From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Ten Fantasy Movie Moments that Mess with Us

They made you laugh, they made you cry, they still give you nightmares you’d never admit to: for better or for worse, some fantasy movies get under your skin. Below, ten fantasy movie moments that were tragic, horrific, or comic (sorry, Keanu).

1. Artax in the Swamp of Sadness – NeverEnding Story

The NeverEnding Story‘s audience-surrogate Bastien settles in for a rollicking adventure as young hero Atreyu is tasked with finding the cause of the Nothing. Ten minutes later, the audience gets their hearts ripped out of their throats when Atreyu’s beloved steed Artax drowns in the Swamp of Sadness. The surprisingly short scene (I guess it only felt five minutes long), during which Atreyu gets increasingly hysterical as Artax sinks inexorably into the mud, ups the narrative stakes but good, and made life suddenly treacherous for all other animal familiars.

2. The Penguin Campaigns – Batman Returns

At his worst, Tim Burton drowns in whimsy. At his best, he turns a skewed and fantastical lens on the everyday. Weirdly, one of his most down-to-earth movies was Batman Returns, where every fiendish plan played out with realistic touches, from workplace harassment to the underbelly of politics. As Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin) is talked into running for Mayor, his candy-colored campaigners smile as he growls and gnaws his way through a raw fish, and seem largely unfazed as he bites the nose of a male aid, more than happy to get him elected because that’s their job; it’s a creepy and believable mirror of the birth of your average secretly-evil politician.

3. Jonathan Harker Spends a Night in Casa Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It takes a special kind of talent to be in a scene with a razor-blade licking, wall-crawling octogenarian vampire and come off as the unsettling one, but Keanu Reeves managed it. Looking like he wandered onto the set by accident, Keanu Reeves delivers a performance more suited to a high school stage than a feature film, creating a cognitive dissonance from which the movie never recovers and single-handedly shooting the movie’s first act from Gothic high camp to laugh-out-loud disaster. Bad acting: a terror that haunts you long after the movie is over.

4. The Departure of Boromir – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Everyone knew it was coming; didn’t make it any less wrenching.

5. The Emperor – The Dark Crystal

One of the darkest “family fantasies” of the Eighties, The Dark Crystal is a classic mind-warp. Creators Jim Henson and Frank Oz created a world without humans, in which even the benevolent creatures are a little odd-looking, and the bad guys are nightmare-inducing. In one of the most unforgettable scenes, the vulture-headed and vicious Skeksis gather around the deathbed of their desiccated Emperor, who struggles through his last breaths – and promptly disintegrates, as his advisors close in on the pile of dust. Sleep tight, kids!

6. Smrgol’s Fight – The Flight of Dragons

This sword-and-sorcery cult classic is a feel-good adventure – for everyone but Smrgol, the faithful and elderly dragon familiar of the wizard Carolinus. Not knowing the Artax Rule, he joins the questing party, only to meet his end saving the dragon/human Gorbash from an ogre. He seems happy to die a hero, but I don’t know if he’d be quite so pleased knowing that at movie’s end, he’s the only fallen hero not resurrected. (Harsh, Rankin-Bass. Harsh.)

7. Lily and the Dance – Legend

In most fairy tales, when a virginal, innocent Princess is kidnapped by the villain and taken to his underground lair, we know what we’re in for; she’ll pine and wait as the hero races to rescue her. Ridley Scott knew it, too, and gave us more; in Legend, the captive Princess Lily (caught while protecting the last living unicorn) is tempted by the spectre of darkness – and gives in. The resulting Lily was clever, conniving, and interesting in a way that the innocent princess was not, and was able to hold her own against Darkness – and freed the unicorn without any help from the hero. The dark Lily inspired a generation of girls who wanted a little blood in their fairy tales.

8. The Theatre Basement – The Prestige

The Prestige has more plot twists than you can shake a labyrinth at, but all of them are driven by the two warring personalities who fill its narrative. The reveal that Robert Angier killed his clone every night is made in a flurry of events that subsume it, until the final scene, when Borden walks out of the burning theatre basement and the fire slowly illuminates tank after tank; the scope and horror of what Angiers has done settles on the audience only in the last frames. Never has a pile of top hats been so disquieting.

9. Opening Credits – Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell is a movie that tackles the question of what makes us human; not wanting to waste any time, it skewers the issue in the opening credits, showing Major Kusanagi’s cybernetic body being built; the sequence is so beautiful that it’s easy to forget her brain being lowered into a literal shell, of which nothing else organic remains. It’s a visceral scene, and when Kusanagi begins to question where humanity ends and computer begins, the audience understands all too well why she would worry.

10. Fantasia

We don’t know which scene gave you nightmares; we just know one of them definitely did.

Genevieve Valentine is a writer in New York; her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Farrago’s Wainscot, Diet Soap, Journal of Mythic Arts, and Fantasy. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog. She is currently working on a formula to evaluate the awfulness of any given film, a scale that will be measured in Julians.

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