The best fantasy movies are just as sophisticated as the best written fantasy, and may sometimes be more so; indeed, there are some fantasy notions (e.g., Toons) that for reasons obvious or not so obvious made their debut in the movies before being imported into the written corpus. All in all, it is reasonable to argue that, as in no other area except possibly Horror, fantasy movies and written fantasy represent an integrated genre: they partake of and, more significantly, contribute to the shared Cauldron of Story – the two forms share the same Playgrounds contemporaneously.
In examining the history of the fantastic cinema it is important to realize that special effects (in this book abbreviated as spfx) are at centre stage. In the very earliest days of the movies – once the original and short-lived wonder of seeing "moving pictures" had worn off (after all, audiences were already used to flickerbooks, shadowgraphs and zoetropes) – moviemakers were keen to show on screen things that could not be seen in real life. (The very first cinematographic display before an audience occurred on 28 December 1895 in the salon Indien of the Grand Café at no. 14 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. It was by definition an exhibition of spfx – that was its raison d'être.) In this respect the early moviemakers were rather like conjurers: they were performance artists intent on dumbfounding their audience – often they personally presented their works, which were usually only a few minutes long – and like conjurers they were intent on keeping the secrets of their tricks; the mechanisms of some of the early spfx have yet to be uncovered.
Spfx, then, drove moviemakers into fantasy. One route was via the medium of animation (> Animated Movies) – which we can briefly regard as being nonstop spfx – while the other was manipulation, in some way or other, of the photographic image to produce the impossible. In the latter context the most important early moviemaker was probably Georges Méliès (1861-1938; > SFE). At a time when most movies – especially "trick" movies – lasted a few minutes at most, he produced Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904) at then-epic lengths of 21 mins and 30 mins respectively; both involve voyages into outer space. Their appeal was that of the stage illusion: their stories were at best rudimentary, and entirely subservient to the trickery.
This phase of movie history was again short-lived. Audiences became blasé about spfx and began to require them to become a part of rather than the whole of the movies they watched. They wanted movies to be enhanced stage plays; they wanted movies to tell a story. And, as technology progressively permitted moviemakers greater scope – notably in terms of length – moviemakers were able to oblige.
Because of the impossibility of giving firm definition to the term Fantasy one cannot sensibly pinpoint the first fantasy movie – that movie when people realized what they were watching was fantasy rather than spfx – but a reasonable candidate must be the nonsupernatural The Prisoner of Zenda (1913), the ancestor of a string of remakes of the Anthony Hope adventure (> Ruritania). The following year saw an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), The Avenging Conscience (1914), and the fantasy movie as a distinct subgenre was on its way. Civilization (1916) was already enough at ease with fantasy to use it in the service of what was intended as a work of pacifist polemic – a mythical country makes war on a neighbour but ceases doing so when a Vision of Christ appears on the battlefield – and at about the same time Cecil B DeMille (1881-1959) waded in with a truly epic (125 mins) version of the Joan of Arc tale, Joan the Woman (1916). Two years later came the first of the Jungle Movies – that subgenre of cinema fantasy in which the African jungle is treated as, in effect, a Secondary World – Tarzan of the Apes (1918); the Tarzan-Movie sequence now contains over 90 entrants. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) demonstrated that the interest in fantasy movies extended well beyond the USA, and, with Leaves from Satan's Book (1919; > Carl Dreyer), marked the onset of a peculiarly European school of Expressionist macabre cinema, characterized by angled camera-work and eloquent use of shadow – qualities that were eventually to make their way to the USA in the form of Hollywood film noir. In Europe the tradition was swiftly continued in movies like The Golem (1920), L'Atlantide (1921), Nosferatu (1921; > Dracula Movies) and, by Fritz Lang (1890-1976), Doctor Mabuse the Gambler (1922). Most forbidding of all was probably the Swedish moral lesson Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness (1920), a precursor of much later Hollywood movies like It's a Wonderful Life (1946); here a wastrel is "killed" but, on reliving the nadirs of his career, repents even as the sound of Death's chariot fills his ears, and is returned to life for a second chance. Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbau (1888-1954) weighed in again with Destiny (1921), in which Death converses with a young woman.
Meanwhile Hollywood fantasy was exploring two main strands: the macabre – as epitomized by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920; > Jekyll and Hyde Movies) – and the feelgood: Sunnyside (1919), made by Charlie Chaplin (1899-1977), centred on a Dream of a Pastoral idyll; Alf's Button (1920) presaged a short series about a soldier who could rub one of his buttons to summon a Genie (> W A Darlington); the central characters of Dream Street (1921) by D W Griffith (1875-1948) choose between Good and Evil through enacting their dreams; and a second version appeared of The Prisoner of Zenda (1922). Something of this lightheartedness fed back to Europe, where there appeared movies like René Clair's Paris Qui Dort (1923).
In general, however, it is difficult to identify trends in the fantastic cinema during the 1920s (or, for that matter, in any subsequent decade – except perhaps the 1950s – until the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, when a main strand of fantastic cinema devoted itself to exploiting earlier material from various media, including cinema itself): in a sense the moviemakers, on both sides of the Atlantic, saw no firm demarcation between fantasy movies and any other, so fantasy elements could pop up virtually anywhere. During this period virtually any nondocumentary movie was regarded as being an imaginative work first and a depiction of realism only second – this was especially notable in the field of comedy – so moviemakers felt no need to restrain the wilder frontiers of their inventiveness. Traditional legends were exploited to create movies like The Niebelungen (1924) and Faust (1926). The Bible got the treatment in movies like Salome (1923), The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1927). The Thief of Bagdad (1924) initiated Hollywood's still continuing love affair with Arabian Fantasy. Phantom of the Opera (1925) started another long-lived sequence. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), although actually a Technofantasy, gave the Science-Fiction movie a new gravitas. Soon came The House of Usher (1928) and then The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu (1929; > Fu Manchu Movies). Also at the end of the 1920s animators like Walt Disney were beginning to realize – although they did not yet have the funds or the backing from distributors to do anything about it – that there might be more to Animated Movies than mere five-minute knockabout farces.
With the start of the 1930s the output of fantasy movies took an upturn. Sound encouraged remakes, and accordingly Alf's Button (1930), Kismet (1930) – a less ambitious rehash of The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – and the brilliant Fredric March version of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1931; > Jekyll and Hyde Movies) were produced. But it would be wrong to regard this period as one of mere consolidation: Luis Buñuel, building on the tradition of Surrealism that had emerged in the European cinema with movies like Ballet Mécanique (1924), directed L'Age d'Or (1930); and Hollywood began to tap two rich veins with, on the one hand, A Connecticut Yankee (1931), a fantasy comedy, and on the other Frankenstein (1931; > Frankenstein Movies), Dracula (1931; > Dracula Movies) and Svengali (1931) – not to mention, of course, that Jekyll and Hyde remake. Other fantasy-related movies of note during the first half of the 1930s included The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) – the first of the celebrated Johnny Weissmuller sequence – Vampyr (1932), Alice in Wonderland (1933; > Alice in Wonderland ), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), King Kong (1933), Tarzan and His Mate (1934) – arguably the best Tarzan Movie of all – The Wandering Jew (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935; > Frankenstein Movies), Dante's Inferno (1935), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Mad Love (1935), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), She (1935) and others too many to list. Indeed virtually all the themes that remain today at the heart of "mainstream" fantasy cinema were established by the end of this industrious half-decade.
The years leading up to the start of WWII saw a great deal of scavenging forays over already well explored territory: the Tarzan movies were going rapidly downhill, and the Frankenstein and Dracula movies matched this, but always a couple of years behind. There were remakes such as The Golem (1936) and, yet again, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). She (1935) had proven that there was mileage to be had out of H Rider Haggard, so the release of King Solomon's Mines (1937) came as no surprise. But among all this there were some classics: The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), based on H G Wells's story, Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), Topper (1937), based on the Thorne Smith novel, and The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on L Frank Baum's Oz stories – the last of these put paid to any chances for success of the Shirley Temple vehicle The Blue Bird (1940).
But probably the single most important event in fantasy cinema in the late 1930s was the release by Disney of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). This should not be regarded just as the great breakthrough in the history of Animated Movies but also as the opening of a door for fantasy movies in general. Through the medium of animation, the wildest fantastications could be presented on the screen; it was incumbent upon the makers of live-action movies to try to follow suit. Once again spfx became of paramount importance: they had to be convincing, and ideally there should be lots of them. Maestros like Willis J O'Brien and John P Fulton had shown the way with movies like King Kong (1933) and The Invisible Man (1933); now there was a new technological fervour exploring such techniques as stop-motion and double exposure. This did not necessarily make for good movies – The Thief of Bagdad (1940), to take an obvious example, is far from a good movie, but it is a spectacular one, and some of its spfx are as good as any that would be achieved until the 1980s.
Almost immediately, however, WWII intervened. Europe was in conflict from 1939; this affected Europe's movie industry directly and had almost as great an effect on the US movie industry, whose lucrative European markets abruptly disappeared. Since sophisticated spfx and quality animation generally cost a lot of money, they had largely to be put to one side until the cessation of hostilities. Yet audiences demanded – for reasons of Escapism, if nothing else – that fantasy movies retain the imaginative range spfx had brought. The animators – in this period, so far as features were concerned, the term really refers only to Disney – were not able to sustain this: it would be a long time before anyone could afford another Pinocchio (1940). But live-action movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), Cat People (1942), I Married a Witch (1942), Bewitched (1945), Blithe Spirit (1945) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) used different and less expensive means to convey the full frisson of fantasy. That said, there was as always plenty of dross: to pick on one, the comedy Horror Movie The Vampire's Ghost (1945), while its title tried to touch more than one base, succeeded in being neither comic nor horrifying.
The end of WWII not only meant that more funds (slowly) became available for new cinematic output: it brought an indefinable yet detectable sea-change in the fantasy movie. The prewar noirish tradition was continued with Rationalized Fantasies like The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), but these were done better – and in this instance, notably, had better spfx – and more of them at least pretended to a seriousness of purpose; the techniques that Alfred Hitchcock had popularized before WWII in the fields of the thriller and Psychological Thriller were absorbed. But other movies appeared which it is hard to conceive being made before WWII: some, like A Matter of Life and Death (1946), obviously could not have been, since they represented the introduction of World War II itself as a fantasy motif, but in others the difference is one of "feel". In Europe there was Jean Cocteau's astonishing La Belle et la Bête (1946) while in the USA Frank Capra was virtually inventing a new subgenre with It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Although initially Capra's achievement was underestimated, Miracle on 34Th Street (1947) continued that particular trend – the reaffirmation of conventional standards through the use of fantasy – which still thrives in the Hollywood of today; others of that period in similar style were The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Miranda (1947) – about a man who establishes a relationship with a Mermaid – and Portrait of Jennie (1948). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Jungle Movies were undergoing something of a renaissance: not only was the long cycle of Tarzan Movies still in full swing, however dreadful they often were, but the Bomba Movies began with Bomba on Panther Island (1946). It seemed that audiences wanted fantasy either to reassure them or, if it presented violence and adventure, at least to do so in some far distant, imaginary territory – it is hardly surprising that the first of the Sinbad Movies, Sinbad the Sailor (1947), appeared at this time. Yet there was the occasional US movie that went against the escapist or reinforcing tendency; one was The Boy with Green Hair (1948), which used fantasy to address a very serious subject, the futility of war – a rather courageous movie to make in those (naturally) triumphalist times.
It can sometimes seem the case that an era of movie history rather neatly coincides with a decade. That this is true of the 1950s is unfortunately, in terms of the fantasy movie, no good news, for the decade was marked by a paucity of innovation (the sf movie had a much better time of it). The 1950s certainly started well, with Disney making a glorious return to the animated classic tale in the form of Cinderella (1950), while Harvey (1950), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1950) and Angels in the Outfield (1952) carried on the strand of nostalgic, schmaltzy semi-comedic fantasy that had developed from Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Disney, still supreme in animation, carried on strongly through much of the decade, although the rot of complacency was beginning to set in by its end; but the average standard of fantasy movies was poor, with series continuations and remakes often seeming desperate in their search for the lowest common denominator through the reduction of potent cinematic myths to crass mundaneness – as evidenced just before the decade's start by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; > Frankenstein Movies) and continued well into it by that movie's successors, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951; > Invisible Man), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953; > Jekyll and Hyde Movies) and Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955). The Francis Movies, about a talking mule (> Talking Animals) explored the lower regions of dimwittedness. And so on. Yet there were a few highlights, although they were more thinly scattered than in the 1940s. The Man in the White Suit (1951) was a shrewd piece of Technofantasy that, under a veneer of amiability, warned of the dangers of unplanned progress. Scrooge (1951; A Christmas Carol), though its tale had been filmed several times before, is an excellent example of the quality that popular commercial movies can attain. René Clair, although he entered his decline fairly early in the decade, was still able to produce Les Belles De Nuit (1952). Monkey Business (1952) was a good technofantasy, though its makers were clearly more interested in it as a star vehicle. Brigadoon (1954) showed that fantasy musicals had, potentially, a lot to offer – certainly more than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) had indicated. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), with brilliant effectiveness, translated a paranoid fantasy theme – Possession – into sf terms. The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman was one of the finest expressions of what the fantastic cinema could do. Dracula (1958) was a powerful restatement of a modern myth that had been diluted to an almost homoeopathic extreme by the crassness of Hollywood's mindless exploitation; the movie forcefully put Hammer on the map. The Fly (1958) demonstrated how good B-movies could be, while Tom Thumb (1958) showed how good spfx could be – as did Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) which, despite a slight surfeit of Disney syrup, was nevertheless a better movie. Disney also produced one of their finest animated features: Sleeping Beauty (1959). But one's overwhelming feeling on scanning any listing of fantasy movies from the 1950s is that the decade was packed out with inferior remakes, second-rate series continuations, piles of unambitious sf B-movies and ... well, a heck of a lot of Francis Movies.
In the movies, as in Western society at large, the 1960s took a while to start swinging: the early years of the decade were indistinguishable from the late 1950s. Throughout the decade Hammer kept plugging away with its horror and other movies, many of which were fantasies and by no means all of which were bad; She (1965) was a highpoint. Disney released Animated Movies all through the 1960s but seemed often to forget that it was important to retain the integrity of the Story upon which the movie was based; the nadir was reached with The Sword in the Stone (1963), a travesty of T H White's vision. They did better with live-action movies, producing lots of adequate fodder – like the first of the Herbie Movies – as well as the hugely successful (and partly animated) Mary Poppins (1964). In general, though, the early years of the 1960s offered little to excite. Some exceptions were Roger Corman's The House of Usher (1960) and others in his Edgar Allan Poe cycle, most especially The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Burn Witch Burn (1961) was an unusually good B-movie, and The Innocents (1961) was a chilling reinvention of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" (1898); a decade later The Nightcomers (1971) would revisit and steamily defantasticate this material. Whistle Down the Wind (1961) focused on the genesis of fantasy – in this instance Christian Fantasy in the minds of children, a theme that would be taken up by some very distinguished movies in this and succeeding decades, like The Lord of the Flies (1963), The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Celia (1978). Orson Welles's The Trial (1962) was a significant event. The Birds (1963) saw Hitchcock at his strangest and strongest. 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964) may not have been great art, but it was certainly fun. But perhaps the most interesting development was the growing appreciation in the West of Japanese movies. These had first come to Western notice in the 1950s, with such movies as The Seven Samurai (1954), but now all sorts not only hit the art-house circuit but were given general release. Some were Supernatural Fictions of a very high order, notably Kwaidan (1964) – based on four tales by Lafcadio Hearn – and Onibaba (1964), a bizarre medieval Horror piece that finally devolves into a fantasy of Perception in which one is left to puzzle the nature of its "ghosts".
The successes of these movies – despite the fact that they were subtitled and often somewhat intimidating because of the alienness of their construction and viewpoint – alerted Western moviemakers, although it was a while before the message sank in, to the fact that at least some audiences were seeking material that was a bit more challenging than, say, the Dr Goldfoot movies – two sexist Bond/Fu Manchu parodies, Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). Similar attractions were probably responsible for the huge success of Hammer's Prehistoric Fantasy, rapidly imitated, One Million Years BC (1966; > One Million Bc). But the youth culture of the later 1960s, open to foreign influences (not merely Japanese but also European) as well as to the Surrealism that, at least in the UK, was transforming Television and other comedy (> Humour), eventually forced the commercial moviemakers to start releasing some more interesting material. 1967 alone saw Asterix the Gaul (1967; Asterix Movies), Barbarella (1967), Bedazzled (1967), Dr Faustus (1967; > Faust), The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or Pardon Me, Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967), Playtime (1967) – possibly the most imaginative movie by Jacques Tati (1908-1982) – and Quatermass and the Pit (1967). The year's big flop was, perhaps significantly, an old-style spectacular family musical, Doctor Dolittle (1967); and the following year's similarly targeted Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Finian's Rainbow (1968) fared little better. Ingmar Bergman's The Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Lindsay Anderson's If ... (1968) were much more in keeping with the spirit of the times. The Magus (1968), although it failed to capture the complexity of John Fowles's original, showed that the effort to bring even the most demanding texts to the screen was commercially worthwhile. Roman Polanski had a colossal success with Rosemary's Baby (1968), based on the Ira Levin novel. The Beatles-based exercise in psychedelia, Yellow Submarine (1968), drew big audiences. Meanwhile, on the Horror front, George A Romero (1940-2017) was transforming one subgenre with his Zombie Movie Night of the Living Dead (1968). Old-style movies – the remakes and sequels that for so long, in their unambitious way, had propped up the profits of the movie industry, were tending to sink without trace – an example was Hammer's The Vengeance of She (1968) – and from about this point the B-movie started its inexorable demise.
The next few years offered thinner pickings, with the accent once more on Horror Movies – some of which in due course influenced fantasy proper. A further influence that should not be ignored was that of the UK director Ken Russell, with such movies as The Devils (1970); his movies are almost all flawed, but his vision opened the eyes of fantasy moviemakers (and fantasy writers) to the notion that there were Playgrounds yet to be explored. Another equally flawed but equally significant movie of the early 1970s was Performance (1970), an acid mixture of Decadence – for the ideals of the "love generation" had rapidly soured – and violence that, while not in itself fantasy, had much to teach the creators of fantasy. Aside from these, the fantasy cinema of the early 1970s offered fairly standard fare, as if the lessons of the late 1960s had been forgotten. There were a few attempts to capitalize on the success of Rosemary's Baby, as might be expected: The Mephisto Waltz (1971), The Possession of Joel Delaney (1971), The Other (1972) – based on Thomas Tryon's much subtler chiller – and finally one that surpassed the original: Don't Look Now (1973). That same year saw the emergence of another movie that spawned imitators: The Exorcist (1973), whose thematic offspring included The Legend of Hell House (1973), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1974), Carrie (1976) – which started the Stephen King movie industry – The Omen (1976), Audrey Rose (1977) and Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). One or two were very interesting movies in their own right, and their average standard was reasonable. The melodrama Ghost Story (1974) was an oddball UK entrant to the lists.
But the early 1970s were not all a matter of occult Psychological Thriller and Possession. Fritz the Cat (1971) was a big hit for the animator Ralph Bakshi, although it would be a long while yet before he would begin to make his major contributions to movie fantasy. The anarchic musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) belatedly brought Roald Dahl's Children's Fantasies the worldwide recognition they deserved. One of the most foolhardy remakes in movie history was Lost Horizon (1972), recast as a semi-musical. Slaughterhouse Five (1972) mixed fantasy, sf, social comment, metafiction, Technofantasy and the surreal in much the same way as had the Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) novel on which it was based; The Final Programme (1973), based on Michael Moorcock's novel, was a similar melange. O Lucky Man (1973) showed Lindsay Anderson at both his best and his most irritating. The Wicker Man (1973) offered a fascinating contest between Christianity and paganism, set on a remote Island in a small-scale Utopia and challenging us to redefine exactly what we mean by Good and Evil. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) powerfully recreated the myth of Frankenstein's Monster. The Phantom of the Paradise (1974; > Phantom of the Opera) was unpopular at the time but can now be seen as a pleasing modern version of the Faust legend. The Stepford Wives (1974) was a cold Technofantasy about the negation of the Soul, and Young Frankenstein (1974; > Frankenstein Movies) was a fine Parody. Doc Savage, Man of Bronze (1975) was, rightly, a disaster, as was Jungle Burger (1975), a dire animated Parody of the Tarzan-Movie canon. On the other hand, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the first major cinematic by-product of the successful UK surreal comedy tv series Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974) dir Terry Gilliam, was a significant contribution to the movie-fantasy genre and commented acerbically on the whole Matter-of-Britain cult. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) dir Peter Weir, one of the eeriest and most beautiful fantasy movies, showed how fantasy could be derived from (purportedly) historical events. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) echoed the stage event and is still, 20 years later, often screened; audiences treat it less as a movie than as the focus of a costume party – such screenings represent, perhaps, the quintessence of 1990s Decadence.
All through this period there was interesting work going on in the field of the Television movie (tvm). In 1971 there was a very good version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1971 tvm). The Night Stalker (1971 tvm) (> Kolchak Movies) heralded the Kolchak: The Night Stalker tv series (1974-1975); Kung Fu (1972 tvm) was analogous. The Borrowers (1973 tvm) brought Mary Norton's Wainscot society to the screen. The Invisible Man (1975 tvm; > Invisible Man) was a respectable attempt. Spiderman (1977 tvm) was a successful pilot (but a less successful movie) based on the Comics character, and the same might be said of The Incredible Hulk (1970 tvm), The Man from Atlantis (1977 tvm) and Captain America (1979 tvm). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1978 tvm) was a bad US Animated Movie.
And what of the big screen? Eraserhead (1976) was the first feature from David Lynch, who would assume fantasy importance in the following decade. King Kong (1976) was regarded as a shoddy imitation, although it is not poor. Through the Looking Glass (1976) announced that Pornographic Fantasy Movies need not be entirely awful, although almost all of its successors have been. Allegro Non Troppo (1977) was a brilliant Parody of Disney's Fantasia (1940) and a significant contribution to the art of the Animated Movie. The Car (1977), about a mindlessly demonic automobile, represented an austere extreme of Technofantasy. Freaky Friday (1977) was an early example of the craze for Identity-Exchange movies that would reach its peak 10 years or so later. Jabberwocky (1977) saw Terry Gilliam break out of the straitjacket of his animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus. The Mouse and His Child (1977) – based on the tale by Russell Hoban – was pleasing. Pete's Dragon (1977), from Disney, was an early Toon movie; The Rescuers (1977), again from Disney, brought Margery Sharp's Wainscot society into the cinema; it was sequelled, much later, by The Rescuers Down Under (1990). Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977), from Richard Williams, was a more noteworthy Animated Movie. Star Wars (1977) put the traditional Fairytale into a space-opera milieu; its successors, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), explored the Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere legend – and many other fantasy tropes – in the same context. With Wizards (1977) Ralph Bakshi's patchy fantasy career came to a first flowering; soon after, his Lord of the Rings (1978) represented one of the fantasy cinema's great disappointments. The Fury (1978) was an enjoyable Technofantasy, much later succeeded by the less enjoyable Firestarter (1984). Magic (1978) was an intriguing fantasy of Perception. The Medusa Touch (1978), based on the novel by Peter Van Greenaway (1929-1988), was a grimly enigmatic piece of fantasy that queried whether precognition was a mere passive foretelling of the future or an active bringing of that future about. Patrick (1978) was an unusual technofantasy Horror Movie. Watership Down (1978), based on the Richard Adams bestseller, proved a rather dull Animated Movie once its brilliant first few minutes were over. Mixing animation and live-action to no great effect, The Water Babies (1978) did little justice to Charles Kingsley's original. Heaven Can Wait (1978) reprised Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) reprised Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
And then along came a blockbuster, Superman (1978), a Technofantasy that altered the course of popular cinema for almost two decades. Its enormous success alerted moviemakers to the fact that the Comics held great and exploitable riches. Much earlier Batman – The Movie (1966; > Batman Movies) had enjoyed modest attention, but it had been based less on the comics than on the tv series Batman (1966-1968). Aside from the Superman Movies there have been, over the years, Captain America (1979 tvm), Flash Gordon (1980), Popeye (1980), Swamp Thing (1981) and its sequel The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), The Toxic Avenger (1985) and its sequels, Howard the Duck (1986), Batman (1989) and its sequels (> Batman Movies), Captain America (1989), Darkman (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), The Addams Family (1991) and its sequel Addams Family Values (1993) (> Addams Family Movies), The Rocketeer (1991), The Crow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Casper (1995) (> Casper, the Friendly Ghost) and various others. A similar notion was the genesis of Condorman (1981). Characters from children's literature have not been immune: for example, Captain W E Johns's Biggles was transplanted into a Timeslip fantasy, Biggles (1986).
Returning to the late 1970s, there were horror fantasies like The Fog (1979) and Werner Herzog's exquisite remake, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) (> Dracula Movies), as well as an irreverent – although not, as often accused, blasphemous – look at the origins of Religion (here Christianity) in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). 1980 saw the first in what would come to seem an interminable series, The Howling (1980), and the Stephen King industry made progress with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). An American Werewolf in London (1981) picked up on the Humour that had been present in Horror Movies like The Howling to produce a result that was more humour than horror. Clash of the Titans (1981) represented an overdue swansong for Ray Harryhausen's spfx, while Conan the Barbarian (1981; > Conan Movies) was the first of two movies in which Arnold Schwarzenegger – soon to become one of the biggest box-office draws of all – flexed his muscles as the severe, monosyllabic Conan; the other was Conan the Destroyer (1984). Also released in 1981 but virtually ignored at the time was one of the best of all Sword and Sorcery movies, Dragonslayer (1981). Excalibur (1981) was John Boorman's excellent but much misunderstood synthesis of the Matter of Britain: the critics, unfamiliar with the Arthur canon, said it was muddled, and they delivered a similar verdict on Ghost Story (1981), based on Peter Straub's famous novel. Wolfen (1981) trod the line between fantasy, Supernatural Fiction and Science Fiction with initial uncertainty but eventual skill. Steven Spielberg – who through movies like Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) had become the world's most bankable director – took the world by storm with the first of his Indiana Jones movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). These attracted imitators like King Solomon's Mines (1985), based very loosely on the H Rider Haggard novel. Meanwhile Spielberg carried on to dominate fantasy cinema the way Disney had dominated Animated Movies decades before: he directed or was otherwise involved in Poltergeist (1982) and its sequels, E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982), Gremlins (1984) and its sequel, Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels, The Goonies (1985), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985; > Sherlock Holmes), Don Bluth's An American Tail (1986) and its (non-Bluth) sequel, Bluth's The Land Before Time (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) – done in conjunction with Disney – Big (1988), Always (1989), Arachnophobia (1990), Hook (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993). It is almost impossible to calculate the number of movies released during this decade and a half that either consciously or automatically incorporated a strong Spielbergian influence – two that spring easily to mind are The Lost Boys (1987) and Lady in White (1988).
In the same year as Raiders of the Lost Ark came the first full-fledged fantasy by another director of enormous importance in the field, Terry Gilliam: Time Bandits (1981), almost without a doubt the most successful transposition of the Instauration Fantasy to the screen. Gilliam's is too individual a voice to dominate in the way that Spielberg's has done, but his contribution to the fantasy genre – with Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1996), as well as, earlier, the Monty Python movies – has arguably been even more important.
Jim Henson released a minor milestone of high fantasy with The Dark Crystal (1982) and that same year saw Peter Greenaway's borderline fantasy The Draughtsman's Contract (1982). Jekyll and Hyde: Together Again (1982) hilariously lampooned the Jekyll and Hyde Movies and much else besides. The Last Unicorn (1982), an Animated Movie based on the Peter S Beagle novel and scripted by Beagle himself, disappointed; The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) did likewise. Disney entered the Technofantasy arena with Tron (1982), a movie much disliked on its release; it now seems much better, and likely would have been more successful if released a few years later.
It must already be evident that the 1980s was a decade in which it seemed that every second movie released was fantasy, sf, horror or some blending of the three. Moreover, a considerable number of them had the name of Stephen King attached, moviemakers having apparently decided this was a guarantee of success. 1983 alone saw Cujo (1983), The Dead Zone (1983) and Christine (1983) all given major treatment, and there has been little let-up since. Some of these movies have been good but many have been fairly mediocre; certainly there have been far too many of them. Even King himself eventually rebelled, taking various measures to control the flood and ensure at least a modicum of quality.
Some movies came and went almost unnoticed, among them Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983) – which was unrelated to the rest of the Halloween slasher series – The Keep (1983) – which was virtually lost for a decade – and The Hunger (1983), which was regarded as a triumph of style over content. Svengali (1983) was a brave experiment. Disney offered the live-action Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), which wasn't much liked, and the animated featurette Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983; > Christmas Carol), which was – it went some way to fill a hiatus in Disney's production of animated features, between The Fox and the Hound (1981) and the poorly received The Black Cauldron (1985), the studio's attempt at animated High Fantasy.
1984 had a fair number of minor attractions, like All of Me (1984), a brace of further Stephen King-based movies in Children of the Corn (1984) and Firestarter (1984), the interesting Horror Movie Child's Play (1984), a surprisingly good version of A Christmas Carol (1984 tvm), the second – and weakest – Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), The Neverending Story (1984), Oh God! You Devil – the last and best in the series begun with Oh, God! (1977) – Sheena (1984), which was an attempt at a feminist Jungle Movie, Splash! (1984) and Supergirl (1984; > Superman Movies). But the year saw some major work as well. The Company of Wolves (1984), based on stories by Angela Carter and co-scripted by her, mixed legends of Wolves, Werewolves and Little Red Riding-Hood into a sensual cocktail; it is one of the central movies of the modern fantasy cinema. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984), a rather sombre, wistful tragicomedy, was Woody Allen's most noteworthy contribution to the genre. Ghostbusters (1984) and Gremlins (1984) were big box-office successes, as – on a different scale – was A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which brought a new level of imaginativeness to the Horror Movie and spawned an extensive series of sequels, some good in their own right. And Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) showed that, after all these decades which had seemed to prove the contrary, it was possible to make a good – indeed, excellent – Tarzan Movie.
The following year did not enjoy such riches, with perhaps only four movies in the front rank. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) was the most powerful of these: a movie about fantasy rather than straightforwardly a fantasy movie, it packed considerable punch. Brazil (1985) saw Terry Gilliam tackling an Alternate Reality head-on in a fantasy that assumed its viewers were as conceptually nimble as readers of full-fantasy novels. Clan of the Cave Bear (1985), though poorly received, was a refreshing attempt to reclaim the Prehistoric Fantasy from the realm of bimbos 'n' dinosaurs in which it had been trapped since One Million Years BC (1966; > One Million Bc). And Ladyhawke (1985) was easily the best of the Genre-Fantasy movies released in a year rich in that subgenre; others included Legend (1985) and Red Sonja (1985). Also of interest were Return to Oz (1985) – a brave attempt to continue The Wizard of Oz (1939) – the teen comedies Teen Wolf (1985) and the rather sharper and funnier Fright Night (1985), The Goonies (1985) and Re-Animator (1985), the latter a skewed variant of the Frankenstein motif. A couple of bad movies are also worth noting: The Bride (1985), which sequelled The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (> Frankenstein Movies), and Ghoulies (1985), a dismal horror comedy that imitated Gremlins and was itself to be imitated by Critters (1986). Much more interesting was the Clint Eastwood fantasy/Western Crosshatch Pale Rider (1985) – he had much earlier attempted the same combination with High Plains Drifter (1972).
The high points of 1986 were David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986), Don Bluth's An American Tail (1986), House (1986), Highlander (1986), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Vamp (1986) and, most especially, the obscure tv movie Born of Fire (1986 tvm); since all the others could be assigned to one or other stock subgenre, this latter, an astonishing piece, was a timely reminder that full fantasy was still alive and well in the movies. Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986) was a merry movie that can be regarded as a rationalized Technofantasy; it was marked by one of Whoopi Goldberg's best performances. Gothic (1986; > Frankenstein Movies) saw Ken Russell made a fool of by Mary Shelley. Labyrinth (1986) was a leaden attempt to reprise the high-fantasy successes of the previous years; it is astonishing that Jim Henson could have made such a mess of this. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) was an amiable and perennially popular humorous musical rehash of Roger Corman's original The Little Shop of Horrors (1961). Biggles (1986) and Howard the Duck (1986) were expensive flops, although the former has probably recouped its investment through repeated tv screenings. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) was a big-budget exercise that failed through flaccidity.
1987 might be characterized as the year in which moviemakers demonstrated their contempt for their public. Around this time Hollywood was bemoaning the fact that cinema audiences were falling off so drastically, and blamed the reduction on various extraneous factors. 1987 saw the exploitative Masters of the Universe (1987), Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987) – an excruciating sequel to Pinocchio (1940) – Teen Wolf Too (1987), which was dire, The Stepford Children (1987 tvm; > The Stepford Wives ), a cynical attempt to draw blood from a long-dead corpse, and numerous movies whose titles began with the word "Return": The Return of the Living Dead Part II (1987), The Return of the Shaggy Dog (1987; > Disney), A Return to 'Salem's Lot (1987) ... There was Bigfoot and the Hendersons (1987; vt Harry and the Hendersons), progenitor of the tv sitcom Bigfoot and the Hendersons; feelgood fantasy struggled towards yet another low. Nonetheless, the Horror Movie was producing some good material, with The Gate (1987), The Lost Boys (1987), Predator (1987) – notable because of the way its viciously carnivorous and invisible alien was treated cinematographically – and especially Hellraiser (1987), a revolting yet conceptually exciting Horror Movie created by Clive Barker. There was some good commercial animation going on as well; the continuing gap left by Disney was filled by Cat City (1987) and The Brave Little Toaster (1987), while Japanese Anime made a big breakthrough with Akira (1987). The Witches of Eastwick (1987) gave a witty account of the impact of the Devil on a small US town. The fantasy movie of the year was undoubtedly Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987).
1988 saw some fine and moderately fine movies: Beetlejuice (1988), Big (1988), Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988), Dream Demon (1988), Edge of Sanity (1988; > Jekyll and Hyde Movies), High Spirits (1988), Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), Lady in White (1988), Scrooged (1988; > Christmas Carol), Shadow Dancing (1988), Sundown (1988), Vampires in Venice (1988; > Dracula Movies), Vice Versa (1988) and The Wind in the Willows (1988 tvm). Willow (1988) and Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm (1988) gave fantasy a bad name, but the balance was more than redressed by such movies as The Dead Can't Lie (1988 tvm), The Navigator: a Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) and – each in their way truly exceptional – Jan Švankmajer's Alice (1988), Celia (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
The following year was, by contrast, disappointing: Tim Burton's Batman (1989; > Batman Movies) was a great commercial success but, viewed now, seems pompous; Captain America (1989), another attempt to revive a comics hero, was bland; All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) showed that Don Bluth's studios were still capable of Disney-quality animation but also that they remained incapable of mastering the art of plot-construction; Sinbad of the Seven Seas (1989) plumbed new depths of badness among the frequently undistinguished series of Sinbad Movies; and Always (1989) showed Steven Spielberg at his most saccharine. Yet there were some bright spots. Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), although a financial disaster – so much so that a book on the subject has been published – has come to be regarded as a central movie of late-1980s fantasy. Erik the Viking (1989), again from a Monty Python team-member, Terry Jones, captivates through audacity. Ghostbusters II (1989), though disliked by the teenies and the critics alike, added new dimensions of fantasy to what could have been a mere reprise of the basic riff of Ghostbusters (1984). Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) was one of the first Disney live-action movies in the modern era to be a Technofantasy that did not nauseate; in animation, Disney released The Little Mermaid (1989), showing that in at least this area of activity the studio was back on song. The Icicle Thief (1989), dir Maurizio Nichetti, was in the English-speaking world regarded as an Art House movie – a bit "difficult" – but is a classic. The Witches (1989) was an extremely effective and entertaining version of the Roald Dahl tale. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was the best of the Indiana Jones series, which had looked in danger of trailing off into mediocrity, as series often do. Most of all, perhaps, Field of Dreams (1989) showed that, through fantasy, even an activity as divorced from the world outside the USA as Baseball could be used as the basis for a fantasy movie that was universally affecting.
It is always reassuring, when conducting a historical survey, to regard a new decade as in some way heralding a new dawn, but, as noted, fantasy cinema declines to cooperate. The 1990 crop of fantasy movies was largely undistinguished and unambitious, for the main part representing cashings-in on the successes of the late 1980s. Almost An Angel (1990), although a nice little movie, could hardly have come into existence had it not been for Paul Hogan's hugely popular Crocodile Dundee series; Ghost (1990) was a big-budget rehash of earlier ideas; Frankenstein Unbound (1990) added little to the Frankenstein-Movie corpus; Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990; Gremlins) was a sequel with a lot of razzmatazz but no real content; Lord of the Flies (1990) was a pallid remake; Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990) showed the story should have ended earlier; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) was better; and so on right down to Child's Play 2 (1990), The Exorcist III (1990) (> The Exorcist), which was actually rather good, Highlander II: The Quickening (1990) (> Highlander), which wasn't, and Howling VI (1990) (> The Howling). Dick Tracy (1990), Ducktales: The Movie – Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990) – both of these based on Comics (and in the latter case also on a tv series) – Edward Scissorhands (1990), the gory Nightbreed (1990) and the deliberately understated Truly Madly Deeply (1990) – originally a tvm – did something to redress the balance, but overall 1990 was a bad year for cinematic fantasy.
1991 gave us the exact opposite. A mere listing of the titles shows the riches on offer: The Addams Family (1991) (> Addams Family Movies), Barton Fink (1991), Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991), The Butcher's Wife (1991), Dead Again (1991), Defending Your Life (1991), The Double Life of Véronique (1991), Drop Dead Fred (1991), Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1991), An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), The Fisher King (1991), Hook (1991), Naked Lunch (1991), Prospero's Books (1991), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1991) and Volere Volare (1991); to this list could be added Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which while an sf movie contains sufficient elements of Technofantasy – notably the fact that the "bad" Terminator is a Shapeshifter – to be of considerable fantasy interest. Alongside this distinguished list, Blake Edwards's weak attempt at a cross-sexual Identity-Exchange movie, Switch (1991), looked like a fossil.
The next year almost, but not quite, kept up the standard, as Disney weighed in with one of their best Animated Movies for a long time, Aladdin (1992). Good fantasy comedies – some of them more than just good – included Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Death Becomes Her (1992), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992; > Invisible Man) and Stay Tuned (1992). Batman Returns (1992) (> Batman Movies) was a leaden sequel. Two tvms were of note: Frankenstein: The Real Story (1992 tvm; > Frankenstein Movies) and the bizarre, enigmatic Golem: The Wandering Soul (1992; > The Golem). Toys (1992) was much underrated by the critics – perhaps perplexed because it seemed to have the premise of a Disney family fantasy yet was quite unDisneyesque – but the most impressive fantasy of the year was Orlando (1992), an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography (1928): it stood far above a by no means unimpressive throng through the brilliance of both Sally Potter's direction and Tilda Swinton's performance in the title role.
As with 1992, 1993 offered a mixed bag. The French comedy Les Visiteurs (1993) outgrossed in its native land the contemporaneously released Jurassic Park (1993), Steven Spielberg's record-breaking blockbuster, but oddly was not given general release in the English-speaking world. Candyman (1993) was an impressively imaginative fantasy-Horror Movie based on Urban Legend, while Body Snatchers (1993) was the most edge-of-seat version yet of Jack Finney's fantasy-themed sf tale – as with Les Visiteurs, its appeal was seriously misjudged by UK distributors, and it suffered a direct-to-video release. Groundhog Day (1993) was an enormously popular lightweight feelgood fantasy, while at the time everybody hated the Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero (1993) – an adverse judgement which today, interestingly, critics are generally reversing in a shameless act of revisionist history. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1993; > Dracula Movies) was similarly disliked – and similarly, albeit to a lesser extent, is now more kindly regarded. The Trial (1993 tvm) was a brave attempt, but could never match up to the shadows and surreal mystery of Orson Welles's version, The Trial (1962). The outstanding fantasy movie of the year, both commercially and aesthetically, was Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a rare Hollywood venture into stop-motion animation.
It is difficult, at the time of writing, to judge the merits of fantasy movies released after 1993: as with such works as Toys and Last Action Hero it can be, as noted above, that initial critical reactions soon seem hopelessly off the mark. To take examples of this, the remake Miracle on 34Th Street (1994) was regarded as solid sugar on release but can now, the publicity hype having mercifully faded from memory, be seen as the rather affecting minor movie it is. Conversely, the same sort of hype made The Crow (1994) seem like a stylish work, which on repeated viewing one can see that it is not. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994; > Frankenstein Movies) was disingenuously publicized as very frightening, thereby disappointing moviegoers who expected to have the pants scared off them and deterring others from going to see what was a very lovingly crafted homage to both Mary Shelley and the Frankenstein movie tradition. Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), eagerly awaited for years by avid Anne Rice fans, was another victim of over-hyping: a respectable piece of horror froth, it fell significantly short of the masterpiece status the publicity machine had claimed for it. Casper (1995) (> Casper, the Friendly Ghost) was another to be over-hyped, and the same went for Batman Forever (1995) (> Batman Movies) – neither were bad movies, although the former suffered from cuteness (something almost impossible to achieve when starring the estimable Christina Ricci!) and the latter from plotting incoherence. Exactly this quality was one of the strengths of Tank Girl (1995), a curious crosshatch of sf, Science Fantasy and Technofantasy that was much loathed by the critics (excluding the current writer) but much enjoyed by average moviegoers; it seems a reasonably safe bet that, in a few years' time, the judgement of the latter will come to be the received wisdom. Congo (1995) was Frank Marshall's partially successful attempt, based on Michael Crichton's Congo (1980) to recast for a new generation the Lost-Race movie, this particular race being, for good measure, Apes. Hugely over-expensive, widely derided but ultimately commercially respectable was the Far-Future epic Waterworld (1995). The Indian in the Cupboard (1995) (> Lynne Reid Banks) was a delightfully inventive children's fantasy that had significant appeal to adults, and Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde (1995) carried on a grand tradition (> Jekyll and Hyde Movies) ... while ensuring that audiences continued to salivate at the prospect of the oft-postponed – and, as it proved, disastrous – Mary Reilly (1996), based on the Valerie Martin novel. Babe (1995) was a surprisingly charming Talking-Animals live-action fantasy about a piglet who wanted to be a sheepdog (> Dick King-Smith). The Santa Clause (1995) rehashed the idea of a mortal having to take over from Santa Claus. One post-1993 fantasy movie that one can say with certainty will continue to be regarded highly in future decades is Jan Švankmajer's Faust (1994).
At the time of writing (early 1996) it is, at least in the UK and USA, difficult at any particular time to find a multi-screen cinema that is not offering at least one fantasy movie – and, if one regards sf movies, Animated Movies and Horror Movies as subgenres of fantasy proper – it is probably impossible. Any listing of movies currently on general release shows a multiplicity of works of fantasy interest, and many feature in the box-office Top Ten charts. To be fair, in part this is because Hollywood is currently continuing an orgy of rehashing of earlier material: remakes, developments from the Comics, resuscitation of decades-ago movie characters, etc. But what should not be forgotten is that a comparatively few directors have in recent years determinedly put fantasy cinema back at the centre of attention: although one can find much to criticize in the output of all of them, moviemakers like Don Bluth, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Steven Spielberg – not to mention the various executives of the ever-expanding Disney/ Touchstone/Hollywood Pictures organization – have succeeded in making us reassess what going to the cinema is all about. It may be coincidence that moviegoing, which had slumped by 1984-1987 to an extent that threatened the future of the industry, is now as popular an activity as it has ever been ... but one suspects that it is no coincidence at all. [JG]
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Georges Méliès.