We journey back to 1983 for swords, glaves, sorcery, space adventures and fights with bears in the essential fantasy films of 1983…
The 80s were a golden era of fantasy cinema. For the most part, these films were primarily aimed at a younger audience as Hollywood suddenly realised the money-spinning potential of targetting kids with lighter entertainment and forgoing much of the intense, pessimistic grit of arguably the most significant era of creatively boundary-pushing American cinema from 1968 to 1979 (probably closed, to an extent by Coppolla’s giddy, grim and intense opus, Apocalypse Now).
It wasn’t dark morality tales of gangsters, outsiders and corruption (both actual and moral) anymore and in the wake of Star Wars revolutionising just what cinema could become financially, everyone wanted high adventure, potential merchandising goldmines and to capitalise on the earning power of making youngsters a primary audience (both in theatres and in the rising home market).
Shift from Star Wars to the year of 1983 – 40 years ago (stares morosely out the window, wondering how time has moved so fast). We’ve already had plenty of Star Wars riffs and even a first sequel with 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, and likewise, an early 80s boom of sword and sorcery cinema has already kicked into gear thanks to the success of Conan the Barbarian and The Sword and the Sorcerer in 1982.
As a youth, this whole upcoming decade effectively triggered my love of cinema, and for the most part down to fantasy films. They were, after all, astounding to young eyes, even with films that in the cold light of adulthood suddenly looked decidedly ropey. So here are the essential fantasy films from 1983…
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Speaking of the aforementioned Star Wars, the Original Trilogy was rounded off in 1983. During my formative cinematic viewing years, I wore Star Wars VHS tapes to within an inch of their life. Like most kids I was enamoured with the trilogy with its dazzling deep space adventures on an array of fantastical worlds. During my first introductions to Star Wars (later in the decade on VHS) I was most drawn to Return of the Jedi. Deeper themes in Empire went a little over my head, and though I loved all of them, Return of the Jedi had the most immediate spectacle.
There were certain things that would particularly enrapture the 7-year-old me watching. We won’t go into what enraptured the 15-year-old me watching this (swoon) but for little me, it was the green lightsaber. It was the speeder chase on Endor, the final battle between Luke, Vader and the Emporer, who I point blankly refuse to call Palpatine. It was also the inimitable cuteness of the Ewoks who I first watched at the perfect age to appreciate their somewhat cynical invention.
Though in retrospect, Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the OG Trilogy, suffering many of the same vapid issues of the Prequel and especially Sequel Trilogies, it still remains a joy to watch.
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone
One of a slew of riffs on George Lucas’ cinema-redefining trailblazer was Spacehunter. Billed as having revolutionary new 3D, it wasn’t quite as cheap and haphazard as some other Star Wars-lites. Whether the 3D lived up to its billing during a mediocre box office run I couldn’t say, but oddly, a film which could have the same kind of cult revisionism of Masters of the Universe for example has been almost entirely forgotten in time.
Sure, it’s not particularly great but there’s a certain charm to the film as it mines mercilessly from the same tropes Lucas himself did. We’ve got our Han Solo-esque hero (Peter Strauss) and a suitably monstrous villain (with Michael Ironside playing a kind of mutant cyborg). The film also stars Molly Ringwald just prior to her run of John Hughes staples. With its blend of Star Wars and Mad Max, Spacehunter is just madcap and cheesy enough to get by and though comparatively its FX and designs aren’t as good as the films it references, the handmade practical nature of them looks nostalgically great.
It wasn’t just a third Star Wars film in 1983 which seemed more focused on a younger audience than before. We had a third Superman that was distinctly lighter than its Richard Donner directed (for 1 and a half at least) predecessors. Superman III is a weird anomaly. On the one hand, it’s got aspects which are as ludicrous and haphazard as the fourth film (by which time Cannon had taken over and killed the franchise). Yet, it’s also got some great elements in it, not least Superman’s internal battle that manifests into a mano-a-mano duel between the good Clark and the Evil Superman.
Part of the initial problem with Superman III has arguably become one of its most endearing qualities, and that’s the strange hodge-podge nature of the film, filled with tonal inconsistency and a feeling of being three different movies smashed together. You’ve got almost farcical comedy, meets a Richard Pryor comedy (albeit toned down heavily), meets a comic book story that at times feels like anything but a Superman adventure. It’s mad, but it’s a lot of fun.
Supes vs Supes is an obvious highlight, as is the increasingly self-aware supercomputer which Richard Pryor invents on scraps of paper (yep) almost by accident, that goes haywire, creating a killer cyborg at one point. There’s definitely even more fantasy for the big screen incarnation than ever before up to this point.
Like many fantasy films of this era, there seemed to be a distinct move to get “legit” and “mature” directors to oversee these B pictures being made for a young audience. Get Carter’s Mike Hodge’s had Flash Gordon, and Peter Yates of Bullitt fame was tasked with bringing Krull to life. Much like Spacehunter, this amalgamated Star Wars with another archetype, fusing it not with Mad Max but with Sword and Sorcery. Like the aforementioned flop Spacehunter, Krull was greeted with poor reviews and box office.
However, Krull has become a cult favourite in time, which still largely evades the Molly Ringwald opus. Krull has grand ideas and is brilliantly delivered. A problem with directors coming from grittier cinema and bringing their style to kids’ films, is they inevitably have a maturity and dark streak that puts off the target demographic, whilst the fantasy elements perhaps put off parents. In time though, we’re more accepting of films with that delicate dance and likewise, in an age increasingly reliant on often lifeless CGI, the handmade feel of the sets, creatures and real landscapes add a lot of charm to Krull, which is also stuffed with sincerity.
A great cast, comprised of a lot of British legends, also adds to the fun, not least Alun Armstrong as a rogue bandit, early roles for Liam Neeson and the late Robbie Coltrane and Freddie Jones gets to annihilate scenery as the film’s wizened guide.
Beginning a run of Lou Ferrigno Italian-made fantasy films for Cannon is Hercules. When I was a kid I adored the film, its sequel and Lou’s other sword and sorcery film for Cannon. To young eyes, the special effects and spectacle were no better or worse than Star Wars. It still transported me to another time and place in a battle for the ages.
When I rewatched it again much later I was suddenly struck by its cheap and ropey approach to VFX, but this was also still before the CGI boom of the 21st century. In an odd way, my own life cycle has seen the visuals of Hercules go from dazzling, to ridiculous and now arcing back toward warmingly physical. Sure, Lou Ferrigno battles a bear which is really a guy in a cheap bear outfit, but let’s not gripe about that.
Like much of Cannon’s fantasy work, this ultimately has a certain sincerity that pulls it through. The direction, from Italian Horror luminary Luigi Cozzi, isn’t without merit, nor is the synthy 80s cheesiness of Pino Donaggio’s (Carrie) score. Ferrigno, who I wouldn’t realise until much later is dubbed throughout the picture, is a walking special effect himself and as adept a Hercules as you’ll find. For all its flaws this film has way more personality and charm than the Dwayne Johnson film of more recent times.
Much like Hercules, this cheap and cheery attempt to capitalise on the success of Conan the Barbarian is deeply flawed. Yet it’s got plenty to enjoy, even if we’re talking about enjoying it in the same way one might enjoy Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Sets aren’t quite as carefully constructed as they would be on a bigger budget opus, but they still create a physical world for the actors to inhabit. As per the age, many of the female characters spend much of the movie scantily clad and there was a tendency to cast Playboy and/or fashion models, in this case Barbi Benton and the late Lana Clarkson (sadly infamous as the victim of murder at the hands of Phil Spector).
Rick Hill, like many brawny fantasy actors of the age, never quite escaped B movies and the Deathstalker franchise remains his crowning achievement as an actor, starring in the first and fourth of the franchise.
Zu Warriors: From the Magic Mountains
Tsui Hark’s dazzling Wuxia fantasy is filled to the brim with wild spectacle and thrilling martial arts sequences. Much like a host of Hong Kong action cinema of the 80s and 90s, this film has recently benefitted from a beautiful HD master that has made it looks more glorious than ever before.
Hark himself appears in the film, led by Yeun Biao, who along with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were the three major stars of the era in Hong Kong. Hung appears in a small role and the film also stars pop songstress turned actress, Brigitte Lin who Wong Kar-Wai fans will certainly remember from Chungking Express. If you want stylish and inventive escapism, then Zu Warriors has plenty to love.
Like so many fantasy films of the era, it was always the great artwork which originally drew me in. Yes, admittedly the artwork was often far more spectacular than what the film actually delivered, but Conquest was one of many which were always blessed with great film artwork. It definitely sold the film as a fantasy epic, that’s for sure.
The end result? Definitely not the worst but far from the best of the long line of Italian-made 80s fantasy films. This one does, however, boast Lucio Fulci as director, who made a number of iconic Italian horror films during that era (Zombie, The Beyond, City of the Dead). Not so much sword and sorcery in this one and more Bow, Arrow and Sorcery as our hero Ilias(Andreas Occhipinti) has a magic bow and arrows to help him on his good versus evil quest.
What’s your favourite fantasy film from 1983? 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 around the world, including When Darkness Falls, Renegades (Lee Majors and Danny Trejo) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan), with more coming soon including Cinderella’s Revenge (Natasha Henstridge) and The Baby in the Basket (Maryam d’Abo and Paul Barber). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.