Will Robert Eggers’ new film herald a new golden age in noble fantasy cinema? Here’s our guide to the best arthouse fantasy epics
Gods ! This week sees Alexander Skarsgård, with mud-streaked abs you could grate your Grana Padano on, for revenge The man from the north. Robert Eggers’ new movie reportedly cost $90 million to make, which means his backers need a Gladiator-slashing their hands to make a profit – and Eggers, frankly, looks like he’s bricking it. “If it’s not Gladiator or Brave heart, we are fucked,” he said in a recent interview. “And the thing is, it’s not.”
Still, the fact that this movie exists is a bit of a miracle. With his first two feature films, The witch and Lighthouse, Eggers has proven himself good at poetically charged and authentic dialogue and art direction, showing his ability to scratch an itch that other period filmmakers simply can’t reach. It is described The man from the northa noble work of swords and sorcery drawn from Norse mythology, such as “Andrei Rublev meets Conan the Barbarian”. But who is Andrei Rublev, by the way? (Jks, Twitter movie!) And would he even want to meet Conan? Forget high horror: here’s your introduction to high fantasy, the films that bring philosophical rigor to the genre’s legendary penchant for “boobs and dragons.”
Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1926)
In his introduction to the film at its London premiere last week, Robert Eggers confessed to having no interest in Norse mythology until he started working on it. The man from the north, in part because of its adoption by far-right loonies for nationalist purposes. A hundred years ago, Fritz Lang drew inspiration from German folklore for his two-part epic Die Nibelungen, an interesting example of how national myth tales can get you in hot water politically. The films were written with Thea von Harbou, Lang’s then-wife and future National Socialist party member, and feature a comedic Aryan hero alongside roughly sketched “ethnic” types. Some scholars have claimed that the films’ monumental style influenced Nazi iconography, claims Lang disputed saying he simply wanted to reflect Germany’s desire for new national mythos after the devastation of World War I. For the rest, Lang’s films make us wait a very long time for the swordplay – four hours, to be precise – but it’s worth it for the A+ setting, bizarre expressionist techniques and a pre-CGI dragon that would make the case Ray Harryhausen proud.
Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)
The dragon is a metaphor! Is just one of the plot twists in ExcaliburJohn Boorman’s R-rated take on the Arthurian legend, for having Game of Thrones fans are crying in their subreddits. The cast may appear to be auditioning for Brian Blessed: The Musical!but make no mistake: this is a genuinely shitty myth of delivery director, laced with strange, hallucinatory magic and a lyrical subtext about the shift from pagan beliefs to early Christian Britain. Boorman even shot his own daughter, Katrine, in a supernatural rape scene, The Mad Bastard.
Flesh and Blood (Paul Verhoeven, 1985)
Before BenedettaPaul Verhoeven told us another tale of sex, money, religion and murder in Europe’s distant past with flesh and bloodthe film that launched the Dutch master’s legendary series of Hollywood films, including Primary instinct and Robotcop. It’s a gnarly, nasty job that brought Verhoeven into conflict with his studio and frontman Rutger Hauer, who wanted to play his character, Martin, as a heroic figure. But the director, wanting a morally ambiguous lead that reflected his view that the Middle Ages were a “stinky time to live in”, prevailed. It’s undeniably thrilling, and the ‘romantic’ scene where Jennifer Jason-Leigh seduces a prince in a meadow as a hanged man with his nads ripped off sways in the breeze is Verhoeven’s peak.
Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
One newspaper called Nic Winding Refn’s wild Scandi epic ‘unspeakably pretentious’, which is obviously true of all of the Danish director’s films – yet you have to admit the boy has style. This indescribably dark vision of the new world as hell features Mads Mikkelsen as a visionary mute serf with one eye who mistakenly rows back to America after a hellish red mist descends on a journey to the Holy Land. After that, not much happens, really, other than the odd gutted courtesy of Mads. But hey, it’s a mood.
The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021)
Have mercy on the fools who came straight The green knight from the witcher or such fantastic #content thanks to the algorithm, only to be faced with two hours of wandering Dev Patel with a confused look on his face. This recent entry into the elevated fantasy genre from David Lowery, a former A24 stablemate at Eggers, is slow-paced, deliberately opaque, and animation-light. It’s also a kind of wondrous, oddly disarming exploration of self and premonition of climatic catastrophe starring the great Ralph Ineson as our titular mythical knight.
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