After the success of high-concept stories like Star Wars: A New Hope in the 1970s, Hollywood was willing to throw money into their next productions. To grab the audience’s attention, they turned to perhaps the most diverse genera in storytelling: fantasy. From Greek mythology to fairytale classics, fantasy offered new and expressive worlds that audiences could enjoy.
Unfortunately, many of these fantasy films fell by the wayside in the 1980s, but have since become cult classics. The 80s dark fantasy movies told grittier stories compared to older films, and today offer a look back to a time of massive sets, puppets, and animatronics.
Updated on April 10, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
The live-action movie The Little Mermaid is only a few weeks away (premiering in the US on May 26). It has revitalized interest in one of the most influential 80s fantasy movies, with the 1989 film’s legacy still appealing to fans today.
12 ‘Legend’ (1985)
After finishing Alien and doing some preproduction on Dune, Ridley Scott decided to direct a fairy tale about a devilish being known as Darkness seeking to rid the world of light. His minions seek out the last two unicorns and succeed in slaying the stallion. Now it is up to a princess, a forest youth, and a gaggle of fairies to protect the mare before Darkness can finish the job.
Legend is saved from its simplistic script by fantastic casting and effects. Tim Curry portrays Darkness and is almost unrecognizable underneath his amazing makeup, which took five hours to apply each day. A young Tom Cruise plays the hero, Jack in the Green, and though the role is more wide-eyed than Tom Cruise’s usual roles, it is perfect for a more lighthearted fantasy story.
11 ‘Dragonslayer’ (1981)
Dragonslayer is a hidden gem from Paramount and Disney that tells the tale of the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative, kept placated by virgin girls determined by lottery. Eventually, the king decides to seek out a sorcerer in the hopes that his magic can save them. Unfortunately, the sorcerer dies, leaving the hope of the kingdom to a young apprentice.
While the acting and production design are good, the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative is what steals the show. Produced by Industrial Light and Magic fresh off Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the dragon was created through a combination of experimental stop-motion technology, articulate animatronics, and World War 2 flamethrowers. Vermithrax has inspired fantasy creators like Guillermo del Toro and George R. R. Martin, and is considered among the greatest cinematic dragon.
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10 ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982)
Any fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to see Conan the Barbarian. He stars as the titular Conan, whose family is slaughtered by raiders. Though sold into slavery, Conan is trained as a gladiator and wins his freedom. With some unlikely companions, he accepts a quest to rescue a princess, which brings him to the man who killed his family.
Though its costume designs and story might seem out of date nowadays, Conan defined sword and sorcery movies with its grand battles, strong characters, and an epic score composed by Basil Poledouris. It set the bar so high that future movies failed because they were compared to it. Conan also brought Schwarzenegger to general audiences and jump-started his career as an actor.
9 ‘Clash of the Titans’ (1981)
A modern retelling of an ancient classic, Clash of the Titans is among the greatest 80s Greek mythology movies that tells the story of Perseus, the demigod son of Zeus. When Perseus releases the princess Andromeda of Joppa from the curse of her monstrous suitor, Calibos, he prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to punish the city. Now Andromeda must die to save her city from a monster unless Perseus can find a way to slay it.
Though the film sometimes feels like a tug of war between Perseus’ story and the Gods’, what holds it together is a solid script and actors that deliver gravitas deserving of Greek mythology. It was also the last film to feature the legendary stop-motion monsters of Ray Harryhausen. His methods add weight and life to the creatures, which move unnaturally, befitting their status as legendary beasts.
8 ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982)
From the creator of The Muppets, The Dark Crystal is set in a dying world ruled by vulture-like despots called Skeksi. Two Gelflings, the last of their race, seek to rejuvenate their world by restoring a fragment of the dark crystal the Skeksi use to drain the life force of the world to rejuvenate themselves. They are aided by the mysterious turtle-like Mystics and a wise woman who studies the stars.
The Dark Crystal was significantly darker than Jim Henson‘s previous works and was groundbreaking for its time. The puppets required teams of four or five operators to achieve their full range of motion, resulting in more realistic and expressive characters. Its legacy includes a prequel series from Netflix, which was a series that was tragically canceled after one season.
7 ‘Willow’ (1988)
Warwick Davis stars as a farmer in a village of dwarves who aspires to be a magician. One day, he discovers a human baby and goes to return her to her own kind. That is until he learns she is a child of prophecy whose birth spells the end of an evil queen. Now Willow must protect the child, gather allies, and prove that great power can come from unlikely places.
Willow is a notable fantasy film for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the respect this film shows for little people. George Lucas conceived the film for Davis while working together on Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, and the film would break records by hiring over two hundred little people actors. It’s also a fun movie thanks to its lighthearted tone and comradery between the major companions.
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6 ‘The Last Unicorn’ (1982)
Based on the novel of the same name by Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn tells the story of a unicorn who leaves her forest to look for her kind. She befriends a bumbling magician and a bandit’s wife along the way. Together, they must find the missing unicorns and confront themes of identity loss and the price of regret and love.
There is much to love about The Last Unicorn. Along with a memorable cast including Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, and Sir Christopher Lee, the animated film is more melancholic than you would expect from a unicorn story. It is a bittersweet tale that questions whether it is better to know love or not, yet also inspiring due to these questions. It helps that Beagle wrote the screenplay, so the film sticks close to his vision.
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5 ‘Labyrinth’ (1986)
In Jim Henson’s second dark fantasy movie, a young girl makes a foolish wish and loses her baby brother. To get him back, she must reach the goblin king’s lair in the center of a labyrinth. Along the way, she meets new friends, overcomes strange obstacles, and re-evaluates what is most important in her life.
Labyrinth is what happens when you combine Alice in Wonderland, the Muppets, and David Bowie. Around every corner is a new sight to behold, such as helping hands that form faces and wild firebirds who can toss their heads, all brought to life by Henson’s imagination and amazing puppetry. Bowie also enhances the film, both through his unique style of music, and his performance as the goblin king, to create a truly surreal experience.
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4 ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984)
When Bastian Bux locks himself away to read a book from a mysterious shopkeeper, he finds himself immersed in the world of Fantasia. He learns how an abstract force called The Nothing is destroying Fantasia and of the hero Atreyu’s quest to stop it. However, the more he reads, the more Bastian finds the story intermingling with his life.
The NeverEnding Story often appears on lists of films that scarred children due to its darker moments. Though the film deals with themes of hopelessness and despair eroding creativity, it includes many characters who embody hope and optimism. Chiefest among them is Falcor the luckdragon, who believes that good luck will find those who never give up.
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3 ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982)
The movie that began Don Bluth‘s rise focused on Mrs. Brisby, a mother mouse desperate to save her sick son from a farmer’s plow. Unable to move her family, she risks her life to enlist the help of intelligent rats who live in the farmer’s rosebush. This gets her caught up in the rat’s politics and the dark secret behind their intelligence.
The Secret of NIMH received praise for its animation, which Bluth hoped would capture the magic of early Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie also succeeds thanks to its themes of responsibility and the courage of a mother’s love shown through its main character. A small mouse in a dangerous world, she never gives in to fear to abandon her quest and becomes a hero to her family and friends.
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2 ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989)
A beloved animated Disney classic that needs no introduction, The Little Mermaid is a musical fantasy film that tells the story of a princess under the sea, who has an impossible dream to walk among humans on the surface. When she falls in love with a human prince, Eric, she risks it all and makes a dangerous deal with the villainous sea with, Ursula.
Based on the eponymous 1837 Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid is a timeless story of the power of love to conquer all. Its enduring legacy is obvious today, as Ariel is still a recognizable princess among young fans, especially with the new movie that will breathe new life into her magical story.
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1 ‘The Princess Bride’ (1987)
Director Rob Reiner‘s The Princess Bride is often cited alongside the best fantasy movies ever made. It’s centered on a farmhand named Westley (Cary Elwes), who embarks on a challenging quest to rescue Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) from the antagonistic Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). This is all presented in a metafictional style, just as the story is told in the eponymous 1973 novel it’s based on.
Initially a box office flop, the film found massive success in the home video market and eventually became a fan-favorite cult classic from the 80s. Its masterful blend of fantasy and comedy and endlessly quotable lines have made it a rewatchable masterpiece that’s still referenced in pop culture today.
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NEXT: The Best Fantasy Movies of All Time, Ranked