Fairy Tale Films For Grown-Ups
The granddaddy of fairy tale films remains ‘La Belle et Le Bête’, but lately there has been a resurgence in a genre that Disney demoted to sentimental kiddie fare for so long. When I look through my terrifyingly vast collection of weird movies, I suddenly realise how few Hollywood films there are. From the country that virtually invented the popular film, why are there so few fairy tales aimed above 7 year-olds? To be fair, there was a recent rash of ‘dark’ retellings, but the ones I saw were mostly embarrassing, except for Tarsem Singh’s delightful ‘Mirror, Mirror’.
Here are five I picked at random…
1. Tale of Tales
Matteo Garrone directed ‘Tale of Tales’, a portmanteau film based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan scholar Giambattista Basile as ‘Pentamerone’, a five-volume collection aggregating 50 fantastical stories full of ogres, witches and assorted creatures.
It imagines three kingdoms and their rulers, each with a strange tale to tell. Toby Jones is a kindly king who holds a tournament, the winner of which will be allowed to marry his daughter. Salma Hayek is a childless queen advised by a sorcerer to eat the heart of a sea-monster if she wishes to become pregnant and Vincent Cassel is a corrupt king who woos a crone thinking her to be a young girl. It will come as no surprise to hear that none of these desires turns out well for those involved. Many shots in the film look like etchings from fairytales.
2. The Blacksmith and The Devil
This European folk-tale gets a terrific Spanish makeover, and tells of a blacksmith who makes a pact with a minor demon, then tricks him out of his prize (his soul, obvs). The new version, ‘Errementari’ aka The Blacksmith and the Devil, is set in Basque country, to good effect. Ten years after the Civil War in Spain, 1833, orphan Usue escapes from her village and meets a lonely and much-feared blacksmith who is the keeper of a caged demon that must never be allowed to escape. If he does he will drag everyone down to Hell. Luckily there are ways to combat him – with a bell and some chickpeas. But it’s not long before torch-bearing villagers demonise the wrong culprit and set the creature loose. He, in turn, takes Usue to Hell to meet his boss…the film looks like Hammer crossed with ‘Haxan’ and is very faithful to its fairytale roots.
3. Hammer Films
Most of the Hammer Draculas and Frankensteins, plus ‘The Reptile’, now have the feel of fairytales. They’re filled with dire warnings from villagers, sinister castles holding secrets, virgins attacked, prophecies fulfilled, belief versus science, and tampering with explicit instructions. The lighting and sets all suggest fantastical mittel-Europe in the 19th century. Evil is always vanquished and goodness flourishes. It’s no wonder Hammer could not survive into the next generation, when their audiences no longer identified with classic fairytale tropes. Hammer sometimes brought out the darker meanings of their fables; ‘Brides of Dracula’ has disturbing Oedipal tones and ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ suggests that sins are passed down from one generation to the next.
4. Brotherhood of the Wolf
This underrated fable from Christophe Gans, who also made a superb new version of ‘La Belle et Le Bête’, is set in a rural province of France, where a mysterious creature is laying waste to the countryside, killing scores of women and children. Possessed of enormous strength and an almost human intelligence, the beast has eluded capture for years. King Louis sends a scientist and his Iroquois blood brother to bring the beast down. There’s a smart twist in the fairytale which reminds us that man is the creature we have to be most afraid of. When the truth is uncovered the film takes an unexpectedly poignant and all too human turn. The film is visually ravishing.
The Films of Guillermo del Toro
Apart from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, Guillermo del Toro’s earliest films feel closest to fairy tales, although every single one has elements of European and Latin folklore. ‘Mimic’ feels full of eerie fairy tale tropes, the most powerful being the descent into an otherworldly place to restore normality. The young boy and his grandfather are classic fairy tale characters, and we find them again and again in this director’s work, especially in ‘Cronos’ and ‘The Shape of Water’. He’s next doing ‘Pinocchio’, a tale with a bad film history (cf. the disastrous Roberto Benigni version) but it will be interesting to see what del Toro does with it.
Any other recommendations?