Since the dawn of this millennium, fantasy has dominated fiction. From Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, fantasy isn’t just accepted as entertainment by the mainstream, you could argue that it’s the preferred genre. Think about it. Harry Potter is the best-selling book series in history, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was a rare genre movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2004, and Emmy-winning Game of Thrones is currently the biggest show on television. Fantasy is now the cool kid in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t so long ago when that wasn’t the case at all.
Back in the 1980s, the world of fantasy fiction was a completely different beast, aimed at a wholly different audience to the fantasy of today. Although there was children’s fantasy, such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, that was intended for a fairly mainstream audience, much of the fantasy of the ’80s was low budget, often foreign-produced, and super campy; with a focus on impossibly muscular men, half-naked buxom women, and evil wizards. This type of fantasy was mainly targeted toward teenage boys and young men, and drew much of its influence from the two big successes of the genre in the decade: The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. And it’s this type of sword & sorcery ’80s fantasy that hits me right in the nostalgia bone.
Whenever I think of ’80s fantasy, the first thing that comes to mind is the fantastic artwork. A number of artists rose to prominence in the decade, most of them seemingly influenced by the style of Frank Frazetta, who pioneered his brand of realistic fantasy art in the 1960s and 1970s. This art would show up in comic books, magazines, novels, album covers, Dungeons & Dragons guides, and most notably on movie posters — such as the Deathstalker series, which were done by Boris Vallejo.
New World Pictures
It’s the movies of the era that really stood out, since they represented this artwork coming to life. They weren’t always good (in fact most of them would probably best be described as “pretty bad”), but they were almost always fun to watch. Guilty pleasures if there ever were such a thing, they were filled with gruesome violence, gratuitous nudity, and cheesy special effects, but that just made them all the more endearing to any 14-year-old boy who happened to stumble upon a VHS copy of The Beastmaster.
While several of the most memorable movies of the era were produced domestically, such as The Sword and the Sorceror, with its protagonist’s three-bladed sword, and the rotoscope-animated Fire & Ice, which Frazetta worked on, most of them were made overseas with tiny budgets. Producer Roger Corman filmed several movies in Argentina, such as the previously mentioned Deathstalker Series, the Barbarian Queen series, and The Warrior and the Sorceress. Italy laid claim to such films as Hundra, an early pioneer in the female warrior genre, Seven Magnificent Gladiators, which starred Arnold’s old bodybuilding rival Lou Ferrigno as man who is gifted a magical sword by a village of women to help protect them against an evil demigod in a bizarro version of The Magnificent Seven, and then there’s the legendary The Barbians, which can only be described as epic.
Most people are probably glad that high fantasy has achieved such a level of respectability today and are glad to leave the outdated fantasy of the 1980s firmly in the past. But for me, there are still times when nothing will do but a good old fashioned cheesy sword and sorcery flick from the decade in which I was born.
If you enjoy a good 1980s fantasy guilty pleasure now and again, you can catch both Seven Magnificent Gladiators and The Barbarians throughout the month of March on COMET.