When people discuss the most influential or most genre-defining Urban Fantasies, the two most common names I see are the Dresden Files and the Anita Blake series. And while both of those did forge serious ground in the Detective Noir Urban Fantasy genre, they’re by no means the first Urban Fantasies and aren’t even close to being my favorite in the genre. That title belongs to the 1986 film Highlander.
For anyone not familiar with Highlander (which is a serious offense that I’m sure you will rectify the moment you are done reading this), the story follows an immortal who has secretly lived among us for 450 years. He must sword fight other immortals, killing them by severing their heads, and then absorbing their power. As the centuries roll on, the last of their kind are drawn to New York City to battle each other until only one remains. The movie spawned several terrible sequels (I secretly enjoyed Highlander III), a TV show, and even a cartoon that we’ll never discuss and that I shouldn’t have even acknowledged. It also gave Nerd Culture the infamous cry of, “There can be only one.”
I was 11 when I first encountered Highlander. My brother came home from college, handed me a VHS tape, and said, “Watch this. You’ll love it.” So, having no idea what the movie was about, or even what the word “highlander” meant, I popped it in. Within a few minutes I was treated to a sword fight in a parking garage. The movie definitely had my interest. In fact, even to this day, I can’t walk through a dark parking garage without picturing two men battling to the death with swords. Then one of them got decapitated. Being 11 years old, this was one of the most violent and awesome things I’d ever witnessed. And right when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I was treated to lightning, exploding cars, and straight-up magic. At this point Highlander had my absolute and undivided attention.
Which was good, because moments after this completely unexplained awesomeness, we’re suddenly transported back to 16th Century Scotland. Only after several more flashbacks, and some rockin’ Queen music, we meet Sean Connery, who is a 2,000 year old Egyptian Spaniard with a Japanese sword and a Scottish accent (just go with it) who arrives to explain what’s going on.
After the movie I walked out of my house with the distant-eyed glaze of a prophet having just seen the future. I told everyone about it. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever encountered and I wanted the world to know. Even now, 25 years later, I can look at Highlander, and while I now see its many flaws, I can’t help but be amazed at how mind-blowingly original it was.
That’s right, I just called an 80’s B-movie mind-blowingly original. So let me explain…
Storytellers draw on the works written before them to craft something new. It’s pretty easy to see a story’s DNA. For example, Dresden Files follows a style template that came from Pulp Era detective stories like those of Hammet and Chandler. Those drew their inspiration from the earlier works of Sherlock Holmes. While yes, they’re very different with original elements, the influences are undeniable.
Highlander, however, is so freakishly original that there’s nothing else you can compare it to. There is a teeny bit of inspiration they drew from Ridley Scott’s The Duelists, which follows two men who spend their lives repeatedly dueling one another. But the whole immortal head-chopping lightning-shooting part seems to have come out of nowhere. It’s so strikingly original that it’s impossible to use that element without being an obvious rip-off. Highlander is the beginning and the end of its own subgenre.
When I was a kid, I didn’t dream that I’d find some droids and get swept into the Star Wars Universe, or that I’d get a letter from Hogwarts or Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. I dreamed I’d be a sword-fighting immortal, battling it out behind the 7-11. I wanted a world where magic and and the fantasic were’t in some far away time or land, but right now, living in secret in our very world.
In the end, there can be only one.