If you had the chance to walk the paths of fantasyland, would you? Maybe, but maybe not in the 1980s. Let MrMoth guide you past the dangers untold and hardships unnumbered.
There was a period when nightmares converged. When fear clotted around a single image, distilled from old newsreels. A black and white horror, unshiftable and unsinkable*. This woozy monolith of destruction, this apparition of Death, Destroyer of Worlds, cast a long shadow the popular imagination could not escape. Born into the tail-end of this collective nightmare, a generation was given as entertainment the damaged goods from a basket-case psyche handed down from our elders.
The savage sophistication of this fear oozed out of the cinema of the 1980s in peculiar ways. Sometimes it was straightforward – WarGames took the reckless, destructive farce of Dr Strangelove and packaged it as a videogame, Red Dawn attempted to legitimise the Cold War by making it scorching hot – but other times, the times I’m interested in – it burst from the films in such a wild fashion that it would be easy to think it was just a strange and vivid dream.
Waking on the shores of an unfamiliar ocean. Such a dream that might wrench you from your family, a swooning dream that flew you away to another land. Not for you, though, in your fractured, fearful decade the technicolour land you heard of once in a lullaby. This land is a blasted one, and the beach isn’t a beach at all, it’s a desert. The Deadly Desert, the trinitite-strewn sand of Alamogordo, the uninhabitable shores of Bikini Atoll. And a gentle lift there inside the world’s most careful twister? I should think not.
In Return to Oz, Dorothy is blasted back to her fantasy world by a lightning storm just as she is about to receive shock treatment. Her stories of a better world are dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic, and maybe she has begun to disbelieve them herself until she finds herself in Oz. An Oz utterly changed from the world she knew, a place of nightmare and fear ruled by a head-hunting witch and a king of living rock (some strange species of life that nonetheless unites many of the films herein). All her previous companions are, in effect, dead and their replacements are poor substitutes. The nadir is a ragtag collection of inanimate parts, brought to life through magic dust, that honestly would prefer to be dead. Wouldn’t we all? Leave early to avoid queues.
We see what happens to life that touches that Deadly Desert when one of the Wheelers – terrifying, gibbering, wrongly-proportioned horrors that scarred a generation of children – falls onto its obliterating sand. In an instant it is beyond salvation, a dust sculpture. Accidental art, an image of its dead self left behind to decorate its tomb like the shadows of Hiroshima. One touch is permanent erasure.
This “One touch” rule applies elsewhere in 80s Fantasyland. Broadly speaking, the Deadly Desert and Labyrinth’s Bog of Eternal Stench are geographical cousins: Hostile Geography I have come to think of it, a place of greater danger. Throw in the Swamp of Sadness from The Neverending Story, why not, and the Lightning Sand-pocked Fire Swamp of The Princess Bride. Crude waypoints on a child’s treasure map, hazards either side of the dotted line. X marks the spot, but we’re not here for X. We’re here for the scenery.
This is where the films begin to walk a similar line. In the 1980s, if you were going to make a fantasy world, you had to make it. No shortcuts, no green screen, you had to build the place if someone was going to stand in it. The hand of Jim Henson shows here, a man not afraid to give us bleak (such as the post-Apocalyptic wasteland surrounding the Skeksis Castle in The Dark Crystal) rubbing shoulders with the lush (for all its horror as a place that turns a person into a permanent outcast, the Bog of Eternal Stench is a rich and beautiful place). His death in 1990, just as the decade he had some small hand in defining came to a close, silenced a unique voice in fantasy filmmaking, one whose dedication to the art of physical effects might have struck fascinating sparks from the onrushing storm of CGI.
Instead of a world that exists only as the dream of a printed circuit board, there were lands created by teams of matte painters, model makers and puppeteers. Worlds that breathe with an eerie life, their soundstage interiority giving them a flat, airless feel which only the art of the puppet master or sculptor could give animation to. There’s barely a real sky to be seen in most of these films, the action all taking place under fried alien tropospheres**. Every one of them could have been filmed far underground, bunkered away from a dying world.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when Jareth the Goblin King*** waves his lavishly-attired arm at the Labyrinth that Sarah must traverse to reach his castle. The sky is a gloomy rust-red, as if the sun now toiled through the sky behind a curtain of desert dust. Henson holds back on showing much of Jareth’s kingdom, but it is a world where fairies are gassed, where bogs snap and gape at potential victims and it is bounded on all sides by a vast junkyard. Even the real world crashes into this decay. It is falling into nothing.
Worlds die. The world of the Dark Crystal is doomed to rule by the evil, chittering Skeksis – the weird tussocky habitats of the podlings and (presumably, at one point, before they were systematically wiped out in an offscreen genocide) the gelflings are on the edge of total destruction. The minor fauna of the planet is allowed to live simply to fuel the long lives of these ragged, sickly creatures – once the Skeksis attain immortality, there will be a scouring. No more pretty little glades. No more psychic vines. No more houses tucked into the roots of great trees.
This is played out to the very end in The Neverending Story. As the film reaches its finale****, the world of Fantasia is literally torn apart by a force known only as The Nothing. Oblivion triumphant, all that is left are rocks, debris floating in space. Rocks and the Empress’s Tower, which… I don’t exactly know how to say this but…
It is around this point in the story that the framing device – that child protagonist Bastian is reading about the world of Fantasia and the world of Fantasia is very much aware of this fact – spills over the Fourth Wall. The Childlike Empress is aware, somehow, of our presence. Our observation. We are jolted out of the dark and into the glare of the movie’s spotlight. This isn’t just the fantasy world of Bastian’s imagination, nor the lucid dream of Dorothy’s Oz, the cosy fable told to Fred Savage by Peter Falk, the hormonal wish of the Labyrinth. It’s the world we can see from the cinema, from our sofa… these days, from our seat on the bus, angling our slab of magic this way and that to avoid the glare of the late afternoon sun. A shard of crystal that, if you move it this way and look into it, can show you your dreams. Your dreams, and the collective nightmares of the past.
*Now, of course, our fears are not so neatly delineated and require a montage package to express. Firebombs, beheadings, drone strikes, riots, and those planes smashing endlessly into those buildings, expertly cut together to express something of our collective dread. Less simple times.
**An exception must be made for The Princess Bride here, which exists, for the most part, under glorious blue skies. But, then, The Princess Bride is the anomaly in my choices. Its one throwaway reference to the apocalypse is undercut by its lustful embrace of hope, and the triumph of love. I include it here because of its framing and because the Fire Swamp sequence fits so beautifully with the other Hostile Geography.
*** who is much prettier than his Goblin subjects and oh my god he was a human child spirited away by the Goblins I literally only just got that hell no wonder he wants company
**** An hour and a half long, that film. Fucking swizz.