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Christopher Webster [Editorials 05.09.11] fantasy editorial

The fantasy genre has gotten a bad rep over the years and I think I know why. Too many factions of role players, larpers and W.O.W-ers have joined forces over the world wide web to become this massive, unstoppable goliath of an easy target. What was once little groups of in-the-know outcasts playing Magic in highschool hallways is so visible that they've turned it into an easy punchline for bad comedians and films like Role Models or Your Highness to take a stab at. But That's just my theory.

The other downside to fantasy's perceived dorkery is I think it's led to a slowing down of mainstream fantasy film production and the films that do get made that fully embrace their fantasy roots either get savages by critics or dumped onto SyFy. Lord of the Rings is really the only series of films I can think of that got through unscathed. Even the Narnia series couldn't make it out alive.

But this doesn mean that there aren't some awesome dark fantasy films getting released. It just means to you have dig a little deeper to find them. And of course the 80s was full of them. So if, like me, you're ready and waiting to see if Marcus Nispel will succeed in breathing new life into the flailing genre you may want to tuck in to some of the films below to get your mind back into the best of what the dark fantasy genre has to offer.

Wolfhound is one of the most expensive films ever produced in Russia and the whopping $13 million budget shows. The film is a sweeping dark fantasy saga full of demons, dark lords, magic, cannibals and revenge and I fell madly in love with it when I first saw it last year. It's got everything I love about dark sword and sorcery films. It's pulpy, grimy, gorgeously shot and not afraid to show some teeth when it blasts into violent tantrums.

The film is based on the novel "Volkodav" by Mariya Semyonova and is very similar to Robert E. Howard's "Conan," in that a boy is born in a peaceful village in a magical, pre-history Earth. When his village is ravaged by cannibals and his parents brutally killed, he is sold into a life of slavery (sound farmiliar?). The boy then spends the rest of his tortured and angry life trying to track down the dark leader of the baddies. I mean, this guy's truly messed up. His best friend is a bat for f@*ck's sake. But anyway, he eventually gets sidetracked into helping a young princess bring peace to her kingdom.

Even though Wolfhound is largely derivative, it is also full of enough crazy environments, action set pieces and wacky/scary characters to make it truly awesome.

Wolfhound is out on Blu-ray

Dragonslayer is the last truly great Dragon quest movie. Seriously, this is like Disney taking a chance on some pared down Die Nibelungen sh*t back when they were experimenting with darker genre fare. There's no talking dragon BS à la Dragon Heart, or cute 3D buddy crap like in How to Train your Dragon here folks. Just the story of a dying world losing its sense of magic for reason with one last dragon to slay. And of course the scared wizard's apprentice that has to do it.

I truly love this film and experienced sincere jealousy at not being able to attend AICN's secret SXSW screening presented Guillermo del Toro. Hal Barwood's and Mathew Robbins' script is brimming with wonder while the stellar cast plays everything straight. Like del Toro always says; play B material like A material, and this is certainly on display here, the movie is brimming with golden age class.

And of course there's the dragon in Dragonslayer. The technilogical marvel and perfect blend of miniatures, stop motion and large scale set piece. It's just so very awesome. I can't say enough good things about Dragonslayer.

Dragonslayer is available on DVD

The wheel of Pain, pit fights, Arnold Schwarzenegger biting the throat out of a vulture while crucified on the Tree of Woe are just three things that come to mind when I think of John Millius' solemn cinematic imagining of Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian.

Legendary film critic Pauline Kael called John Milius a Fascist filmmaker to which he famously countered "I've never killed anything I didn't eat." About his critics Milius also said "I'd love to hunt these people down and put their heads on a wall." My point is that I think John Milius thinks he IS Conan which is probably why his movie is still so great to this day. Pretty much all the qualities that drove critics to vilify him are fully on display in his intensely serious, dark fantasy extravaganza. The whole thing is about power and pure force of will. It's about what happens when an unstoppable force encounters an immovable object and I have no doubt that Milius fully believes Thulsa Doom's speech about 'power of the flesh' and that sort of scares me sometimes. But I know it's also what makes him such an amazing screenwriter. I mean, have you seen Dirty Harry 2? That's all Milius and you know he just loves to see Harry cleaning up the street scum.

Anyway, Conan was extremely popular upon it's release in '82 and launched a slew of copycat muscle features and low-budget sword and sorcery movies well into the 80s (a few of which you'll see below) as well as its own sequel, the hit-and-miss Conan the Destroyer.

Conan the Barbarian is available on DVD

Another pulpy creation from the mind of Robert E. Howard, Solomon Kane is a more recent entry into the upper echelon of the dark fantasy canon. The only problem is that many have yet to see it Stateside as the film has yet to be picked up for any kind of distribution. I have two theories about this. The first is that the producers are holding out for more money than anyone's willing to pay on a largely unknown product. The second is that nobody wants to commit to a theatrical release and the producers are (perhaps rightly) not willing to unceremoniously dump it onto Blu-ray. Of course I could be wrong on both counts (and probably am), but the fact remains that I still don't have Solomon Kane on Blu-ray and that bugs me.

It bugs me because Solomon Kane is quite a lavish production and deserves to be seen in 1080p. Director Michael Bassett does good work with little money, taking us on a journey through dreary England of the 17th Century - a scary place where religion and witchcraft mix in an dangerous manner. The world may be magical, but the story is a fairly basic riff on The Searchers. Solomon, the once evil plundered, is now a tortured soul who's sworn off violence and found religion. He just wants to wander the world and mind his own business, until he befriends a family of good, god-fearing folk and has to rescue their daughter after a vicious assault. All manner of horrors follow Kane on his quest to find her and strike evil from the land. Highly recommended.

Solomon Kane is available on region B Blu-ray only. Those without region free players beware.

Like it or not, Hellboy II is much more a dark fantasy than it is anything else. From stories of ancient elves from a lost history, to magical creatures to armies made of gold and fire, Hellboy II ticks all the boxes. The fact that Hellboy exists in our modern world shouldn't deter fantasy lovers from embracing it as such. Del Toro spends so much time in secret troll markets, in underground Elvish colonies and up mountains that you would hardly know there were people sitting in office cubicles at all.

I didn't love the film when it came out, but I can't deny there is an elegance to Hellboy II which comes from Guillermo's love of fantasy. He'd just come off of Pan's Labyrinth and you can see all that time spent in fantasy and myth has rubbed off on Hellboy II. I've come around to this one over viewings and have a feeling it will swiftly become a modern fantasy classic.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is available on Blu-ray

Fire and Ice may be a cartoon, but this ain't for kids. This crude and colourful dark fantasy treat brought together two titans of fantasy - Ralph Bakshi and legendary illustrator and painter Frank Frazetta - for what was to be the ultimate in violent, bawdy cinematic myth making. And while not perfect, it almost lives up to that kind of hype.

At the onset of Fire and Ice, a tiny village is destroyed by a surging glacier, which serves as the deadly domain for the evil Ice Lord, Nekron. The only survivor is a young warrior, Larn, who vows to avenge this act of destruction (again with the revenge!). The evil continues, as Nekron's palace of ice heads straight towards "Fire Keep," the great fortress ruled by the good King Jarol. When Jarol's beautiful daughter, Teegra, is abducted by Nekron's sub-human creatures, a tense battle between good and evil, surrounded by the mystical elements of the ancient past erupts.

Blue-Underground put out a 2-disc DVD of Fire and Ice which is a must for Frazetta fans as it included the seminal documentary "Painting with Fire."

Viy is a fantasy horror film that takes place in early 18th century Russia. I'll bet you're already scared, right? It's about a cartographer who undertakes a scientific journey from Europe to the East. After passing through Transylvania and crossing the Carpathian Mountains, he finds himself in a small village lost in impassible woods where the people who live there are unlike any they've seen before. The villagers have dug a deep moat to defend themselves from the rest of the world.

The film is a remake of the 1967 film Viy: Spirit of Evil. I haven't had the chance to see it yet as it's never been released anywhere, but I've hear enough good things to know it belongs on this list.

Conan rip offs were so popular in Europe that even horror directors like Lucio Fulci got into the game of making them. Conquest is a surreal and shockingly violent Italian entry into the dark fantasy genre. Loosely inspired from the Hercules mythos, it's a mostly confused affair about two warriors on a quest to stop a queen/witch (who, for some reason, is naked throughout the entire film) from stealing a magic bow and throwing all kinds of nasty creatures out into the world.

There are a few weird things about Conquest. The first is that it seems to be as inspired by Star Wars as it is by Conan the Barbarian. You've got a laser spewing magic bow and a student/apprentice relationship reminiscent of Luke and Obi Wan and a hero with a destiny. Secondly, the entire film seems to have been filmed through cheese cloth in a thick fog which makes it hard to see what's actually going on. And then wamo!, puss spewing boils.

Conquest is out on DVD

Outlander might straddle the line between scifi and fantasy, but I'd argue that as soon as Jim Caviziel looses his little ray gun in the river the film becomes a straight up dragon fantasy. The fact that the film is inspired by the literary classic Beowulf only adds to my argument and I'm surprised more critics didn't pick up the fact that it offers a fairly clever twist on the source material.

So what else makes Outlander a great dark fantasy film? Blood thirsty bio-luminescent alien dragon? Check. Dual hammer wielding Ron Pearlman? Check. John Hurt as an aging Viking king? Check. This is damn good fun.

Outlander is out on Blu-ray

You should know right off the bat that Deathstalker doesn't like up to the poster - something I found out when I was about 12 years old. However, one thing I was excited to discover at that age was that the film is loaded with gratuitous nudity and corny one liners, staples of the underground sword and sorcery film.

Deathstalker was produced by Roger Corman's New Concrord shingle and saw great success at the dawn of the home video market. So much so that he made three or four of them in total. Really, the first one is the only one worth watching. It's directed by James Sbardellati who's gone on to become a relatively respected filmmaker/producer, working on such films as Frailty, Running Scared and Mirrors 2.

As the story goes: Deathstalker is tasked by an old witch to obtain and unite the three powers of creation - a chalice, an amulet, and a sword - or the evil magician Munkar will use them for nefarious purposes. After obtaining the sword, Deathstalker joins with other travellers going to the Big Tournament to determine the strongest warrior. The false king holds the true princess in captivity, and plots to have Deathstalker killed, and Deathstalker must fight to free the princess.

Pure gold, baby.

Deathstalker & Deathstalker 2 are on DVD combo pack

With its story of cults and witchcraft Black Death rides a fine line between dark fantasy and historical horror, but it's a film a think firmly belongs on this list. If you're watching Game of Thrones, you'll know that Sean Bean was absolutely born to play these larger than life, tortured medieval warrior roles and the actor brings a kind of gravitas to Black Death that keeps it from being a run-of-the-mill horror pot-boiler.

Black Death is directed by UK director Christopher Smith who's last film was the mind-bending Triangle. It is set during the time of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England where a young monk and a band of witch hunting knights journey to learn the truth about a village where people are reported to be brought back to life. Their mission pulls them all towards a village and a standoff with its ruler who has made a dark pact with evil forces. Think Wicker Man meets Season of the Witch.

Black Death is out on Blu-ray

It seems young warriors with magic bows were popular in 1981. Both Hawk the Slayer and The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire and Hawk are proof of that.

Archer came from the mind of TV writer and director Nicholas J. Corea who is most known for his work on The Hulk, but also wrote episodes of everything from Airwolf to Star Trek. Archer was originally designed as the pilot for a hot new and sorcery television show that NBC ended up passing on. Too bad. The pilot has some real charm that 80s fantasy junkies will eat up by the bowl full.

It was, however, released as a feature in Europe to mild success. Rare in the States, the film version has been released on DVD in Germany and England.

'cause you know what? Ain't half as bad as people said...

Season of the Witch is out on Blu-ray

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Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

No Krull? No love for The Dark Crystal?


Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

Oh Dark Crystal. Quite a Classic. Legend? Ladyhawke?


arnold (11 years ago) Reply

I liked Solomon Kane and Season of the Witch was also enjoyable. There's also - King Arthur, Centurion, The Eagle (of the Ninth), Last Legion, 13th Warrior, Excalibur, Willow, The Vikings (old Kirk Douglas movie), Beowulf, - maybe not all of them could be considered Dark Fantasy but still some good fantasy films.


Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

No Willow? That's right I like Willow!

plus there were tons of nudity, gore, films in the 80's that aren't even on here. I remember watching those as a preteen. Ahh Memories!
My dad he had them all on VCR before tape.


cromwell (11 years ago) Reply

How can you forget The Sword and The Sorceror!!
Kathleen Beller, amazing rack! Hideous witches with awesome bodies! Tri-bladed swords! Matt Houston, Bull from Night Court, Manimal and the legendary Richard Lynch. Pay homage to this classic. LOL


agentorange (11 years ago) Reply

All good movies mentioned above. Because they're not listed doesn't mean no love, just not all the time in the world to write abotu all of them... but you know what? Not a big Krull fan. sorry.

@arnold I like all those flicks, but many of them like Cenurion or King Arthur I wouldn't categorize as fantasy.


Taranaich (11 years ago) Reply

"The film is based on the novel "Volkodav" by Mariya Semyonova and is very similar to Robert E. Howard's "Conan," in that a boy is born in a peaceful village in a magical, pre-history Earth. When his village is ravaged by cannibals and his parents brutally killed, he is sold into a life of slavery (sound farmiliar?)"

It sounds a lot like Oliver Stone & John Milius' Conan, but nothing much like Robert E. Howard's: Conan's village was anything but peaceful (he participated in battles and skirmishes even as a boy), and the idea of him being sold into slavery after his village is destroyed is totally invented by the film.


cyclops76 (11 years ago) Reply

Not a big Conan fan but this is a nice list. As already mentioned, I would have included Krull. Other movies missing are Beast Master and Bashki's Wizards.

I loved Black Death and had a great time watching Outlander.


Rev Wright (11 years ago) Reply


dark aged (11 years ago) Reply

LEGEND's absence is CRIMINAL!


dark aged (11 years ago) Reply

and as mentioned above, "Bakshi's WIZARDS" is a great addition to the 80's Dark Age Animation, as is "HEAVY METAL".


agentorange (11 years ago) Reply

Ah yes, Heavy Metal. Damn, should really have included that one... Wizards is great, but I prefer Fire and Ice.


Michael Allen (11 years ago) Reply

You did not like Krull...wth? I have seen that one like a dozen times - excellent! Someone else mentioned 13th Warrior and this film is a good take on the Beowulf legend too: "the fire wyrm!" And what, no Archstone's Orcs! Haha (instant classic).

Cool article.


Ivan (11 years ago) Reply

No "Sword & Sorcerer"? Anyway, Deathstalker compensates... in somewhat bad way.


Jerzy (11 years ago) Reply

Ruggero Deodato's The Barbarians! XD


crom (11 years ago) Reply

Don't forget The Beastmaster


Dean (6 years ago) Reply

Yes! Beastmaster is a fucking classic!


witchman (11 years ago) Reply

Def Sword and the Sorcerer and hawk the Slayer for a hoot.


Movieman1966 (11 years ago) Reply

Spot on with Conquest, and Dragonslayer, which is 30 years old this year (On, how time flies).

But while you may consider Krull a sword and sorcery / science fiction hybrid, have you ever noticed that people die horribly in that film?

And Conquest had a plot point in the middle of the film that I never, ever saw coming that had me saying "They did THIS????", and I usually see things like that coming a mile away.


Anonymous (10 years ago) Reply

Legend just came out on Blu-ray. The film is classic weird. Surprised Quiet Earth isn't all over it.


Connavar (10 years ago) Reply

Outlanders is a fantastic film full of action and gore. One of my favourite fantasy movies.


UnseelieRose (10 years ago) Reply

Although I love most of the fantasy films mentioned earlier in these comments, I feel that I should point out that this web page is about DARK fantasy. Things like Legend and Willow are fantasies, but they are not dark. I am, however, surprised that Pan's Labyrinth is not on the list. That film certainly counts as a Dark Fantasy, and it is an awesome movie.


EVL29 (10 years ago) Reply

Hawk The Slayer.

End of discussion.


Nathan (8 years ago) Reply



JAFO (7 years ago) Reply

Hawk the Slayer... also The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire... maybe have been made for tv, but still worth watching, if for no other reason than the Heart Bow...


glassmanbones (5 years ago) Reply

Can anyone tell me the name of a movie where a man is attached to a cross in a dining hall, and he is able to free himself and the other kings recongnize him as a man who has helped them before, I think he is a king himself or mercenary, and i think he may shout CROMWELL as he rips free of the cross.


Username (optional) (5 years ago) Reply

glassman bones. The movie you are thinking of is Sword and the Sorcerer

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