5. Wolf wedding in The Company of Wolves (1984)
There is no shortage of horrific moments in Neil Jordan’s second feature film. An R-rated adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story of the same name, The Company of Wolves foregrounds the beastly and surreal overtones of most fairy tales. And while we could easily throw a dart at this film and hit all manner of macabre magical realism (including one of the most unnerving werewolf transformation scenes put to film), it’s the “wolf banquet” that really gets under our skin.
The sequence is part of a tale Rosaleen (Sara Petterson) tells her mother in which a young woman (Dawn Archibald), impregnated by a rich, young nobleman, turns up at his wedding party and reveals herself to be a witch. Denouncing the nobles for their horrid decadence and bigoted actions she declares that “the wolves in the forest are more decent” and transforms the wedding party into (you guessed it) wolves.
With partial glimpses caught somewhere between the human and the lupine, this half-witnessed transformation is somehow more unnerving and grotesque than a full-blown affair. There’s also something to be said about the scene’s total and utter glee, exposed fully in the rosy glow of the reception tent. As they steadily succumb to a ravenous hunger, the still-transforming party devour their feast and bolt into the woods. Maybe we need to replace “eat the rich” with “transform the rich into a pack of wolves.” (Meg Shields)
4. The Wheelers in Return to Oz (1985)
Any time a film gets a sequel more than forty years after its release, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s going to be weird as hell. That’s precisely the case with the Walter Murch-directed Walt Disney Pictures produced, Return to Oz, which delivers a second slice of fantasy horror to make the list here. The premise is utterly bizarre. Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) is unable to stop talking about the Land of Oz (d’uh), so Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) takes her to get electroshock therapy to force her to forget. That would be the disturbing part in a typical movie, but Return to Oz is no typical movie. Enter the Wheelers, bizarre creatures with literal wheels for limbs. In desperate need of WD-40, the Wheelers glide in and out of nightmares, terrifying poor Dorothy while letting out a wickedly sinister laugh. Imagine the Psychlos from Battlefield Earth on skates. Yeah, that’s the Wheelers. (Chris Coffel)
3. The Skeksis in The Dark Crystal (1982)
The Dark Crystal remains an epic of magic, heroism, and fantasy that deserves just as much love as whatever fantastical adventure that you can name. The tale intrigues, but its remarkable power comes in the form of its presentation and production — this world consists entirely of puppets, costumed performers, and mesmerizing landscapes. While our heroes are more human-like and it’s the furball that’s most beloved, the film’s real stars are the utterly terrifying and frequently nasty Skeksis.
Almost bird-like from the neck up with sharp beaks and jagged teeth, these shambling, bug-eating assholes rule the land by perverting the crystal’s power and sacrificing weaker beings along the way. It’s a kids’ film, albeit one that is smart enough not to treat kids like sugar-addicted idiots. So instead of bloodletting, it’s the other creatures’ essence that these shriveled dick-weasels are sucking out to fuel their own immortality. Adding to their unsettling appearance is their size — they’re brought to life by performers buried beneath costumes and prosthetic heads while our heroes are mere puppets — which adds a frightening weight to the terror they inspire. (Rob Hunter)
2. Freaky Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Picture this: you’re watching The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his band of hobbit companions have arrived in the elven city of Rivendell after a close call with some ringwraiths who covet the ring Frodo carries around his neck. There, he is reunited with his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) who has been traveling the world after his 111th birthday. They rejoice in seeing each other again and swap stories while Bilbo bequeaths swords and armor to his beloved nephew. It’s idyllic, really.
But, then Bilbo catches sight of the One Ring. And his demeanor quickly changes. And I don’t just mean his emotional demeanor. I mean his face contorts into something out of, well, a horror movie as his teeth become pointed and his eyes become wide and angry. For the briefest moment, he becomes another monster out to get Frodo. It’s an incredible jumpscare and one that will always scare me no matter how many times I marathon these films. It’s just so out of left field, especially for the tone of this high fantasy epic, and it’s perfect. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
1. The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro really designed a child-eating monster with sagging skin and rickety bones and thought “hey, you know what would really improve on this whole situation? — palm eyes.” The Pale Man sequence is, and I use this term delicately, an absolute pants-shitting scene. Pan’s Labyrinth ventures more brazenly than most fantasy fare into the Venn Diagram of horror and fairy tales. And while there are plenty of horror-adjacent moments in the film to choose from, none can compare with the Pale Man.
In her second task for the morally ambiguous Faun, Ofelia must retrieve a dagger from the lair of the Pale Man; an eyeless half-man, half-scrotum with an appetite for children. Though warned not to consume anything, the banquet tempts Ofelia, who eats two grapes. Awakened, the creature lurches to life, devouring two fairies and chasing Ofelia, who barely escapes. Tense, grotesque, and unnervingly brought to life by the master Doug Jones (who, in a disturbingly suggestive twist, also portrays the Faun), the Pale Man is unequivocally the stuff of nightmares. (Meg Shields)