We all turn to our favorite genres in moments of duress. Even if you’re watching something you’ve seen dozens of times, you can still lose yourself in the story. That’s the whole point of escapism, right? Here’s a short list of films I turn to when I want to forget about this time, this place, this mortal coil, and lose myself for an evening. Preferably with a good brandy.
DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972)
It’s not the best of Hammer Studio’s nine-film Dracula series, but it’s a total blast. Groove to California rockers Stoneground and their catchy “Alligator Man” as British sociopath Johnny Alucard (read the last name backward) plots to awaken the Prince of Darkness from a century of slumber just for kicks. In the midst of performing a satanic rite, accompanied by a gaggle of friends who don’t take it seriously, his plan works. Christopher Lee returns for his sixth time out in a Hammer film as the eponymous villain. Peter Cushing returns as a descendent of the original Professor Van Helsing. And when the Count, stalking through the streets of a post-swinging London, sets his eyes on Van Helsing’s niece Jessica (Stephanie Beacham), it’s time for the brave professor to live up to his namesake. High camp and a high body count keep this one firmly rooted in Hammer tradition. It’s Cushing and Lee’s first appearance together in their respective roles since 1958’s Horror of Dracula and it’s like being reunited with old friends. Horror, rated PG, 96 minutes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.
KRULL (1983) Whenever I’m feeling blue, this is the film I turn to. The simple plot (rescue the damsel in distress from the alien being called the Beast) comes with some nifty twists. For instance, the Beast’s fortress appears in a new location on the planet Krull at the break of dawn each day, making it nearly impossible to locate. The Beast’s minions kidnapped Colwyn’s bride-to-be on their wedding day. Under the guidance of Ynyr, a wise old man of the mountains (played with great sympathy by Freddie Jones), he enlists the aid of a ragtag band of outlaws, a cyclops who’s cursed with the ability to foretell the moment of his own death, and a would-be great and powerful magician named Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley) to get her back. Krull features early roles for some notable actors, including Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, a rousing score by James Horner, and one of fantasy cinema’s finest weapons: the ancient, multi-bladed Glaive, which acts a bit like a boomerang and is the only weapon powerful enough to defeat the Beast. Did I mention the fire mares and their unforgettable race against time? Fantasy/ adventure, rated PG, 121 minutes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.
DUNE (1984) Dune is long enough to lose yourself in, even in its greatly reduced theatrical version, cut down considerably from director David Lynch’s original three-plus-hour runtime. Its otherworldly sights and sounds, and its epic plot about the Kwisatz Haderach, the universe’s supreme being, who’s prophesied to lead the inhabitants of a desert planet to freedom, is the stuff of myth. Set in the year 10191, Dune follows Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), who could be the Kwisatz Haderach. The plot is complicated but it stands up to (and rewards) repeated viewings.
Dune has a lot going for it, including a phenomenal cast with Max von Sydow, Linda Hunt, and Dean Stockwell. Lynch created a thoroughly convincing alien universe. You never once feel like you’re anywhere on Earth. The steampunk set designs are awe-inspiring and pure Lynch. The massive worms in the deep deserts of Arrakis put the toothy Sarlacc from Star Wars: Return of The Jedi (1983) to shame. It’s a grand adventure, told in epic style, filled with byzantine intrigue, resonant themes of loyalty and betrayal, sound weapons, great cinematography by Freddie Francis, creature effects by the legendary Carlo Rambaldi, and some of the most eminently quotable dialogue you’ll ever hear in a film. “Without change, something sleeps inside of us. The sleeper must awaken.” Science fiction/ adventure, rated PG-13, 137 minutes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.
EXCALIBUR (1981)My favorite movie of all time is a bold retelling of Sir Thomas Malory’s epic 15th-century chronicle of Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur. It captures the timeless quality of myth like no other film I’ve seen before or since. In the hands of director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory), it’s alternately fast-paced and bombastic, dreamlike and subdued. After a bit of backstory about the nefarious circumstances leading to Arthur’s birth, the film follows his adventures from a hapless young squire to his rise as king, and his eventual downfall. While it’s tragic overtones resonate and stir the soul, what really makes it special are its themes of good versus evil, quest, and the twilight days of paganism during early Christendom.
Excalibur, which stars Nigel Terry as Arthur, is a landmark entry in the sword and sorcery genre that rose to prominence in the early 1980s. It’s full of magic, bloody battle sequences, and notable scenes that bring the stuff of legend to vivid life: the sword in the stone, the formation of the Knights of the Round Table, the palpable rivalry between Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and Morgana (Helen Mirren), the rise and fall of Camelot, the infamous betrayal of Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi) and Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), and Arthur’s ill-fated final battle with his power-mad son, Mordred (Robert Addie).
Excalibur packs a lot into its runtime and sets it all against lush, moss-carpeted forests, fields of blooming larkspur, blossoming cherry trees, waterfalls, and snaking rivers. Santa Fe’s own Paul Geoffrey carries the last third of the film as the guileless Sir Perceval and turns in an affecting performance as the legendary Grail Knight.
My favorite scene (in a film that boasts one great scene after another) is when Merlin appears to Arthur in a dream while the good king rests beneath an ancient stone monument on the eve of his final battle. The Wagnerian score, the twilight setting, wonderfully evoked by cinematographer Alex Thomson, and the verdant Irish hills in the distance conjure up a feeling in me that I get from no other film. Excalibur is one for the ages. Fantasy/ adventure, rated PG, 140 minutes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and Sling TV.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) Suitable for all ages, The Adventures of Robin Hood tells a tale of court intrigue and swashbuckling adventure with a healthy dose of humor and joie de vivre. In his green tights and feathered forester’s cap, Errol Flynn’s plucky turn as Sir Robin of Locksley is the epitome of the medieval hero, leading his band of Merry Men through the verdant Sherwood Forest. The story follows Robin as he assembles his ragtag team of outlaws to oppose Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) in their mad reign over the Saxons during the absence of King Richard the Lionheart, who’s away on a crusade. The Merry Men all swear an oath to Robin that they’ll fight for the honor of England until the day King Richard returns to retake the throne.
This classic charmer, helmed by co-directors William Keighley and Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), is a Technicolor treat from Hollywood’s golden age. The film boasts an Academy Award-winning symphonic score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that matches its scenes of romance and bravura with lush and lively tones. Among the highlights is an archery tournament concocted by Prince John and the bumbling Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) as a rouse to lure Robin out of hiding, and the final duel between Robin and Sir Guy, which is among the greatest sword fights ever put on film. Rathbone, a two-time British Army Fencing Champ, proves a formidable foe. And he’s as good at playing a contemptible villain as Flynn is at playing the jovial, romantic hero. The rivalry is well-matched. Scale the high castle walls with Robin Hood for a night of romance and adventure. Action/ adventure/romance, rated PG, 102 minutes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.