20 Coolest '80s Fantasy Films

If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably noticed a bit of a movie trend. With the advent of more complex special effects (thanks, Star Wars ), world-building was in , which meant a gold rush of some of the coolest, most imaginative fantasy films the cinematic landscape has ever produced.

So here's our celebration of shaggy hair-dos, bare-chested meat-sacks and the very best in out-of-this-world action. One small caveat. Where favourite fantasy flicks blurred the lines with other genres a bit too much ( Ghostbusters , Indiana Jones ) we discounted them. And, sorry, but Ewoks: Battle For Endor didn't make the cut...

1. Labyrinth (1986)

Jim Henson's second live-action fantasy feature (keep reading for the first) is an embarrassment of genre riches. Thanks to Henson's puppet expertise, Brian Froud's gorgeous design work and David Bowie's ear for a show-stopper, it's a collision of creativity and simply the best fantasy film out there, bar none.

Though it's a tragedy that the film flopped at the box office (breaking Henson's heart in the process), the frequent Masquerade Balls at London's Prince Charles Cinema show that it definitely has staying power. The power of voodoo. Who do? You do, Labyrinth . You do...

2. Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam. Michael Palin. John Cleese. A quick glance at the credits for Time Bandits and you'd be forgiven for assuming it's another jolly outing for those Monty Pythons. You'd be half right. More fantasy than Brazil (sorry, Brazil ), it's a bonkers, unpredictable, laugh-out-loud slice of joy as an 11-year-old boy comes across a band of inter-dimensional thieves.

The second instalment in Gilliam's 'Trilogy of Imagination' (after Brazil but before The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen ), Time Bandits is bursting with child-like glee.

3. The Princess Bride (1987)

Any film that opens with Columbo telling a story to the kid from The Wonder Years is BOUND to be a classic, and that's definitely the case with Rob Reiner's sword-sharp fantasy satire. Cary Elwes will forever be known as The Dread Pirate aka Westley, but he's just one of the great players here, which includes Robin Wright as Buttercup and Wallace Shawn as the brilliantly despicable Vizzini.

All together now: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

4. Dragonslayer (1981)

Peter MacNicol may not crop up on many 'cool' lists, but he definitely fits the bill in Disney/Paramount's flame-grilled swords-n-sorcery fable, which features one of the coolest movie dragons ever.

MacNicol plays young apprentice Galen, who goes through a rite of passage that ends with him confronting a scaly monstrosity and emerging as the titular slayer. The fiery cave scenes are surprisingly scary and director Matthew Robbins imbues his fantasy with shades of darkness. He's still working, too, currently co-writing the script for Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak .

5. Clash Of The Titans (1981)

Forget the 3D remake, this '80s Clash is where it's at as Greek gods manipulate the fates of lowly men. And did we mention Laurence Olivier plays Zeus? Because who else could possibly pull that off? (Sorry, Liam Neeson.)

The cool factor is off the chart thanks to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters (still more realistic than a lot of contemporary CGI – Sharknado , anyone?). Medusa in particular is shiver-inducingly scary and central to one of the film's best set-pieces. Who needs remakes, eh?

6. The Dark Crystal (1982)

Wickedly sneaking some seriously traumatising stuff into a 'kid's film', Jim Henson's first live-action feature* takes the Roald Dahl approach to storytelling by shoving the nasty stuff right up there with zero apologies.

The Skeksis? Hideous. The Garthim? Terrifying. Even goodies like Aughra are grossly twisted and untrustworthy. Henson's ambition is writ large in the total absence of any humans (a few sneaky shots of Jen climbing aside), the huge-scale world building and the grown-up philosophical debates. Small wonder nobody's been brave enough to make a sequel yet.

(*that isn't a Muppet movie)

7. Willow (1988)

George Lucas masterminded this Hobbit-like fantasy, which owes more than a passing debt to JRR Tolkien, but it's director Ron Howard who imbues Willow 's pint-sized frolics with an enormous sense of fun.

Bowling from one action set-piece to the next, his film's stuffed with memorable characters, including Val Kilmer's cooler-than-cool Madmartigan. (Who, at one point, gets blinged up in a gold suit of armour. NICE.) Meanwhile, Jean Marsh's Queen Bavmorda is a formidable foe, making Disney's evil royals look like drag queens with a grudge...

8. The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Admit it, you're already singing the theme tune, right? David Bowie's lyrical deftness may mean that Labyrinth eclipses NeverEnding Story on the 'sheer number of catchy tunes' front, but Limahl's techno-pop NeverEnding Story ballad is impossibly hummable.

The creativity doesn't end there, either, director Wolfgang Petersen imbuing his kiddy fable with some of the best imagery of the '80s. There are soaring palatial structures, turbulent storm clouds, that terrifying bog, which was responsible for droves of nippers sobbing their hearts out when Aretyu's horse got gobbled up. Alright, the title's a cheat, but this is dark, spirit-soaring stuff.

9. Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a loin cloth. Hefting a great fuck-off sword. What's not cool about that? Back when Arnie was still laying the foundations of his movie career, Conan cemented him as one to watch two years before he became The Terminator.

Described by the ever-reliable Roger Ebert as “a perfect fantasy for the alienated preadolescent”, Conan is all about macho posturing, bloody violence and Arnie beating things to a pulp while doing The Arnie Scream. The sequel dumbed things down for a kiddy audience, but there's nothing quite like the grit and grue of this first film.

10. Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984)

Before Spirited Away turned Studio Ghibli into a worldwide phenomenon, the studio's whole existence can pretty much credited to this gorgeous, post-apocalyptic fantasy in which young princess Nausicaä joins the fight against giant insects in the jungle.

Occupying an honourary space amongst Ghibli releases (it was actually released before the studio formed), Nausicaä was adapted for the screen by Hayao Miyazaki, who used his own manga as inspiration. The result is pure manga magic in motion. Unmissable.

11. Highlander (1986)

On paper, Highlander just shouldn't work. It's an action fantasy starring a Frenchman (Christopher Lambert) who clashes swords with Sean Connery, who's blatantly Scottish despite his name being Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez.

But that weirdness is sort of what makes it so flipping cool. Weirdness is the name of the game in Russell Mulchy's flick: Highlander is a unique hodge-podge of incongruous elements that somehow collide in the most beautiful way possible. It's edgy, nuts and impossible not to love. The same can't be said for any of the sequels...

12. Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

John Carpenter took a break from scaring the bejeezus out of audiences for this San Francisco romp, which capitalises on a never-hotter Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. Instantly iconic in his vest and jeans, Jack's one of cinema's coolest anti-heroes – funny to think that the film was really supposed to belong to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun).

Considering it's Carpenter behind the camera, there's no shortage of craziness (and monsters), and the action comes thick and fast. And if Russell flexing wasn't enough, the girls also get a good look-in in the shape of a young Kim Cattrall. A bubbling cauldron of cool...

13. Big (1988)

Released the same year as 18 Again! and Vice Versa , Penny Marshall's fantasy comedy edges out the competition thanks to Tom Hanks' never-saccharine portrayal of a 12-year-old who makes a wish and wakes up as a 30-year-old man.

Hitting that sweet spot where fantasy and comedy collide, Big is part coming-of-ager, part wish-fulfilment fantasy, part fish-out-of-water comedy. It's all heart, too, thanks to Hanks, whose enthusiasm is faultless, and who can make you laugh or cry on command.

14. Legend (1985)

Ridley Scott's eye for stunning visuals boosts this epic fairytale, which stars a young Tom Cruise as Jack, a dweller of the forest who, alongside Princess Lili (Mia Sara), attempt to save two unicorns from the Lord Of Darkness (Tim Curry).

Disney fairytales apparently inspired Scott's vision for the look of Legend , but he goes darker still when it comes to, uh, Darkness, a truly frightening foe who wouldn't look out of place in a Lord Of The Rings film. Nifty set of horns, too...

15. Ladyhawke (1985)

Though it divided critics upon its release, Ladyhawke remains a solid entry in the sword-and-sorcery sub-genre. The plot follows cursed lovers Isabeau d'Anjou (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Captain Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer).

The film's now firmly embedded in cult classic territory, but there are those who still remember and love it – the film's plot inspired a particularly fun season three episode of Charmed ('Magic Hour') as well as musician Pip Brown's stage name.

16. Return To Oz (1985)

If you thought The Wizard Of Oz was scary, you probably haven't watched the much-belated sequel often enough. Picking up with Dorothy (now played by a young Fairuza Balk), the plot sees her whisked back to Oz, which has been all-but destroyed by the Nome King. It's up to Dorothy and a plucky band of new friends to put things to rights.

It's post-apocalyptic stuff played out on a fairytale canvas (eat your hearts out Hunger Games and Divergent ) with some seriously disturbing imagery – not to mention the terrifying Wheelers.

17. Heavy Metal (1981)

Resolutely adult fantasy, this, in case the above image wasn't indication enough. Inspired by Heavy Metal magazine and directed by Gerald Potterton, it's a veritable medley of nudity, monsters and fantastical stories, all of which combine to make for a riveting anthology.

While some critics sniffily dismissed it, the film's since become a cult classic and Total Film holds a warm place in its heart for it – not least because the soundtrack is absolutely rock solid.

18. The Secret Of NIMH (1982)

An animated adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's novel, NIMH is a painterly, action-packed adventure yarn that mixes serious darkness into its Disney-esque visuals.

The plot follows Mrs Brisby, a mouse who is drawn into a dark and dangerous conspiracy in the wake of her husband's death. If we lost you slightly at 'mouse', come back! This is sinister, thrilling, deviously clever stuff that we adored as kids and adore even more now.

19. Excalibur (1981)

Guy Ritchie is assembling his own Arthurian fantasy flick as we speak, which means it's as good a time as any to revisit John Boorman's glitzy, crazy-cool retelling of the legend of King Arthur.

Featuring Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne and Nicol Williamson, Excalibur is super stylish, doesn't pay too much attention to actual history and takes a few liberties with the original legend, but who cares when you have Mirren on seductive siren form and some of the coolest fantasy scraps ever filmed?

20. Masters Of The Universe (1987)

This attempt by the now-defunct Cannon Group to bring He-Man to the big screen is almost adorably misguided. Belatedly piggy-backing the success of Star Wars , it owes a huge debt to George Lucas – from the design of Skeletor's footsoldiers to his Vader-esque theme tune.

Thank Grayskull, though, for the baddies. Frank Langella is deliriously devilish as Skeletor, snarling every line like he's in a panto version of Hamlet, while Meg Foster knocks it out of the park as Evil-Lyn. Meanwhile, Dolph Lundgren looks good in leather and Courteney Cox practises her shrieking for Scream , released less than a decade later. It's cruddy and ridiculous, but by GOD we love it.

Josh Winning

Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.