Throughout the 80’s there was something of a revival of fantasy, sword and sorcery films which produced many beloved genre classics. From The Princess Bride, to Labyrinth, to The Black Cauldron, to Legend. Though ironically many of these films were actually flops when they were first released, they still have devoted followings decades on.
Now as with many other films, the most memorable characters in these movies were often the villains. The villains were naturally the more colourful, and over the top characters and they were often played by the most engaging actor in the cast from John Hurt to David Bowie!
In this article I am going to run through my list of top 10 villains from 80’s fantasy films.
10/ The Crystal Spider/Krull
Krull overall is decent if somewhat overlooked fantasy flick, but the scene with the Spider definitely always stood out the most for me. Its a classic moment that is both genuinely moving and frightening at the same time.
The woman at the centre of the Spider’s maze known as the widow of the web is a powerful sorceress who was exiled there after murdering her and the character Ynyr’s only child.
When Ynyr manages to make his way into her lair she redeems herself by giving him the knowledge of the location of the black fortress. Sadly in order to allow him to escape past the Spider and tell the others where the Fortress is, she is forced to not only sacrifice her own life, but his as well as the spell she casts will protect him from the spider, but as soon as the sand runs down he will die. Thus he has only a few minutes to get free and tell the others where the fortress is. Though he does manage to get free the Spider subsequently eats the Widow alive who is happy to finally be free of her pain and guilt.
This scene truly is perfect. Its incredible the way we end up feeling sorry for the Widow despite the fact that she carried out the most heinous crime one can imagine. I think it was this moment that really gave the movie a lot of gravitas and stopped it just being another generic fantasy flick.
The Spider itself is well animated and the fact that it can move so fast along its own web helps to create a feeling of helplessness when Ynyr is trapped.
The idea of a damsel in distress being trapped somewhere that’s guarded by a monster and the male hero then has to try and slay it, and whisk her off her feet is perhaps the oldest trope in fairy tales and fantasy stories. The Spider and the Widow however manages to turn the old trope on its head in quite a sinister way.
It gives us a very bleak take on the idea, where the male hero dies and the damsel is actually imprisoned by the beast for something horrible she did, and is beyond the point of saving because as she does not want to live with her guilt any more.
As the spider is at the centre of the conflict of this fantastic scene then I have to rate it as one of the most memorable Fantasy villains of the 80’s.
9/ Medusa/ Clash of the Titans
One of Ray Harryhausen’s best. This monster scared the hell out of me as a child.
Harryhausen doesn’t just simply give us a woman with snakes in her hair. He turns Medusa into a hideous half woman half snake hybrid that crawls along the floor like a reptile.
He also gives the face of the monster a hideous, cruel expression that gives you the impression that it enjoys trapping its victims in a state of living death forever.
The idea of Medusa was always a terrifying concept. A woman cursed to transform anyone who looks at her into stone, but Harryhausen I think much like with the Centaur in Golden Voyage of Sinbad really beefed the idea up and made the creature even more frightening.
Whilst the Kraken may be the more iconic beast from this movie, the Medusa definitely scared me more as a child.
8/ The Kurgan/ Highlander
The Kurgan is an evil immortal. In the Highlander universe immortals are people who start out human but after they are killed they come back to life in a state where they will never age and cannot die unless they are decapitated. It is said that all of these immortals will fight with each other until only one remains, who will win an ultimate power known as the prize which will allow them to rule over the earth forever.
The Kurgan originally came from a tribe of people known as the Kurgans who used to toss children into pits of wild dogs for fun! The Kurgan killed all of the other members of his tribe so that he would be known as THE Kurgan. He would go on to take many more thousand Immortals heads as well as rape and pillage his way through history, until only he and his archfoe, Connor McLoud a Highlander from Scotland (who first death the Kurgan was responsible for) are the last two Immortals left who battle it out in New York city in 1985 for the Prize.
The Kurgan isn’t the most nuanced villain but he is lots of fun because he is just such a petty asshole. He does the most childish and nasty things like scaring old ladies, knocking people off bikes, even just putting the candles that Connor lights in memory of his wife out.
Clancy Brown who plays the villain added a lot of the comedic elements to the character. Originally he was written as nothing more than a generic thug, but Brown injected a lot of black comedy into the villain which made him more memorable.
At the same time however the comedic aspects didn’t prevent the character from still being genuinely menacing and there are many disturbing moments with the villain such as his brutal murder of Ramirez played by Sean Connery, whose death he prolongs for his own sadistic pleasure, or his rape of Heather, Connor’s wife which he later taunts Connor over telling him that she must have loved it and wished he would return!
Clancy Brown is absolutely sensational in the part and really I’d say he steals the show from both Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery.
There were many sequels to Highlander and even a whole television series, but the Kurgan never appeared in any of them which was probably for the best as none of them where as strong as the original.
This role also helped to launch Clancy Brown’s career, though he would be typecast normally as villains such as Captain Byron Hadley in the Shawshank Redemption and Lex Luthor in various animated series and films. The Kurgan however will probably always be the part he is most remembered for.
7/ Thulsa Doom/ Conan the Barbarian
Now this version of the character was actually an amalgam of two Conan villains from the original comic books Thulsa Doom and Thoth Amon and thus he is really his own separate character. Inspiration was also drawn from real life cult leaders such as Charles Manson too.
James Earl Jones is excellent in the role. He underplays it and brings a real quiet menace to the villain. Its true that in certain ways a villain who doesn’t shout, scream or chew the scenery can be more frightening. Sometimes a more insane villain works, but in this case, Jones’s quiet, soft spoken voice adds an eerie quality to the villain.
Thulsa Doom is depicted as a demented cult leader who also has the power to turn into a snake! He is also responsible for the deaths of Conan’s parents. He feeds his father to dogs and cuts his mothers head off right in front of him.
Conan later gets even with him by chopping his head off in front of all of his minions. I think of all the villains on this list Thulsa has by far and away the best death.
Fair enough the Kurgan is also decapitated, but with Thulsa we not only see him die, but everything he has ever believed in, everything he has spent centuries building die with him as Conan slaughters him in front of his entire cult and destroys the image he has created for himself as a god in an instant.
The other cool thing about this scene is that technically its The Terminator vs Darth Vader!
6/Count Tyrone Rugen/ The Princess Bride
The supporting villain in The Princess Bride, Tyrone Rugen makes the list as he is without doubt the most vicious villain in the film. The other two main villains of the movie played by Wallace Shawn and Chris Sarandon are presented in a more comical, silly way, with Sarandon’s Prince Humperdinck being a total pansy.
Rugen however is portrayed as a relentless sadist who enjoys torturing his victims as seen when he actually tortures the main character Westley to death. Apparently during the torture scenes Christopher Guest who played the Count got so carried away he actually injured Cary Elwes who plays Westley in real life.
Rugen also gets a very memorable death scene where he is killed by Inigo Montoya whose father he had butchered as well.
5/Queen Bavmorda/ Willow
The main villain from the cult classic Willow, Bavmorda is an evil witch who seeks to destroy a baby that is prophesized to bring about the end of her reign of terror. She plans to destroy the child’s soul in order to prevent it from being reincarnated. The great irony is at the end she herself falls victim to the very magics she had planned to use to destroy the child.
Jean Marsh is excellent as the Queen. She did seem to make a career out of playing witches. She also played a witch in Return to Oz who steals people’s heads and in the Doctor Who story Battlefield she played the evil witch Morgaine.
4/ Nothing/ The Never Ending Story
The Nothing is an endless void that erases everything in its path. Its ultimate aim is to consume the entire land of Fantasia.
The Nothing unlike a lot of the other villains on this list has no real character. He isn’t played by an actor who can give him a big gloriously over the top personality like the Kurgan. At the same time he is also not really a monster like the spider or Medusa. He’s just a big puff of smoke.
Still despite this I found him to be an effective villain overall. The fact that it is just an endless mass in some ways makes it more terrifying as there is nothing you can relate to. Its just whirlwind of death that sweeps through the entire land consuming everything in its path. Its not something you can understand, its not something you can reason with and its not even something you can fight and that to me makes it among the most terrifying villains.
I used to have nightmares where I would be chased by the nothing through my neighbourhood and I’d be trapped outside my house as it came closer and closer.
3/ Jareth The Goblin King/ Labyrinth
Jareth is the main villain from the Jim Henson classic Labyrinth. He captures the brother of the main protagonist Sarah and gives her 24 hours to make her way through his maze or else her brother will become one of his goblins forever.
Now as we all know I often don’t have time for in love villains, but in this case I’ll make an exception as hey its David Bowie!
Bowie is exceptional as Jareth. He never makes Jareth seem either too evil or too friendly, he always manages to inject a certain air of mystery into the character where you aren’t really sure what his motives are throughout large chunks of the film.
Is he an evil monster who is just toying with Sarah and would never have released her brother, or does he want to simply teach her a lesson and would never have harmed either of them? You’re not entirely sure as Bowie adds so many different dimensions to the character. Even the way he talks, almost in a sing song voice that sounds quite pleasing at times, yet also unnerving helps to make this a truly mysterious character.
Things become even more complicated when Jareth seemingly ends up falling in love with Sarah. Bowie is able to make Jareth seem somewhat sympathetic in the scenes where he pines for Sarah and unnerving when we see how much his infatuation with her is driving him over the edge.
When Bowie sadly passed away in January of this year he left behind a truly incredible body of work and whilst he may be remembered more as a singer, he was also a brilliant actor too and Jareth is definitely his greatest role.
2/ Darkness/ Legend
One of Tim Curry’s finest performances. Darkness is an ancient Demon that seeks to kill two unicorns which will cause eternal darkness to fall over the land and allow him to rule it forever. He is essentially meant to represent Satan himself and is arguably one of the most iconic depictions of Satan in cinema history.
Like Jareth, Darkness also falls in love with the main female protagonist, Princess Lily and tries to corrupt her into becoming his bride. The difference between Darkness and Jareth is that whilst a whole generation of young girls ended up falling in love with Jareth, Darkness is a hideous, twisted monster. Its like a dark version of Beauty and the Beast where the monsters love for the human woman does not redeem it. Instead it tries to drag her down to its level.
Whilst the make up for the beast is absolutely incredible, Tim Curry really gives the character a lot of menace and presence. His naturally deep, strong voice helps to overcompensate for the fact that he is more limited by the make up that completely covers his face.
Like many of the other actors on this list who have played the villain, Curry easily steals the show from the hero of the film Tom Cruise and really his performance is what people remember from this film more than anything else.
1/ The Horned King/ The Black Cauldron
The Horned King is a Disney villain, but he is unusual among Disney villains in that he is treated very seriously, isn’t camp, doesn’t have a badguy song and he is scary as fuck!
Its hard to believe this guy was the main villain in a movie aimed at children! With his rotting green skin, bright red eyes he looks every inch the perfect horror movie villain.
To me the Horned King is the ultimate Dark Lord. There are no shades of grey to him at all. No falling in love with the hero’s girlfriend, no moping about, he is just pure evil. His ultimate plan is to use the black cauldron to summon up an army of indestructable zombies to kill every living thing on earth. So he essentially wants to create a Zombie apocalypse in a Disney movie!
The Horned King is voiced by John Hurt who gives him a somewhat monotone voice which helps to reinforce the idea that he is a living corpse. Though there are moments when he loses his temper, and he is also still shown to have something of a dry sense of humour such as when he taunts the main heroes. To me it seemed like the Horned King was dead to all feeling except for when he was causing pain and suffering. That was the only time we would see him express any kind of emotion like joy or rage if his plans were interfered with. That was all he lived for was just to cause misery and hurt people.
John Hurt has of course gone on to play a wide variety of other characters throughout his very long and successful career. To modern day fantasy fans he is probably best known as Mr Olivander and the War Doctor (two roles that could not be more different to the Horned King!) But he certainly I’d imagine made a huge impression on those who saw this film as a child.
Whether he’s playing a time lord, a wizard, a twisted Roman Emperor, the victim of an oppressive regime, the head of an oppressive regime, or an evil zombie king with pet dragons, John Hurt always manages to make the role his own.
Thanks for reading.