October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the most terrifying moments in fantasy horror films is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Some people don’t like it when their food touches. Others like to take a potato masher and let all those different side dishes get to know each other. When it comes to film genres, we’re definitely in the “mash it all up” camp. Life’s just more interesting when you get scalloped potatoes in your green beans, you know? And hey, fantasy and horror are close bedfellows. Fairy tales were basically designed to scare children straight. And what’s a good sword and sorcery epic without a goopy swamp witch or monstrous virgin-eating dragon?
Sure enough, more than a few fantasy films tip over into a murky, macabre space. Heck, we’d venture a guess that more than a few of you got your first taste of on-screen horror when an unsuspecting parent assumed that “fantasy” meant “for kids.” An easy, but an ultimately fatal, mistake. Fantasy is the gateway drug of horror dorks.
If the intersection between fantasy and horror gets you going, you’ve come to the right place. Below you’ll find ten of our all-time favorite moments that blur the genre line between the magical and the morbid, the best moments in fantasy horror. Keep reading for a look at the top ten most horrifying moments in fantasy films as voted on by Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, and myself.
10. The Eborsisk in Willow (1988)
Even as a child I could see the incredible potential the Eborsisk had as an action figure. It has all the ferocious, snarling might of the great Rancor in Return of the Jedi. But what’s better than a one-headed monster? A two-headed one!
Willow is far from being a horror film. But the double trouble of the Eborsisk — named as a cheeky nod to Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel — comes into George Lucas and Ron Howard’s fantasy world through a horrifying transformation. The Eborsisk itself may not be altogether terrifying. But the way it is conceived will certainly shock audiences unaccustomed to seeing gelatinous membranes of melting flesh in their favorite fantasy films. It’s definitely a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of troll-body horror. But once seen, you’ll know without a doubt that the person who created the Eborsisk made doubly sure its birth was awesomely gross. (Jacob Trussell)
9. The hall of disembodied heads in Return to Oz (1985)
Admit it. At some point or another, you’ve embraced the edge-lord within and thought to yourself how cool it’d be if Disney faithfully adapted fairy-tales and left in all the messed-up bits. Let The Little Mermaid turn to seafoam! Let the Ugly Stepsisters mutilate their feet to fit the glass slipper! Well, good news. In the year of our dark lord 1985, Disney did faithfully adapt a fairy-tale, icky bits and all. The result? Why that’d be the nightmare-inducing fever dream Return to Oz.
A remarkably by-the-book adaptation of the sequel to The Wizard of Oz, the surreal and deeply upsetting fantasy horror tale sees Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) back in dreamland after she escapes from a mental ward (you know, for kids!). It is nigh impossible to imagine any child (or adult) watching Return to Oz and not being deeply upset by, uh, all of it. But several horrific highlights stand out, one of them being Dorothy’s encounter with Mombi, the headless ruler of the Emerald City who has a terrifying array of sentient severed human heads. Oh, and she wants to add Dorothy’s noggin to her collection. Cool, cool, cool. Look, I’ve heard of “heads of state,” but this is ridiculous. (Meg Shields)
8. Meg Mucklebones in Legend (1985)
As Tom Cruise’s Jack demonstrates in Legend, the key to dealing with Meg Mucklebones is flattery. So let’s just say that what is primarily horrifying about this swamp hag is her otherworldly beauty. Between her matted, patchy hair, her spidery long fingers, and her sharp fangs — not to mention her green skin and shrill voice — Meg is quite a looker. It’s no wonder that Jack was so enraptured by her beauty and couldn’t help but talk about it; this was surely not done as a strategy to ensure she wouldn’t devour him. And even if this had been all part of Jack’s scheme, Meg would never fall for it because she is simply too smart.
The whole hiccup of being beheaded was part of her plan all along. So in the end, there’s truly nothing all that horrifying about Meg, as long as you know what to do when you encounter a narcissistic, flesh-eating swamp monster. (Anna Swanson)
7. The Swamp of Sadness in The NeverEnding Story (1984)
I think about the Swamp of Sadness frequently. The muck of misery, the devourer of poor Artax. It’s a metaphorical nightmare that’s just too evocative to dismiss. Whenever I feel myself tumbling into despair or sorrow, I imagine my body sinking to its waist and the Swamp’s foul mud seeping into my pores. The Swamp of Sadness is a quagmire we all return to regularly. And pulling ourselves from its grip often requires assistance. While Artax never made it out, his sacrifice gave me an image to stand on, and sometimes that’s all the surface I need to keep my head above the dark depths.
And yet, while this sequence will live with me forever, I can’t imagine suffering through Artax’s fate one more time. Whenever I rewatch The Neverending Story and the Swamp comes into frame, my finger stretches toward the fast-forward button. Yes, the Swamp of Sadness will always be a part of me and helps me through rigid, internal darkness. But it’s a cruelty I don’t need to repeat physically. Its psychic scars are enough, and it remains the epitome of fantasy horror. (Brad Gullickson)
6. Ghost stories in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Look, aside from the fact that “You best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner, you’re in one” is an instantly iconic line, the scene is also brilliantly representative of what the Pirates of the Caribbean films do at their best. This spooky plot twist in 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl is creatively engineered, funny, frightful, and expertly well-telegraphed by director Gore Verbinski. The realization thrust upon Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann that the ship she’s been captured by is bound by supernatural laws far more sinister than she ever would have expected is relayed with an equal amount of surprise to the audience. And the whirlwind that ensues is as exciting as it is eerie. And of course, Geoffrey Rush’s exquisitely villainous line delivery is a pitch-perfect cherry on top. (Meg Shields)