Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Top Five Classical Monsters

It's Halloween! Oooo-OOOOO-oooo. Etc. I've posted my favourite 5 Halloween specials over at Den of Geek, and at Billie Doux we've all got together to share our Halloween thoughts and recommendations. But here in the Classical world, I thought I'd celebrate one of Greco-Roman culture's great contributions to modern pop culture - an exciting array of monsters.



5. (A) Minotaur, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Mythic forebears? As long-time readers know, I have a bit of an obsession with the number of minotaurs in modern popular culture, which mystifies me. This is because in ancient myth, there was no plural of minotaur and it wasn't a race of beings - the Minotaur was a single creature, the result of one woman's deep and abiding passion for a bull, who lived in the Labyrinth on the island of Crete and ate virgins (to be fair he probably would have eaten whoever he could lay his hands on, but he was fed virgins).
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, yes. The interesting thing about the modern Narnian minotaur is that he acts as a symbol of the changing relationships between the various magical creatures of Narnia. In the first film, there's a whole group of minotaurs, and they're scary, and part of the Witch's army, proper monsters. In Prince Caspian, there's a rather nice, jumpy moment when Peter assumes a minotaur is an enemy, only to find that, as a magical creature, he's working with Caspian against Miraz. By the time we get to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, poor Eustace is scared out of his wits by suddenly being brought face to face with a minotaur and everyone just laughs at him.
Does he do the Monster Mash? The minotaurs are pretty active in battle and make fairly impressive enemies during The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's climactic gurry-wurry; after that, they don't do so much.



4. The Basilisk, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Mythic forebears? Not so much mythic as cryptozoological; Pliny the Elder described a North African snake called the basilisk that moved with the upper part of its body in the air, could kill by sight, could kill plants with its breath and had especially deadly venom. Goodness knows what particular snake was the source of these ideas - something pretty scary I should think.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? The special effects are perhaps just OK, but before Fawkes blinds it, the idea of the Basilisk is pretty scary - one look and you're dead. Poor Myrtle.
Does it do the Monster Mash? The Basilisk is almost too huge, so that its movements are restricted by the tunnels it lives in, which in turn restricts the fear factor. I've always liked the Chamber of Secrets scenes though, which are properly scary and dramatic (Daniel Radcliffe doing the Dying Hero thing rather well) and the way Fawkes' attack on the Basilisk's eyes is filmed, following their shadows dancing on the wall, is very effectively done.



3. Medusa, Clash of the Titans (1981)
Mythic forebears? Medusa was one of three sisters, the Gorgons, all terrifying and horrible, according to Hesiod. Ovid makes Medusa a once beautiful maiden whose hair was turned to snakes by Athena. Either way, like the basilisk, her look turns people to stone, and she ends up beheaded by Perseus so that her head can be used as a weapon. This is the part of both Clash of the Titans films that strays closest to actual Greco-Roman myth.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? The more recent Clash of the Titans has a CGI Medusa, whose movements are more fluid and who is probably more convincing. But it's the Harryhausen Medusa that's always stuck in my memory. Sure, her movement is a little awkward and she doesn't really look very real, but just look at that face! Those eyes! Well, or don't, since that might turn you into stone.
Does she do the Monster Mash? Her movements may be a little stop-start (hehe) but she gets about decently enough in her big fight with Perseus, even if it does go on a little longer than it really needs to.



2. The hydra, Hercules
Mythic forebears? Killing the hydra is one of Hercules' Labours, and depicted on many a pot by excited vase painters.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? Now, it's not that Disney couldn't do scary monsters. When Ursula the sea witch suddenly grows humungous in The Little Mermaid, it's pretty scary, and the whole Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia is terrifying. But the hydra is perhaps not their scariest of Disney's monsters. Still, it's threatening enough for a first level monster that appears fairly early on in the movie. (The centaur who attacks Megara shortly beforehand is really scary, but not in an enjoyable way - he's spectacularly creepy and introduces the subject of attempted rape into a Disney cartoon. It's just all kinds of wrong).
Does it do the Monster Mash? The great advantage of a cartoon is, of course, that your monster can move and really throw its weight about in a way that isn't possible with stop-motion animation, or even, really with CGI (which has to interact with a live actor). The hydra sequence is an exciting set piece and Hercules' eventual solution to the problem of the regrowing heads is risky but brilliant (and gives him a chance to use brain as well as brawn, not a characteristic often played up in representations of Hercules).



1. Talos, Jason and the Argonauts
Mythic forebears? Talos was a giant bronze automaton - living statue - made by Hephaestus, or in some versions, the last of the race of bronze men. A great big guy made of bronze, is the point. He was killed, usually by Medea, in a variety of ways including releasing a pin that caused him to 'bleed' or leak to death, or getting shot in the ankle, both of which are half-represented in the film, albeit without Medea's involvement.
Should I be hiding behind the sofa? Only if he's actually behind you, in which case you'll never be able to run fast enough to escape. Otherwise, Talos isn't an especially scary monster, and he's outdone in terms of fame, technical expertise and creepiness by the animated skeletons from the end of the film. For me though, Talos outdoes the skeletons in two important ways. One, he's actually from Greek myth, whereas the skeletons, although inspired by the men who sprang from the dragon's teeth in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, are not precisely Greco-Roman (the mythic men were full-bodied soldiers, not skeletons). More importantly  I feel sorry for Talos. There's something tragically beautiful about the huge bronze man even as he's attacking our heroes, and his death (which also brings about that of Hylas) and the way he breaks apart is rather poignant. Like the troll in The Fellowship of the Ring, I can't help but feel sorry for him.
Does he do the Monster Mash? He has that slight stilted-ness to his movements that many Harryhausen creatures have, but that just adds to the character. Since he is, essentially, an ancient Greek robot, it makes sense that he has rather robotic movements. Classic stuff, in every sense of the word.

More Top 5 lists

5 comments:

  1. >>This is the part of both Clash of the Titans films that strays closest to actual Greco-Roman myth.<<

    I'm not sure whether this is a Freudian slip for 'stays' or a subtle dig.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great list Juliette, lots of spooky fun! But no Chimaera anywhere? ;o)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Have there been chimaera on TV? I have only the vaguest mental image of them, I think know them mostly from books!

      Delete
  3. I think the only chimaera, chimera that I can think of was just the name of a disease in a Mission Impossible film.

    Poor Medusa. Never occurred to Perseus just to ask for the lady's help...

    ReplyDelete

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