Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Heath Holland On...Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery Movies in the '90s

by Heath Holland
Know, oh prince, that between the years after the Reagan administration and the coming of Y2K, there came an age undreamed of, of low art and even lower production values, where even the most stalwart of sword and sorcery loyalists found they could not defend what had become of their genre. It was a time of darkness, gnashing of teeth, and lamentations. Hither came the nineties, and long did it suck upon the scrotum of the beast. And the memory of the many and wondrous sword and sorcery movies, movies of gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth which had come before, were trod to dust beneath its sandaled feet.

We may not live in a golden age of fantasy and sword and sorcery, but we still have it pretty good. The real golden age was during the eighties, when both big studios and smaller independent companies turned their attentions to swords and sandals. Even the bad ones—and there are a bunch—are often worth watching for either the camp value or the sheer balls on display by the filmmakers who made them. It was the age of Conan the Barbarian and Dragonslayer and Excalibur. It was the era of Legend and Red Sonja and Willow. Even animated fare got in on the fun, because kids could watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe at home then go see the live action movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella at their local mall theater. Surprisingly, Disney got in on the sword and sorcery craze of the eighties too with the underrated (but still not particularly good) The Black Cauldron.

As great as the eighties were for fantasy and sword and sorcery, though, we have it even better today. The Lord of the Rings changed everything forever and legitimized high fantasy cinema in a way that was unprecedented, opening the door for both high and low fantasy films and television shows in the mainstream consciousness. It’s because of Peter Jackson’s films that we can watch dragons and warriors on a regular basis and not get beat up about it when we talk about it at school or work. I even read an article online recently about celebrities who host their own private Dungeons and Dragons sessions. What a crazy time we live in where, to quote Willie Scott, “anything goes.” Times have changed, and there has never been a better time to like wizards and barbarians.
But the nineties were awful. Just abysmal. Fantasy and sword and sorcery offerings were few and far between, and when something eventually did come along, we convinced ourselves that it was better than it really was because we were so desperate for content. To make things worse, we rarely got straight up fantasy or sword and sorcery, usually getting a watered-down mish mash instead. It was like, apologetic hack and slash where even the creators were a little embarrassed.

Highlander II falls into the fantasy subgenre of sword and sorcery, but I’m not sure it fits. It’s low fantasy, for sure, and there are definitely swords and elements of mysticism, but the stuff that made the first Highlander so much fun got jettisoned out of the airlock somewhere over the planet Zeist. I’ve written about Highlander and its sequels before, but I can’t overstate how disappointing this movie was upon release. The idea that immortals walk among us and whack each other’s heads off in an eternal struggle for power and survival took a backseat to a science fiction story about a planetary shield. Yawn.

Highlander III: The Final Dimension was better, and retained more of the sword and sorcery vibe of the first one (so much so that it’s actually called Highlander III: The Sorcerer in pretty much every market except North America), actually introducing a magician who can bend reality. You can almost feel the filmmakers apologizing for the previous entry and throwing in things that they hoped would appease the hardcore fanbase. I saw this movie in an empty theater on the bad side of town in 1995, worried that someone was going to come in and kidnap me. I also have a funny memory associated with watching the home video version of Highlander III, but you’ll have to go read my original Highlander piece to find out what it is. As for Highlander III and sword and sorcery, it pretty much typifies what we came to expect during the decade: it’s not what anyone wanted, but it’ll do in a pinch. Time may have distorted my memory, but I remember being glad that I went to see this in the theater, because it only played for a single week in my town.
A lot of the other stuff that came out during the nineties is so bad it’s hard to even talk about. There’s just nothing there to discuss. We got Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, a sequel that absolutely no one asked for. Marc Singer came back as the Beastmaster Dar, so that’s kind of cool, but instead of Tanya Roberts, we got Kari Wuhrer, which just isn’t the same. There’s a purity to the original Beastmaster movie that’s admirable. It’s a dude who can talk to animals (Dar and Aquaman need a reality show in which they share an apartment) fighting a sorcerer and his minions. Beastmaster 2 (BTW, such a douche move to make it a “2” instead of a “II”) brings the action to 1991 and this time involves stopping a BOMB. I can’t figure out why someone said “let’s take this concept of a medieval warrior and bring him to OUR WORLD.” But then again, there was a lot of that going on around this time. All of the Highlander movies do this. Even the aforementioned Masters of the Universe film kind of does it. What was wrong with a high fantasy setting? Still, I remember watching this movie on cable and thinking “seems legit.” UGH. There’s a third film called Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus that went straight to television, but I’ve never seen it. It has a lot of recognizable faces in it (Casper Van Dien, Tony Todd, David Warner), but it’s only on VHS and fetches very high prices. Besides, it seems to have been buried by everyone involved in an attempt to stave off any blackmail attempts. At least they used Roman numerals in the title and not the number “3.”

We did actually get at least one decent, legitimate fantasy film during the nineties. My favorite is Dragonheart, starring Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Dina Meyer, and the voice of Sean Connery as Draco the Dragon. Dragonheart tells the story of a knight and the last living dragon as they attempt to depose a corrupt king. This movie embraces the medieval setting and it hit me hard in 1996. It was the closest we got to genuine, unapologetic fantasy that was worth anyone’s time up until that point in the nineties, and I loved it. I even had the poster hanging on my wall, which I had brought home from my job working the video counter at the local supermarket. My memory is that Dragonheart is a warm, funny, wonderful film, but my opinion of it is so high that I’m scared to go back and revisit it for fear that it won’t have aged well.
We also got a semi-watchable sword and sorcery movie in the nineties with Kull the Conqueror, created by Robert E. Howard, the father of Conan the Barbarian. Patrick featured this in one of his “Heavy Action” columns, and pretty much nailed the shortcomings of the movie, but for some reason I still kind of like it and I’m happy to own it. I think part of the appeal for me is that it stars Kevin Sorbo, who I think comes across as a good dude. I saw Sorbo in a hotel lobby at some convention—I think it was in Atlanta -- about ten years ago. He had just finished checking in and seemed to be waiting for someone to bring him his luggage. Even just standing there in jeans, he seemed nice and approachable. He was smiling, even though no one was with him. It’s kind of sad to me that even though Sorbo spent the better part of the nineties as Hercules in the very successful syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, he couldn’t sell a movie that seems like a natural extension of that role. If you weren’t around in the nineties, I can’t stress to you how popular Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (and its sister show Xena: Warrior Princess) were. They were mainstays on television. Flipping through the channels on a random weekend afternoon, they were unavoidable. Then you’d go out and do something and come back late at night only to discover that they were on AGAIN.

Yet despite the presence of a star that you’d think would draw in genre fans, Kull The Conquerer doesn’t fly like it needs to. I like the action and the commitment to premise; it goes all in on the tropes and gives us pretty much everything we want in a movie like this: monsters, sorcery, action, and heaving bosoms (both male and female). I was particularly impressed that Kull uses a battleaxe, which was something we almost NEVER got to see in movies like this. Yet for a 30 million dollar Universal film, it just doesn’t quite work. You can still tell that the studio is holding back. It’s a PG-13 movie (for the kids!), so there’s not going to be the kind of gore that people like 1997’s me wanted to see. It’s also got this weird late-nineties hard rock guitar score that’s such a bad choice. The wonderful Basil Poledouris score we got in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian was apparently old fashioned and stupid. Kids in 1997 had ADHD and needed heavy metal guitar while Hercules…I mean KULL slashed people to bits. This ain’t your daddy’s barbarian! It’s fine, though, really. For such a lame period for fantasy and sword and sorcery movies, you could do worse than Kull The Conquerer. Hey, it’s no Beastmaster III. You can actually find this one and watch it.
Peter Jackson changed everything just four short years later and revolutionized how we watch stories about wizards and swords and gigantic monsters. We still get the crappy, direct-to-video movies that we got in the nineties, but now they at least have better talent associated with them and often better effects to help sell us on the setting. This may not be the golden age of fantasy and sword and sorcery movies, but it’s so much better than the dark days of the nineties. Never forget. NEVER FORGET.


  1. I too worked at a video store when Dragonheart came out on VHS and yes, I claimed that awesome poster right away and hung it on my bedroom wall! Also on my wall around that time: The Rock and The Usual Suspects.


    1. Nice! I also ended up with a poster for That Thing You Do, but that's all I can remember bringing home. It wasn't a great poster, but I love the movie.

    2. I feel the same way, but also in the reverse. If the poster was cool, but the movie was just ok. I had a thing for Uma Thurman in the 90's, so I had to hang 'A Month by the Lake' up on my wall...she looks fantastic on that poster and it was different than Pulp Fiction.

  2. On the plus side, we did get Army of Darkness in the 90's which of course isn't playing the genre straight but does qualify as Sword & Sorcery I think.

  3. I don't think I noticed the dearth of S&S movies in the 90s because I was still catching up on cool 80s stuff - I'd get up at 5am Atlantic Time on the weekend to watch the West Coast late movie (so many great inappropriate-for-my-age movies watched that way - how many 9-year-old Eating Raoul fans have there been?) and it seemed to be a popular genre for the timeslot - but yeah sounds like it was hard times for the real fans looking for new stuff.

    It doesn't sound like it, but do you think there's any chance that with some distance these 90s movies will acquire a bit of charm? Looking at another genre - Horror - I can't believe that I used to think the 80s kind of sucked - these days it seems like the best time for horror EVER. And now my outlook on 90s horror is starting to soften and I'm wondering if in another 5 years I'll be looking back at the Beautiful Teenagers horror of the 90s with as much fondness as I now have for the 80s stuff. Or is the 90s S&S just too fargone?

    1. I guess anything is possible. I'm just starting to come around on some stuff from the '90s that I had completely dismissed. I do better with early '90s than late '90s because early '90s still had a sense of goofiness and over-the-top charm to it that stuff from the latter part of the decade seemed determined to avoid at all costs. Or maybe '90s stuff can be re-evaluated because even the stuff that marketed itself as serious and gritty was more fun and appealing than a lot of what we get now. Good question! Time will tell.