Some of the best fantasy movies of all time were made during the 1980s, along with some of the worst. There was a sword and sorcery boom of epic proportions during the early part of the decade, and a huge quantity of films went into production. This list is a grab-bag of worthwhile movies to see from that time. There are serious high budget masterpieces, along with some low budget cult items. Even if you don't agree that they're all-time greats, these films still provide a decent sampling of the genre during that era.
Director: John Boorman
It's pretty easy to pick this as one of better fantasy flicks of the 1980s, and it
might be the best depiction of Arthurian myth in movie history. We all know the
basic story-Arthur is the chosen one, Merlin is his mentor, enter Lancelot and
Guinevere for extra drama-but this movie makes it all come to life in a really
special way. Boorman, who also directed the classic film Deliverance, brings an
air of mystery and momentous importance to every scene. The movie's portrayal of
magic is very subtle, relying more on cinematic sleight-of-hand than special
effects. This could easily be listed among the the best fantasy films of all time, and it may be the very best fantasy movie, although I'm sure some would argue with that assessment.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Director: John Milius
Robert E. Howards classic sword wielding hero made a perfect subject for a big action film, and it was a huge hit, spawning dozens of rip-offs along with a sequel. The movie starts with Conan as a child, and we watch as the difficulties of life gradually shape him into a ruthless fighting machine, bent on vengeance. Arnold Schwarzenegger looked perfect for the part, and this is one of the main films that made him a big star. Atmospherically, the movie is really fantastic, perfectly capturing the untamed feeling of Howard's Hyperborean universe. Conan the Barbarian delivers a good time for audiences with plenty of action and great pacing. It's easily one of the best heroic fantasies ever, and certainly ranks very high as one of the best of the 80s.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Director: Rob Reiner
This movie is funny, memorable, and immensely iconic. A kid is staying home from school, and his grandfather reads him a story about a girl named Buttercup and a hero named Westley. The tale has pirates, swordplay, monsters, wizards, and everything you would expect from a good adventure Yarn. The kid gets caught up in the story, and the audience gets even more caught up. The movie is basically a romantic comedy within the context of a lighthearted fantasy world, and every moment works. The Princess Bride is also highly re-watchable, and it's among the two or three best fantasy movies of the 1980s.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Director: Desmond Davis
Greek mythology comes to life with the help of awesome stop motion effects from the master Ray Harryhausen. Clash of the Titans tells the story of Perseus and Andromeda. It has all the classic elements of good Greek myths, including gods meddling in the lives of mortals, terrifying beasts, and impossible quests. This movie has a few problems, and it's not necessarily mind-blowing all the time, but it's one of the better fantasy movies from the 80's. In the end, Clash of the Titans is a very enjoyable film to watch, despite a few minor issues.
Director: Lucio Fulci
Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci directed this decidedly strange and trippy fantasy film. Some might not consider it one of the best fantasy movies, but it has some powerful elements that warrant serious consideration. The movie was obviously intended to cash-in on the success of hits like Conan, but the result is so bizarre that it's hard to see much of a resemblance. Our two unlikely heroes are a brutal cave-man with nun-chucks made out of stone, and a wimpy pacifist with a magical bow. The villain is some kind of goddess or sorceress-it's hard to be sure which-who lays around topless in a golden mask while her minions do stuff for her. Ultimately, the story makes very little sense, but there's lots of violence along the way, and the thick dreamlike atmosphere is very well executed by Fulci. Conquest is pretty special in some ways, but it's not as easy to appreciate as some of the movies in this list.
Director: James Sbardellati
Some people would call this movie bad. In fact, it may even make a few "worst of all time" lists, but be assured that it is one of the most enjoyable fantasy movies in term of entertainment value. Deathstalker is the quintessential guy movie. It is loaded to overflowing with violence, sex, and nudity, and sometimes these things all happen simultaneously in the most gratuitous fashion possible. The hero-who is actually named Deathstalker-is essentially a villain. He's so brutal and callous that he makes Conan seem like a monk in comparison, but that actually helps the movie stand out from the crowd. In a silly kind of way, Deathstalker is a film that doesn't pull its punches. The budget is non-existent, and the fight choreography is hilarious, but the film is constantly engaging on one level or another, and it deserves to be seen.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
This film is a great experience for the whole family. A young boy with a tough life finds a magic book about a world called Fantasia. As he reads, he discovers that the world is on the brink of destruction, and eventually, the characters within become aware of his existence. It starts to seem as though the world of Fantasia might actually be a real place with real problems. The film is totally compelling throughout, and even though it's a kid-friendly movie, the problems confronted by the characters seem substantial and serious. It's easily one of the most effective fantasy movies that's also relatively kid friendly.
Director: Russell Mulcahy
With a great soundtrack by Queen, and a highly compelling premise, this is one of coolest fantasy movies of the 80s, and definitely one of the coolest. The film deals with a secret culture of immortals, and the only way they can die is by having their heads cut off. To make things even more interesting, they must fight eternally until only one remains, and he or she will become the master of the universe. The main character is an immortal named Connor McCloud from the highlands of Scotland, and he was born in the 1500s. The movie cuts back and forth between modern times and the past as we follow the character through the centuries. The director, Russell Mulcahy ,has a background in music videos, and he brought a flashy style to the sword-fighting scenes that makes them especially memorable compared to other great fantasy movies made at that time. This eventually spawned a TV series that's also very decent.
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Director: Terry Marcel
The universe of this film is very close to Tolkien's middle earth, only much cheesier. There are a lot of unintentional laughs here, and that is definitely part of the appeal. Jack Palance, who had the ability to be a fantastic actor, turns in one of the most bizarre performances of his career in this movie-it's not really good acting, but you won't be able to look away. This has a crazy soundtrack with progressive rock overtones-think Jethro Tull-and even though it doesn't really fit with the fantasy environment, it's hard not to love. The most compelling thing about the movie is the Elf Character. He can shoot a thousand arrows a second, and wipe out whole armies by himself. On top of that, he can also hear better than superman, and jump 15 feet into the air. He isn't the main character, but he's so tough that poor Hawk seems worthless in comparison. Overall this movie is a blast, and while you may not agree that it's one of the best fantasy films, you'll definitely find it memorable.