It is a testament to how much the printed word can inspire the imagination that a game like Dungeons & Dragons–created in 1974–first started picking up widespread appeal in the 1980s. The acronym “CGI” was on no one’s lips and screen VFX were nowhere close to the visuals that astounded audiences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Regardless, the decade managed to produce some of the most beloved fantasy films in the genre.
Here are the best fantasy movies you could’ve hoped to see in a theater in the eighties.
The Princess Bride (1987)
I’d be dropkicked into the Pit of Despair if I didn’t include The Princess Bride in a list of best fantasy flicks of the eighties, and rightly so.
As a tender old man reads the eponymous book to his sick grandson, we join the young Fred Savage in watching the tenacious and resourceful Wesley assume the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts to win back his one true love, Buttercup. Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant deliver career-defining performances in a romantic adventure that is both bursting with childlike innocence and rich with action and genuine emotion. The Princess Bride is heartwarming, hilarious, and absolutely mandatory.
Highlander is by no means a perfect film, but it survives as one of the most impressive fantasy movies of the eighties because of the memorable performances by Sean Connery and Clancy Brown, the killer soundtrack by Queen, and a premise so full of potential it had to lead to exactly what it never should’ve been: a franchise.
The young 16th century Scottish warrior Connor MacLeod dies in his first battle, but inexplicably returns to life. After he’s shunned from his Highland clan for witchcraft, he’s found by Ramirez (Connery), who informs MacLeod they are both Immortals. Nothing can kill them but decapitation, and at some point, they and every other surviving Immortal will be summoned to the Gathering: the final battle between all the Immortals in which only one will survive.
That fantasy Gathering winds up being in eighties New York City with only a handful of Immortals left, including Clancy Brown’s Kurgan–one of the most vile and magnetic villains ever to appear on a big screen.
Highlander is a good action film, but it’s the possibilities of this fantastic world that keep you watching. Who are these Immortals? Where are they all from? How many have there been? What did Connor do between the 16th century and the 20th century?
It was these questions that unfortunately helped spawn far too many spinoffs and sequels for a film with a particularly finite premise–and about as definitive a conclusion as you can get–but in spite of how much of the rest of the franchise deserves to be ignored, 1986’s Highlander is still essential viewing.
When Willow came out, critics dismissed it as a swords and sorcery clone of Star Wars, seemingly without asking themselves where all the elements they identified as Star Wars-specific came from in the first place (hint: swords and sorcery stories). Not to mention that it’s questionable if those critics would’ve said the same if Willow hadn’t come from Lucasfilm. Regardless, the movie is both one of the best fantasy films of the eighties and arguably the most exciting adventure movie Ron Howard ever directed.
Warwick Davis plays the eponymous hero. A humble Nelwyn–a dwarf-sized race–Willow is tasked with saving the lost Daikini (tall folk) Princess Elora Danan, destined to bring about the downfall of the powerful and cruel Queen Bavmorda. With a motley crew, including the dashing but selfish swordsman Madmartigan, two action figure sized Brownies, and a noble witch transformed into a possum, Willow risks everything for the sake of Elora Danan.
In terms of both fantasy and science fiction, Ridley Scott seemed a bit more focused on genre fare in the eighties than he is today. While it wouldn’t be until the following year’s Top Gun that Tom Cruise became a household name, Scott helped his still young career by casting him as the lead of 1985’s Legend.
More than any other entry on this list, Legend feels like the darker side of a pure fairy tale. Cruise plays Jack, a “man of the forest,” and he and his love, Oona, witness goblins try to murder the last unicorn. Oona soon becomes the obsession of the goblins’ ruler, Darkness, as Jack and his faerie allies race to save both Oona and the world.
Tim Curry’s portrayal as Darkness (basically the Devil) alone makes Legend one of the most memorable fantasy films of the eighties. The Rocky Horror alum is utterly transformed into a demonic beast any heavy metal band would be privileged to have on their album cover.
Directed by the late Richard Donner–the filmmaker behind such blockbusters as The Goonies, the first two Christopher Reeve-starring Superman films, and, of course, the Lethal Weapon series–Ladyhawke is far from his biggest box office success. But this criminally underrated fantasy gem of the eighties is a fun, infectious romance.
Matthew Broderick plays the young thief Phillippe who, through happenstance is caught up in a couple’s quest to shake off a terrible curse. Jealous and furious when he finds out the pair are married, the Bishop of Aquila casts the curse that transforms Rutger Hauer’s Etienne into a wolf every night and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Isabeau into a hawk every day. The pair never leave each other’s side, but they can never truly be together.