Digital Access

Digital Access
Access and all Shaw Media Illinois content from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

News, features, sports, opinion and more!

Email Newsletters

Sign up for MyWebTimes email newsletters and stay in the know.

THE B-LIST: The '80s — Big hair, sharp shoulders, high fantasy

The best magical movies of the era

Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, left) faces off against the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) in order to rescue her baby brother in "Labyrinth."
Sarah (Jennifer Connelly, left) faces off against the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) in order to rescue her baby brother in "Labyrinth."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The 1980s was a golden era for fantasy.

The special effects were practical, heavy on animatronics, prosthetics and makeup (which've aged MUCH better than CGI).

The stories were wild and weird and dark (and gave plenty of us nightmares).

And everything — hair, faces, blood — was covered in glitter.

Truly, a splendid time for movie magic.

This week, I'm leaving out the films I've talked about in past lists, such as "Ladyhawke," "Legend" and "The Princess Bride," to pay tribute to the other glam, glittery, puppet-heavy fantasy films that were fundamental in shaping me (and an entire generation).

7. "THE NEVERENDING STORY" (1984). The bullied Bastian (Barret Oliver) hides away to read about the magical world of Fantasia, which is being threatened by an evil known as the Nothing. While following the adventures of the flying luckdragon Falkor and the boy warrior Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who is questing to find a cure for the ailing Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach), Bastian realizes he's become a part of the story — and may prove instrumental in saving Fantasia from the Nothing.

Quick show of hands: who else sobbed their heart out when Atreyu's beloved horse Artax was sucked into the Swamp of Sadness? And who else found those Sphinxes as terrifying as Gmork? "The NeverEnding Story" is one of the first films I can remember watching — on a tiny black and white TV, no less — and it may be the first to give me nightmares. Even Falkor, a furry Chinese-style dragon, was pretty scary to Teeny Weeny Angie.

But childhood needs a healthy seasoning of surreal images and safe fear, which this meta-tastic film (a story within a story within a story, just as the title promised) delivered in spades.

6. "CONAN THE DESTROYER" (1984). Barbarian hero Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gathers a motley crew — thief Malak (Tracey Walter), wizard Akiro (Mako), bandit queen Zula (Grace Jones) and bodyguard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) — to accompany the princess Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo) on a quest to recover the jeweled horn of the dreaming god Dagoth for Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas).

Sometimes you just need classic, campy sword and sorcery action. The "Conan" films scratch that itch nicely. "Destroyer" is superior to "Barbarian," thanks to its quest and strong supporting cast; character actor Walter is hysterical as the stabby Malak, Mako automatically elevates everything he's in and Grace Jones > most of the world.

Queen Tamaris is straight up #FashionGoals. I'll never not find it hysterical that WILT CHAMBERLAIN was put in charge of preserving a princess' virginity. And the climactic wrestling match between Dagoth (André the Giant) and Conan is rousing entertainment.

5. "GREMLINS" (1984). An inventor buys a creature called a Mogwai in a Chinatown antique shop as a Christmas present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). The three rules: don't expose Mogwai to bright light, which will kill it; don't get it wet; and never, EVER, feed it after midnight. Naturally, Billy fails to follow the rules and the sweet Mogwai he names Gizmo ends up birthing a load of scaly, evil Gremlins — led by the nefarious Stripe — who terrorize the town.

Thanks to "Gremlins," the Motion Picture Association of America created the PG-13 rating. Apparently very small children shouldn't watch grotesque creatures kill an old lady by shooting her out of her stair lift, or hear them scream while exploding in a microwave, or listen to Phoebe Cates talk about her dead dad stuck up the family's chimney.

"Gremlins" is equally creepy and cute, with superb monster designs/effects, and you bet your bippy I had a plush Gizmo as a kid.

4. "BEETLEJUICE" (1988). Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) Maitland die in a car accident and return to haunt their beloved house. Unfortunately for the Maitlands, the new living owners, the Deetz family — Charles (Jeffrey Jones), Delia (Catherine O'Hara) and Lydia (Winona Ryder) — begin to drastically change it, so they resort to hiring the "bio-exorcist" poltergeist Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to scare them away. Then things get really crazy...

Tim Burton's view of the afterlife — where ghosts are stuck in their homes for 125 years, the dead carry the marks of their deaths and those who die by suicide are forced to become "civil servants" — is pretty grim.

Thankfully, the wacky character designs, prosthetics and clever camera tricks makes this a funny, wacky tale. Keaton only has 17 1/2 minutes of screen time but he still steals the show. And goth-hearted girls everywhere found an idol in Lydia.

3. "WILLOW" (1988). The farmer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) becomes the unlikely champion of a baby princess in a war with an evil queen. With the help of roguish warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and the queen's daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), Willow proves he's a true sorcerer despite his diminutive size.

Like all George Lucas stories, this is "eight different classic genre narratives in a trenchcoat," as my friend Sus says. It's "Star Wars" but high fantasy. And boy is it fun. Kilmer's at his swashbuckling-est, Davis is charming in the title role and princess Elora Danan is the cutest baby in history.

There's magic! Enemies to lovers! Folks getting turned into pigs! Truly everything you could want.

2. "THE DARK CRYSTAL" (1982). On a distant planet, a magical crystal shatters and creates two races: peaceful Mystics and evil Skeksis. Jen, a Gelfling who believes he's the last of his kind, is tasked with healing the crystal before the three suns align and the Skeksis rule forever. On his quest, Jen realizes he's not alone when he meets Kira, a Gelfling who can fly and speak to animals.

The characters are all puppets or elaborate costumes designed by artist Brian Froud and created by the Jim Henson Company. The cute ones — like the Gelflings, Podlings and Kira's screaming fuzzball pet Fizzgig — are SO cute. The nasty ones? Nightmare fodder, in the BEST way. Visually, "Dark Crystal" is one of the coolest movies ever made, a real feast for the senses with beautiful music, a moving story and puppet characters that make you feel all the Feels.

It's one of the darkest kids' movies out there, with weird visuals and commentary on genocide and sacrifice. But I've always adored it, and eagerly anticipate the prequel series from Netflix this August.

1. "LABYRINTH" (1986). Teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is frustrated to be stuck babysitting again. But when her complaints attract the attention of the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie), who steals her baby brother, she must venture into the Labyrinth to get him back.

Another Froud/Henson collaboration, but this time with heavy dollops of sexual tension! Oh, David Bowie's Jareth... What an awakening he was for so many of us... "I ask for so little," he infamously says. "Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave." Yowza.

It's a shame this bombed at the box office, because it's the quintessential '80s fantasy film. Bowie! Showers of glitter! Poofy irridescent ballgowns! Puppet friends that teeter on the line between "adorable" and "grotesque"! "Labyrinth" is the perfect rainy day film, a bittersweet dose of nostalgia (covered in glitter).

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

Loading more