Once upon a time there existed a cinematic landscape where not every feature-length fairy tale movie was drawn from a classic story, and the descriptor “fractured fairy tale” didn’t just mean gross-out humor and a Scottish-accented Mike Myers playing a big green ogre. While some of those films have certainly succeeded (this writer has a soft spot for the first “Shrek”), the kind of tale that the likes of the Brothers Grimm would collect in their oeuvre of beloved folklore was often of the darker-hued variety – pitting characters in bleak struggles that would see them rise from the ashes as better individuals for it in the end. Yes, the stories were simple, but they also served as a basis for many of the storytelling tropes that are used today – and may have influenced a few of our own moral compasses, with the fables acting as parables for life's lessons.
With the beautiful but otherwise disappointing "Snow White and the Huntsman" in theaters tomorrow, we've rounded up five original cinematic fairy tales from the darker side of the scale that are worth tracking down, and that still stand as some of the most exciting examples of the sub-genre. These films take some familiar aspects of the fairy tale story into bold and exciting new places, creating works that are both memorable and timeless. Let us know your own favorites in the comments section below.
“La Belle et le La Bete” (1946)
Opening with a chalkboard scrawl that asks viewers of filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film “La Belle et La Bete” (“Beauty and the Beast”) to give up their ideas of what is real, and give into the imagination and ridiculous nature of fantasy, the director kicks off his very own fractured fairy tale in a post-modern (and admittedly humorous) fashion. Many of us know the story of “Beauty and the Beast” well, but in this particular instance Belle is held captive by the selfish and angry beast to a much more intense degree than in later iterations of the same story. The film begins with a family in ruin, with a group of siblings consisting of Adélaïde, Belle, Félicie and Ludovic, who were once used to living a lavish lifestyle prior to their father's merchant ships being lost at sea. Adélaïde and Félicie continue to squander away the family earnings, all while Belle slaves around the house in order to maintain some sort of stability within the family. When her father must cross the treacherous forest one dark and stormy evening, he finds himself lost and seeking refuge in the house of a long-haired beast. When he attempts to steal a rose from the seemingly empty house, the resident beast gives him one of two options for retribution for theft of the rose: his own death, or that of one of his daughters. Belle sacrifices herself to the beast after learning of her father’s predicament, only to learn that the beast isn’t so much a monster as an individual seeking love. It’s a dark but emotional tale, showing the lengths to which an individual with a kind heart will go to protect one’s family. Cocteau’s film still resonates today, even if the sweet 1994 Disney musical version of the tale is worth a watch as well, it's Cocteau's that balances the fantasy with the parable; never losing site of either for long. It's also a visual wonder, with many flourishes that are still breathtaking today — the hallway with human arms holding candelabras is a standout — and it’s easy to see the seeds of Cocteau’s film in any of the following selections. Guillermo del Toro and Christophe Gans, who are both planning their own takes on the story, have a lot to live up to.
“The Dark Crystal” (1982)
While its production history may be long and winding, co-directors and puppeteer wunderkinds Jim Henson and Frank Oz delivered a fantasy epic for the ages in “The Dark Crystal.” The story follows Jen — hailing from the otherworldly species of the Gelfling – who has embarked upon a quest to secure a magical crystal which will restore peace to his world that has become shrouded in the darkness of a race of vulture-like creatures known as the Skeksis. While we’d love to wax on about the parables and moral allegories found within the subtext of “The Dark Crystal,” the real joy here is in watching Henson, Oz, and their miraculous team of puppeteers bring life to illustrator Brian Froud’s unparalleled designs. Featuring groundbreaking effects even by today’s standards, “The Dark Crystal” served as the first all-animatronics-and-puppet film, and honestly we can only think of a few that have come since. Though thanks to some darker subject matter courtesy of a story conceived by Henson and brought to life by frequent “The Muppet Show” scribe David Odell, the film that was marketed as a family romp never really made waves at the box office, but if you’ve perused through any comic stores or attended any cult movie conventions you’ll notice that it’s taken on a life all its own since. Attempts were made recently to resurrect Henson’s vision in a sequel by The Speirig Brothers, the helmers of vampire flick “Daybreakers,” but those plans seemed to go south, and besides, “The Dark Crystal” really serves as a singular vision from one of our most gifted storytellers as is. While some aspects don’t necessarily stand the test of time (that opening narration), the terrifying nature of the Skeksis and the hero’s journey of young Jen are all better left encased within the disc of your special edition DVDs.
“The Company Of Wolves” (1984)
Before he revitalized vampires in the Anne Rice adaptation “Interview with the Vampire,” filmmaker Neil Jordan had his own take on the very familiar tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.” While Catherine Hardwicke recently tried to reinvigorate the story with last year's "Red Riding Hood," which acted more as a costume designer’s dream come true than as anything close to a decent film, Jordan approached the tale (adapted from Angela Carter's short story collection "The Bloody Chamber") with the same sort of sexual tension and gothic horror he ferociously devoured 'Vampire' and even parts of “The Crying Game” with. It starts simply enough, with Granny (Angela Lansbury) telling her granddaughter Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) several strange and disturbing tales about innocent women falling for handsome – if hirsute – men who hold a smoldering look in their eyes. And while the film soon starts to follow the “Little Red Riding Hood” template, what Jordan and co-writer Carter craft here is a tapestry of stories that reflects on the loss of one’s innocence as young women begin to thirst for a newly acquired sense of sexuality – delving into the sexual connotations of werewolves with a fascinating feminist touch that elevates it above all other takes on the tale. This is all embodied in Sarah Patterson’s performance as Rosaleen; but curiously enough, she quickly chose to diverge from her promising career as an actress following this film, with only a role in a TV movie version of “Snow White” and a couple recent independent films to her name. “The Company of Wolves” is a fractured fairy tale turned nightmare in a Grand Guignol fashion, blending sexuality and terror in the best of ways.
Speaking to the loss of innocence, if ever there was a film that established the pure nature of its gorgeous female lead in a more grand fashion than Ridley Scott’s 1985 film “Legend,” we’ve yet to find it. Dancing within a field of constantly swirling pollen, Princess Lili (Mia Sara) is introduced as a strong symbol of innocence that will soon be consumed by Darkness – the name of a Satan-like being, played by an unrecognizable Tim Curry. When Darkness decides to rid this unearthly realm of light so that he can roam about the land freely – because you know, his name IS Darkness after all — he chooses to kill off two rare unicorns that seem to hold the spirit of light in the very horns on their foreheads. Is it silly? Yes, but as you’ll see in a moment, it’s all a fairy tale, and a particularly good one at that. Jack (a young Tom Cruise) takes Lili to see these unicorns, which leads to a moment where she makes contact with them, therefore breaking an unwritten rule of the forest. While the truth is that Darkness’ unruly gang of thieves were responsible for the death of the unicorn – and not Lili’s touch – the citizens of the forest don’t look kindly upon Jack and Lili’s relationship as their land is turned to cold and snow as the sun no longer shines, and Lili lands right in the palm of Darkness. It’s a dreamlike and not always coherent tale, but as Scott follows Jack on his quest to rescue the second unicorn from the slaughter, we’re given a muscular fairy tale experiment that also happens to be chock full of charm and whimsy. Scott’s 2002 Director’s Cut forgoes the Tangerine Dream score that was tacked on by Universal after the fact, and instead replaces it with famed composer Jerry Goldsmith’s original composition, and the results are earth-shattering. While children of the ‘80s may remember “Legend” best for those synthesized Tangerine Dreams tracks of fantasy, (along with those still-stunning Academy Award-winning make-up effects by Rob Bottin), the Goldsmith score only ups the ante. What was once a cult ‘80s gem in the vein of “The Dark Crystal” has now been granted new life thanks to its restoration to Scott’s original vision, giving it an ethereal and epic-sized quality that it lacked previously, and lending it the opportunity to be discovered by a whole new generation of “Legend” admirers.
“Pan's Labyrinth” (2006)
Representing the most recent of these fairy tales, writer-director Guillermo del Toro wastes little time in introducing his audience to the world of “Pan’s Labyrinth” – one steeped in the imagination of a young girl named Ofeilia (Ivana Baquero) during Spain’s civil war of 1944. Many fairy tale tropes have been transposed here to this rich, resonant backdrop – with Ofeila’s evil army officer stepfather Vidal (Sergi Lopez) serving as a means to crush Ofeila’s fantasy world, much in the way he’s handling his own fascist control over Spain’s military. Ofeila seeks solace in the labyrinth of a faun who, along with several enchanting creatures, believes Ofeila to be the storied Princess Moanna, who was the daughter of their king, that one day up and left everyone behind. In this other world – regardless of whether it’s imagined or real – Ofeila is free of the dangers of her own reality, right up until the horrors of the real world intrude upon her new role as Princess Moanna. It’s a fantastical but ultimately sobering fairy tale that follows in the tradition of many beloved parables – showing a young girl who’s coping with real life horrors the only way she knows how. The film was nominated for an impressive six Academy Awards – taking home honors for Makeup, Art Direction and Cinematography – but between del Toro’s masterful employment of practical effects and CGI to create the film’s fairy tale characters (with some of the most eye-catching monsters in recent years) and the film’s rich story, “Pan’s Labyrinth” in many ways transcends its modern genre contemporaries to become a whole separate beast. But it's also a measure of del Toro's skills that the "real world" segments are just as compelling as the more fantastical moments.