing. Plus, Ron Howard found the most charismatic babies ever to play Ellora. Unfortunately, since the film feels like a pastiche of other, superior films, it loses a lot of steam once Willow sets out on his quest. You’ve got Madmartigan standing in for Han Solo and Sorsha doing a great Princess Leia; two elderly magic-users battling with blue lightning; a prophesied leader floating down a river to escape an infant genocide; and people of small stature whom no one believes in saving a vaguely medieval world. We’ve seen everything in this movie already.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Epic! Bagpipes, vaguely Scottish, mystical, and choirs.
Do We Hear a Single? Nope!
How About a Video? Nope! But there is a highly awkward making-of special on the DVD.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? The brownies, played by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton, occasionally say something funny in their squeaky little voices, but mostly you just want Madmartigan to step on them.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Ellora Danan herself, I guess? Plus the wand and the acorns, and Madmartigan’s cleavage.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? The Dark Prophecy is stated to the Queen, hence the infanticide.
Does Love Conquer All? Yeah! Willow repeatedly risks his life for Ellora, and Madmartigan and Sorsha team up against Sorsha’s evil mom.
8. Labyrinth (1986)
Quote: “Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Sarah wishes her crying baby brother would go poof, so Jareth the Goblin King shows up and grants her wish. She has to go on a dangerous quest through the Labyrinth to reclaim her brother.
Why It’s Number Eight: This is an intricate fairy tale about independence, growing up, and the power of storytelling that’s swaddled in so many goofy Muppets that people miss how important the story is. For added distraction, there’s David Bowie’s spandex, and contact juggling.
Soundtrack: Epic or 80s? The soundtrack starts with a medley of David Bowie’s songs, and just gets better from there.
Do we Hear a Single? “Dance Magic Dance”! Oh, wait, no “As the World Falls Down”! Oh, who am I kidding, they’re all my favorite.
How About a Video? Not officially, it seems, but here’s the masquerade! And here’s Dr. Beverley Crusher choreographing the masquerade!
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? While there are genuinely scary and moving moments, the whole film is light and funny compared with, say, The Dark Crystal. Many of the Muppets Sarah encounters have the anarchic sense of humor one would expect from the Python who wrote the script. I mean, the worst thing that can happen to you is to get thrown in the Bog of Eternal Stench.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Did I mention David Bowie’s massive… sorry. No, part of the point here is that power doesn’t have anything to do with what you carry with you (all of Sarah’s talismans are revealed to be junk in a key scene, after all); what matters is bravery and loyalty.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Sarah lives in modern America, and travels to the alternate dimension Labyrinth via magic.
Does Love Conquer All? Nope. While Sarah’s love for Toby is the catalyst for her adventure, and her love for her friends gives her strength, it’s her self-esteem and resilience that defeats Jareth in the end.
7. The Last Unicorn (1982)
Quote: “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: When a Unicorn realizes she’s the last of her kind, she goes on a journey to find the others. Along the way she picks up second-rate magician (but first-rate pickpocket) Schmendrick, and a cook, Molly Grue. They learn that a chronically depressed king is employing a magical bull to drive unicorns into the sea. Schmendrick transforms the unicorn into a human to save her from the Bull, and many sad, mortality-facing antics ensue.
Why It’s Number Seven: To be honest, I’m not a giant fan of the Rankin-Bass animation, the stabs at humor are dated, and I also don’t think the songs fit. But… this story is so gorgeous and strange, and so brutally honest, that each time I’ve come back to this list I’ve moved it up a slot.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Can it be both? It’s sort of both. Jimmy Webb, the extraordinary songwriter behind “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” wrote a cycle of songs for the film, which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and the folk-pop group America, the guys who did “Horse with No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair.” Once again, the songs seem a bit modern and jarring when compared to the medieval setting of the film. (I mean no disrespect to Jimmy Webb here, guys. First, my dad would disown me, and second, “Galveston” makes me cry, but points for Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges doing their own singing.)
Do we Hear a Single? The Last Unicorn has an extraordinary single.
How About a Video? You can see America perform it here, or you can watch the comedy duo Ninja Sex Party perform their heartfelt cover, which they made to help promote Peter Beagle’s live tour of the film.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? A butterfly which seems to only communicate in weird, early-Americana pop songs; an amorous feminine tree inadvertently conjured by Schmendrick; a drunk skeleton; and a peg-legged cat that talks like pirate.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Schmendrick’s True Magic, arguably the Unicorn’s bravery.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Neither! We’re dropped straight into the Unicorn Tapestry brought to animated life.
Does Love Conquer All? Somewhat! Prince Lir’s love of the Lady Amalthea slows the Red Bull, and inspires the Unicorn to fight back and save her people. However, where a traditional children’s film would probably pull a Gurgi and defy its own internal logic to make her human again (or transform Lir into a unicorn?) so the couple could end up together, The Last Unicorn is relentless. The Unicorn remains a Unicorn, Lir remains a mortal man, and they’ll love each other forever, while remaining forever apart.
6. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
“What is best in life?”
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Conan is tortured into becoming a great warrior, and eventually teams up with a thief named Valeria and a professional surfer named Subhotai to steal from Thulsa Doom’s evil cult, then to rescue the King’s daughter from Thulsa Doom, and then to exact sweet sweet revenge upon Thulsa Doom. Thulsa Doom.
Why It’s Number Six: For me, the greatest moment in this movie, or indeed, in the entire history of cinema, comes about halfway through the film. Our backwoods Barbarian sees a llama for the first time and loses his shit, gasping out “Can you believe that?” to Subhotai. Then he bumps into a camel, and, startled, punches the camel in the face. Now I love both llamas and camels, and would never want any harm to befall one, but the purity of this moment fills me with joy.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Pure epic. Lots of chanting choirs and occasionally jaunty montage music like you’d hear in a Renfest. I mean that in a good way.
Do we Hear a Single? No, Conan does not tolerate kitschy pop songs.
How About a Video? See above.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Mako, as a cackling wizard who argues with the gods more than he worships them. He actually took this role over playing Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? The whole opening credits are the forging of a mighty sword. Conan’s dad tells him that the only thing he can trust is his sword. Not men, not women, not beasts, just swords. However, it seems that any sword becomes epic when wielded by Conan.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? A sword is forged as none other than the great Mako tells us of Conan’s tragic childhood and training. It’s not exactly prophecy, but it is ominous.
Does Love Conquer All? Weirdly, yes? Valeria comes back from the dead, Valkyrie-style, to defend Conan at a key moment.
5. Dragonslayer (1981)
Quote: “In fact, if it weren’t for sorcerers, there wouldn’t be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings… soaring… and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours… Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit… crippled… pitiful. Spiteful!”
Tell Us About Your Quest: A sorcerer’s apprentice is tasked with slaying a virgin-eating dragon, but his quest ends up being far darker and more complicated than he expected.
Why It’s Number Five: This one was a pleasant surprise. What starts out as a sly subversion of a classic fairy story turns into a brutal depiction of a society built on violence and deception, before it takes another turn, and you start to realize that this is telling another kind of story entirely. What happens when old pagan magic is faced with the rise of Christianity? What happens when the social order is upended by a naïve young man?
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Epic! To quote Wikipedia, it’s a “polyphonic orchestral texture dominated by a medieval-style modal harmony” that was nominated for an Oscar!
Do we Hear a Single? Nope, too busy examining the clash between paganism and Christianity to be silly, thanks!
How About a Video? Nope, see above.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? The elderly Hodge (Engywook in The Neverending Story!) is treated as comic relief for a while, but after that this film becomes surprisingly serious. Also, Emperor Palpatine shows up as a priest, and he yells at a dragon! But again, things get serious pretty quick.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Galen’s pendant amplifies his magic, and the “Dragonslayer” of the title is a spear, which Galen then charms.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Nope! We’re dropped straight into a pre-Christian scrying session, and then we’re off.
Does Love Conquer All? Not remotely. But it does help.
4. Ladyhawke (1985)
Quote: “Do you know that hawks and wolves mate for life? The Bishop didn’t even leave us that… not even that.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer are cursed by an evil Bishop. By day, she’s a hawk, and by night, he’s a wolf. Hauer, who is an awesomely badass knight, is planning to murder the Bishop, but then a thief and a well-meaning monk team up to try to break the curse.
Why It’s Number Four: This one… oh, I’m conflicted about this one. When it works, this film is kind of miraculous, but then when it doesn’t there’s almost an audible clunk. So, to begin with the good! Rutger Hauer needed to always play medieval knights. Michelle Pfeiffer is gorgeous, but what’s cool is that doesn’t define her character. What’s the one thing you remember about Princess Buttercup? She was the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, yes? Well, Isabeau lives a terrifying half-life, spends each night alone, relying on her own resources to keep herself and her wolf mate safe, and even when she’s in hawk form she protects him. She spends years like that, and when we meet her she may still hope, but she has a tough intelligence. Plus the Bishop is truly despicable.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? ’80s! Andrew Powell and Alan Parsons combined forces and used all the world’s synths to create this toweringly prog rock soundtrack. It’s…not to my taste.
Do We Hear a Single? Weirdly no?
How About a Video? Also no.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Matthew Broderick as Philippe Gaston, The Mouse, a pickpocket who keeps up a steady running commentary directed at God, and who seems to be on loan from the set of a Neil Simon play. I don’t know how, but this works perfectly. His thoroughly modern snark directly calls out the artifice of the medieval setting and lightens up the high fantasy star-crossed love of the A-plot.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Etienne’s sword.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Neither! We’re dropped straight into the action, as Phillipe escapes from prison.
Does Love Conquer All? Yes, and it’s great.
3. The Dark Crystal (1982)
Jen: “You have wings! …I don’t have wings.”
Kira: “Of course not! You’re a boy.”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Jen believes he is the last of the Gelflings. He was rescued by the gentle Mystics when the evil Skeksis massacred his people. To prevent the Skeksis from ruling forever, he must find a magical shard to heal the Dark Crystal. During his journey he finds another Gelfling, Kira, who becomes his partner, and they travel to the Skeksis Castle to fulfill the prophecy, and learns more about the nature of his world.
Why It’s Number Three: When I started this project, I thought The Dark Crystal would be at the top of my list. Watching it again, though, there are moments that drag, and for all the amazing Henson-ness, the quest itself seems forced, and Jen is too much of a cipher.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? No, it’s more of a serioustimes mystical chanting type deal.
Do We Hear a Single? No.
How About a Video? No.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Fizzgig! He’s sort of a Muppet Pomeranian, and he’s the only bit of lightness in the film.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? The Shard Itself! By replacing it, the Crystal will be able to use its full power, and unite the Mystics and Skeksis into UrSkeks.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? This movie is dedicated to its prophecy. We get a couple different spoken versions of it, Aughra comments on it, and then we see a pictograph version of it.
Does Love Conquer All? Jen begins his quest out of love for his Master, and then completes it out of dedication to Kira. So, yeah.
2. The Princess Bride (1987)
Quote: Too many to choose from, but a favorite is Andre’s classic “…anybody want a peanut?”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Westley has to rescue his ladylove, Princess Buttercup, from the the evil machinations of Prince Humperdinck. Along the way he matches wits with a cackling Sicilian, swords with a master Spaniard, and muscles with, well, with Andre the Giant. This may in all seriousness be a perfect film.
Why It’s Number Two: OK, what the hell can I say about The Princess Bride? It’s a brilliant film, a fascinating book, a childhood institution. The only reason it isn’t higher is that, for me, personally, the mesh of Catskillian snark and fairy tale tropes, while brilliant, keeps it from achieving the huge epic feel of some of the others on the list. But still—The Machine, the sword fight between Inigo and Westley, the pure grasping evil lurking behind Humperdick’s eyes when he threatens Buttercup at the end—it’s fucking magnificent.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? Epic…ish? Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) and Guy Fletcher did a pretty great, epic-movie-type score, with occasional flourishy moments.
Do We Hear a Single? Willy DeVille wrote and sang “Storybook Love” which, um, narrates a story book love. It was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Dirty Dancing’s “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”—probably because Westley and Buttercup could never stick that big lift. Willy Deville used to front Mink DeVille, which was the house band of CBGB’s back when that existed, before New York was dead.
How About a Video? Do you like shadow puppetry? You can watch DeVille’s Oscar performance!
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? Every other line is comic relief, but none of it shatters the mood.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? Inigo’s sword, designed and forged by his murdered father. Westley has never seen its equal. Plus, I guess The Machine itself, and Andre the Giant, ’cause come on.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? The Grandfather is reading The Princess Bride to his sick grandson, and graciously leaving out most of the kissing.
Does Love Conquer All? “Death cannot stop True Love. All it can do is delay it for a little while.”
And finally, coming in at Number One…
1. The Neverending Story (1984)
Quote: “If we’re about to die anyway, I’d rather die fighting! Come for me, G’mork! I am Atreyu!”
Tell Us About Your Quest: Bastian is reading The Neverending Story, which tells the tale of Atreyu, who is sent on a journey to save the realm of Fantasia. Battles are fought, new names are given, and math tests are avoided.
Why it’s Number One: THIS IS A PERFECT FILM I WILL HEAR NO ARGUMENT. Welllll… OK, I’m willing to analyze it a little bit, but it does hold up remarkably well, especially on this list! The acting is uniformly good, with Barrett Oliver making a perfect impassioned nerd, and Noah Hathaway pulling off a great balance between “warrior” and “kid whose horse just ate it.” And maybe the Childlike Empress is a little over the top, but I was in love with her so shut up. The effects are solid, we definitely get a sense of an arduous quest, and all of these elements come together with a perfect ’80s-tastic score to create a film that is both of its time and timeless.
Soundtrack: Epic or ’80s? A bit of both! Klaus Doldinger of the German jazz outfit Passport provides a score that runs the gamut from invasive to creepy.
Do We Hear a Single? Oh, only Limahl teaming up with Giorgio Moroder for their classic hit The Neverending Stoooooryyyyy, Whoa-ah-oh-whoah-ah-oh-whoa-ah-oh. It went to Number one in Sweden and Norway.
How About a Video? Yup.
Wildly Mood-Shattering Comic Relief? The Stupid Bat, The Racing Snail, The Rock Biter, Engywook… of course, they’re all swallowed by The Nothing in the end, SO WHO’S LAUGHING NOW.
Awesome Weapon of Epic Destiny? The Auryn, The Last Grain of Sand That is All That Remains of Fantasia, The Book Itself, The Empress’ New Name.
Ominous Prophecy or Modern Wraparound? Bastian lives an unhappy life in the modern world until he’s pulled into Fantasia.
Does Love Conquer All? Nope. Imagination and confidence do the job quite well.
So… that’s it? We’ve come to the end of this massive post. What do you think? Did I miss anyone important? Should Krull have been higher? Let me know in the comments!