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Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to the “Lord of the Rings” (Hardcover – 288 pages)

by Alec Worley

McFarland & Company

ISBN: 0786423242

As its (sub)-title suggests Empires of the Imagination takes us right back to the origins of effects cinema to examine the history of the fantasy film. Cinema is, of course, about tricking the audience into believing that something is real when its whole purpose is to celebrate its own artifice. This is as true of documentaries as it is of westerns or science fiction films but arguably it’s in the world of fantasy cinema that the joy of making the unreal become real is at its most pure. Because of this, though, the term fantasy becomes quite a slippery fellow – yes, you can be pretty sure that any film featuring pointy ears, magic and names with a paucity of vowels has a pretty strong chance of being a fantasy film but what about when the real world becomes slightly or tangentially associated with the fantastic? It’s a tricky question that Alec Worley goes some way to answering – after all, Eastenders has as little bearing on real life as Krull, so does that make it fantasy? Splitting the fantasy film genre (including a couple of examples from television when the influence is too important to restrict matters to the purely cinematic) into distinct categories and sub-categories has a number of advantages. Firstly it means that Worley can provide us with information about early cinema throughout the book rather than a strictly chronological overview which would have sorely tried the patience of someone itching to get to Ray Harryhausen. It also means that each section has a more rigid focus thematically. This is essential because there have been an awful lot of fantasy films made (and, let’s face it, a lot of awful fantasy films) and Worley has done his utmost to track them down like rabid wargs. While there are inevitably omissions (the sections that include Russian fantasy films are welcome but because of space restrictions and print availability they are limited in number, and a lot of Asian fantasy is absent) you can still admire the ambition of the exercise. At times this can be as exhausting as its attempts to be exhaustive, but because this is a reference work it’s an accepted part of the process.

When given a little more space to examine the films Worley lets both his enthusiasm show and his vitriol flow. Those used to academically inclined books being less opinionated and more objective are in for a pleasant surprise here – Worley does not mince his words when damning a film (Hook is rightfully expressed as “a nadir in regressive fantasies”) and has no problems in sacrificing sacred cows if he feels the need. Equally he champions films often maligned – notably, and quite rightly, he praises John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, waves the flag for Gilliam’s oft-derided The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and even finds moderately reasonable things to say about John McTiernan’s Schwarzenegger flop Last Action Hero. He really reaches his element when touching upon the spin-offs and rip-offs of Conan, the low budget 1980’s revival of the sword and sandal film. It’s clear that Worley recognises these as ludicrous examples of film-making, poverty row hack ‘n’ slash or exploitation flicks with has-been actors and second rate bodybuilders, but it’s also plain that he relishes every guilty minute in their muddled company. This is ultimately what you take from the book – a love for the genre that transcends its academic intentions. It’s willing to love an ugly straight-to-video atrocity as it castigates a prettier and wealthier Hollywood movie that really should have known better.

Worley argues the case for fantasy cinema well, he champions what, for many, is a hopeless cause – a genre reviled along with its sisters horror and science fiction to form a much maligned triumvirate. (Lord of the Rings notwithstanding, that’s not a fantasy film it’s a “remarkable achievement” – an argument that led to far too many bloated imitators in the literary world, let’s hope it’s a trend not repeated in the cinematic one.) For the most part Worley succeeds – at times Empires of the Imagination becomes an impassioned and enthusiastic read that really makes you want to seek out the more obscure titles, don a loincloth and believe in fairies. Which, of course, we do. We do. If there is a dead Tinkerbell in this ointment, though, it is that old bugbear of McFarland’s pricing policy. Being aimed at the academic market the price tag seems far too harsh, especially considering the absence of colour illustrations – something a book about a very visual genre is crying out for.