Tom Jolliffe looks at back a great selection of 80’s fantasy film scores…
The 80’s was a grand age for fantasy films. Swords, sorcery, wizards, witches, warriors and battles of good versus evil. Some films were great. Others in the well fed genre were not so great, but back then, many still went all out with the music. There was an array of cheaply made fantasy films (often Italian made films imported by companies like Cannon). The untimely passing of Ennio Morricone recently, was a great reminder of a first class composer delivering great music to films beneath the standards of his more high profile works. A film like Hundra for example (and another which shall be mentioned later). Star Wars won’t be there as it almost goes without saying, but likewise it begun its themes in the previous decade.
Here (in no particular order) are the greatest Fantasy film scores of the 1980s…
Conan the Barbarian
Conan is arguably the strongest film of its genre during that period in time. I’ve always found it vastly underrated. It looks amazing, beautifully shot in widescreen capturing great designs and an excellent cast surrounding Arnold Schwarzenegger. The man is a living cartoon as far as physique and this was a star making role. The biggest star of the film though, giving it a sense of feeling almost operatic, is the amazing score by Basil Poledouris. It’s evocative and old fashioned but also has great variation throughout the entire score. There’s plenty of enjoyable, thunderous bombast, but likewise some really beautiful and emotional tracks. It’s one of the greatest scores ever, full stop.
Twas more to Highlander’s soundscape than Queen. Highlander was a truly unique film experience. Wonderfully creative visuals, amazing scene transitions between present and past and a charismatic cast. It somehow feels compelling and emotionally engaging despite some of the silliness (not least the plot itself, and the odd accent choices from Mr Lambert and Sir Connery). One man who doesn’t get mentioned in quite the reverence he should for his work here, is Michael Kamen. His score here is actually a career best and the theme itself is sensational. He’ll always be remembered more for Lethal Weapon, and I suppose Queen’s soundtrack is so prominent (Kamen’s contribution and riffs on Who Wants To Live Forever are great).
The great Ennio Morricone contributing yet another great musical score in Red Sonja. The film was greeted with widespread derision upon release. It’s not particularly good, though it still has its charms, and Morricone wrings every bit of emotional investment possible out of the stiff acting with his atypically glorious music. There’s some great choral bursts, drums, string and brass theatrics through this amazing score. There are some similarities to Poledouris’ Conan work but this has some recognisable Morricone flourishes over it. It’s also delightfully old fashioned, harking back to the great 50’s-60’s fantasy film scores. This is definitely a case of a musical score deserving a far better picture. Still, it’s easy to love Red Sonja, and particularly for the music.
Masters of the Universe
When Cannon released Masters of the Universe, there was a clear move to follow in the footsteps of Star Wars. That meant lasers and enemy soldiers that looked like cast offs from a Galaxy far, far away. Bill Conti delivers a score with some passing nods to the John Williams style, but Conti, a master in his own right, also injects the film with his own distinct style. Consequently, Masters of the Universe is blessed with a magnificent score that always sets the pulse racing, even when the film begins to fray at the seams from Cannon’s budget constraints. Likewise, the theatricality of the music blends in perfect unison with Frank Langella’s brilliant scenery chewing turn as Skelator.
James Horner’s rollicking good old score for Willow was one of the films greatest strengths. Willow in fact, was a very solid fantasy adventure in that era, benefiting from a big budget, a good cast and a particularly charismatic Val Kilmer. There are plenty of great tracks throughout the score and Willow provides a good time. It’s definitely about rousing the audience into an adventuresome mood.
Prior to his stellar work in Willow, Horner also scored this enjoyably campy fantasy film. Krull is sorely underrated. It’s got amazing visuals, set work and some brilliant special effects sequence (the Widow in the web sequence is particularly great). Horner has a decent amount of variation between his work in Krull and Willow, with each having it’s own unique personality. Krull’s music has a darker tinge throughout, as it’s an inherently darker film (even though Willow has some dark moments). There’s a nice blend of old fashioned B movie adventure style and some nice choir work through the score. The recurring central film is the very definition of rollicking.
One of the Italian made cheapies from Cannon films, this absolute epic film starred legendary Hulk actor, Lou Ferrigno as Hercules. I adored this film as a kid, and it’s sequels (as well as another Ferrigno fantasy star turn, playing Sinbad). When I watched again as an adult, it turns out the film was more brilliant for its sheer badness that I remembered as a kid (believing it to be awe inspiring). Still, it’s loaded with cheesy charm and even cheesier dubbing. It’s also got a score from Brian De Palma stalwart, Pino Donnagio. The music is great, a mix of big orchestral themes, and some synth work that nods to Vangelis. The music is way too good for the films technical merits, but further adds to it’s overall charm.
This one is actually blessed with two decent scores. There’s the directors original cut with Jerry Goldsmith’s music. Then what would become the shorter theatrical cut which was re-scored by Tangerine Dream. Obviously on paper those are two polarising styles. I love Goldsmith and I love Tangerine Dream and have always enjoyed both, even if ultimately, for this genre, Goldsmith feels more at home. That being said, the film is not without its issues generally, and the shorter theatrical cut is almost mercifully shorter.
Still the definitive King Arthur film, this dark and brooding fantasy, not short on sex and violence, is also gifted with a suitably brooding score that floats in and out of epic crescendos. Trevor Jones was something of a specialist in fantasy during the 80’s, also scoring Labyrinth (though of course that film would be more associated with David Bowie). A lot of the music had a real medieval feel, giving it something a little unique to some of the other 80’s fantasy scores. As with Highlander, Jones does get somewhat overshadowed by a number of classic soundtrack pieces, notably from Wagner and Carl Orff (O Fortuna is an iconic piece, which has appeared in almost everything) but his own pieces still beautifully engross audience into the story.
A cult hit which still proves pretty popular among genre enthusiasts, Beastmaster spawned sequels and TV shows with the story of a beefy warrior who can communicate telepathically with animals. It’s cheesy but charming and the film has some excellent orchestral music from Lee Holdridge. Some serene and ethereal wind instruments suggest the natural affinity, mixed with the more bold instrumentation that suits adventures and battles. It’s a nice mixture in an excellent score.
What’s your favourite 80s Fantasy score? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.