The 10 Greatest Mythic Movie Monsters

[20 August 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

We go to the movies for lots of reasons: to experience emotions we don’t normally face on a day to day basis; to interact, if indirectly, with characters who are usually outside or just barely within our frame of personal reference; to laugh; to cry; to be frightened; to be pushed to the edge of our seat. But one of the main reasons we park our behinds in the often uncomfortable confines of the local Cineplex is to see something we’d never see in real life: zombies amassing against the last holdouts of humanity; boy wizards working out their destiny among the magic they are supposed to master; the end of the world as envisioned via earthquake, flood, alien invasion, or any combination of natural and unnatural disasters; and, of course, monsters. Those mythical, made up creatures that only the skilled hand of a talented F/X artist can bring to the fore without much effort (but via a boatload of imagination and innovation).

With the release of Luc Besson’s latest live action extravaganza, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, on DVD and Blu-ray 13th August, the appearance of a similarly styled fantastical being got us thinking about our favorite onscreen beasties. Some of the choices are fairly obvious, as they come from history, mythology, or legend. Others are a little more obtuse and obscure. All represent the main purpose behind a motion picture - that is, to provide the audience with an experience they won’t soon forget. Indeed, all ten choices here (including a couple relatively new ones) argue for a vision that few filmmakers are capable of capturing. Clearly, all the directors here have a way with spectacle and scope. The way these monsters make their presence known is just confirmation of their overall skill and talent. Oh, and by the way, we tried to stay within certain four legged limitations here. No King Kongs. No Godzillas (though we should have included Mothra, perhaps). Anyway, on to number 10:

#10 - Pterosaur (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec)

In this latest film from French director (among other things) Luc Besson, we are introduced to a female adventurer who is in Egypt trying to gain access to a mummy. When she returns to France, she is then faced with dealing with the aforementioned creature, hatched from an egg before quickly causing chaos. As unusual as it is to have a woman protagonist in the Indiana Jones roles, Besson makes the most of modern technology, turning Adele’s labors into the stuff of legend. As weird cinematic hybrids go, this one is definitely unusual, and highly enjoyable.

#9 - Unicorn (Legend)

They are the light penetrating the darkness, the only hope for humans in a realm overflowing with fairies, goblins, and evil demons. Before Ridley Scott went all overcranked action sequence on us, he was a visionary filmmaker who overloaded his cinematic canvases with as much amazing imagery as possible. When Mia Sara is battling a bedeviled Tim Curry for the fate of her world, the threatened unicorn adds a heartbreaking element that explains why people love Scott’s scenarios. It’s just too bad that the director moved away from such mesmerizing work. This remains the real Ridley for many of us.

#8 - The Giant (The Mist)

Talk about your sobering last act denouements. Our hero, having saved his son and a few others from the grocery store prison overrun by insane people and oversized bug creatures, heads down the road, looking for help. All he finds is his dead wife, a landscape riddled with cobwebs, and a monster the size of a mountain slowly lumbering its way toward a date with the rest of humanity - all of which makes our lead’s final act completely understandable. When faced with a beast like that, what hope does he or anyone have? Well, now that you mention it…

#7 - T-Rex (Jurassic Park)

Among the many amazing moments in Steven Spielberg’s quintessential post-modern blockbuster is our initial introduction to this ferocious killing machine. As he did with Jaws, the director teases us at first before unleashing a combination of practical effects and CG dinosaur on a group of stranded visitors. The second we see the beast, we are terrified. The next, as it is moving around in ways we’d never seen before in a standard Summer popcorn movie guaranteed that we’d remember this monster love after the credits rolled and the lights came up. She remains the star in a franchise starter full of them.

#6 - Sandworms (Dune)

The mythical creatures in Frank Herbert’s epic saga are both sacred and profane. They live within Arrakis’ rich spice reserves and are worshipped by the indigenous Freman as direct manifestations of God. So it makes sense that Paul Atreides, the Messianic ‘Kwisatz Haderach,’ would be able to control them. Laugh all you want at David Lynch’s interpretation of the source, but the moment the sandworms make their appearance in the film, it’s beyond memorable. Besides, just the notion of giant sightless slugs being ridden by human beings across an enigmatic desert vista is the stuff of pure sci-fi.

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#5 - Toothless (How to Train Your Dragon)

Of all the dragons out there, from Eragon to Dragonslayer, Reign of Fire through Harry Potter, this is our favorite. He’s the creature who not only wins over a misguided mankind who only believe his species are solely for killing, but his connection to humanity is equally enthralling. Of all the CG movies to come out in recent years, this one has an endearing quality that goes beyond the standard commercial contrivances. We genuinely fall for Toothless, and his eventual adventures become the stuff of pure fanciful legend. And we love it. A lot.

#4 - Toruk (Avatar)

You know the scene. Our hero has been building up his or her resolve, slowly and deliberately preparing for the moment where their mantle is truly tested. The object of their obsession is a beast that no one can tame, trick, tempt, etc and yet prophecy makes it clear that they might just be… THE ONE. So naturally, in James Cameron’s billion dollar delight, our handicapped lead, in the guise of his Na’vi alter ego, becomes the very icon to steady the steed. It’s a glorious moment, one made even more memorable when you remember that every single frame of the sequence is rendered in a computer.

#3 - Pegasus (Clash of the Titans)

As the winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus doesn’t get a lot of love. Of sure, whenever someone takes on this timeless myths and legends, they always drag out this four footed friend and hope that audience will find it as magical as the ancients did. In the case of Ray Harryhausen’s work on their original Clash of the Titans, Pegasus finally gets its due. Rendered in a way that makes a flying horse seem like a given, this creature is just as important to overcoming evil as its human rider. As with many man/mount traditions, both would be lost without the other.

#2 - Falcor (The Neverending Story)

He’s basically another dragon, this time fashioned after a lucky Asian version of same. He helps our diminutive lead battle the forces of darkness and even ends up befriending the reader of the book he’s featured in. For many, The Neverending Story is all about the Falcor and it remains the most memorable aspect of Wolfgang Peterson’s fantasy film. In fact, its shown up in some highly unusual places, including cameos on Robot Chicken, Family Guy, The Venture Brothers, and South Park. It’s even inspired some famous video game characters. Cheerful and inspiring, we adore our Falcor.

#1 - Tauntaun (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)

This particular mode of transportation, all important on the ice planet of Hoth, wins the top spot for a pair of reasons. Not only is it a viable means of getting around for our heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, but when push comes to freezing to death shove, it’s glistening white guts make a convenient sleeping bag/tent while you buddy builds an igloo. Indeed, no other character in the Star Wars universe spends less time onscreen and remains as beloved as the beast that saves Luke’s life. While Han does all the heavy lifting, our frozen friend provides warmth and shelter.

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