Fairy Tale Films For Grown-Ups

Christopher Fowler
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?


Henry Fosdike (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 14:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet are either excellent (Amelie, Delicatessen, A Very Long Engagement) or they aren't...but there is always something interesting to enjoy. The films of Raul Ruiz might qualify too. I loved Three Lives and Only One Death and quite enjoyed City of Pirates. Alas, it's been hard to find any more as they are all out of print or never got into print in the first place. On Body and Soul was a lovely film about dreams (not quite a fairytale but still fantastical), whilst Millennium Actress is well worth a watch as well and my personal favourite from this list. None of these are Hollywood either, so they must actively avoid them as much as possible!

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 16:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd like to know what people think of "Into the Woods" a 2014 adaptation of James Lapine's and Steven Sondheim's musical directed by Rob Marshall. It's a very dense thing but somehow I couldn't warm to it. Perhaps the music is not to my taste, but what's not to like about Sondheim?

snowy (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 17:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A/The Company of Wolves? [Dir Neil Jordan] from the story re-interpreted by Angela Carter.

[Those of a particularly senstive disposition should note that this film does contain traces of Angela Lansbury]

Christopher Fowler Mon, 13/08/2018 - 17:18

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We'll take traces of Lansbury any day! I've always loved 'Into The Woods', especially the Regents Park open air production that had a gigantic robotic giant played by Judi Dench. Raul Ruiz is a good call - I'd forgotten about him!

Jan (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 17:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen I once saw an outdoor production of "Into the Woods" in Cannizaro Park (which I think is in Wimbledon ) one evening. Was very well suited to such a production as It's very similar to an outdoor evening production of"Camelot" where the story gets more serious and scary as the night gets darker - it worked a treat. Was an amateur production with professional leads. Wonderful production though. Years ago we saw it but i still remember it so well.

The picture was I think an opportunity missed - good but coulda shoulda been wonderful. Never mind.

"Mimic" is a great,picture. Mr Funny Shoes the super duper giant insect figure the lad and his grandad. All the characters including the lab assistants + the pc's in the subways. All the vagies down there in the abandoned tunnels.

Marvellous stuff. Loved it. Very fairytale like or like a comic come alive. He's good Mr. Torro.

Jan (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 20:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

They are doing a production of "The Little Shop of Horrors" at Regents Park outdoor theatre this year, think it starts this Wednesday and Audrey the puppet --plant is being played by a drag queen!

Interesting casting!

I love "Little Shop of Horrors". Saw a fantastic Am Dram production of that back this April in Axminster. Very young talented cast. I like an amdram show. Although this was,obviously an hired in costumes and rent an Audrey.
Audrey was a VERY professional plant and it's to be hoped this drag artiste can live up to the role. Love the song "Somewhere that's green" it always makes me cry.

I do Am Dram well not really Am Dram we do panto in the village Hall. We are a very lackadaisical group of players. But we have a very assertive director who seems to think after a three night stint in the village hall we will be moving on to the West End or possibly Broadway. We start rehearsing in about September and are constantly harassed throughout the winter months till about mid Feb. When we perform. We throw in supper for the audience which is about the only thing that keeps them in their seats after the interval. We get heckled a fair bit in the 2nd half you can hardly blame them though. A stiff drink is necessary to face the full show. I will send a picture to Fowler of one of my major roles.

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 23:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I can just imagine Audrey played by a drag queen and as long as it isn't camped up too much would be wonderful. "Rent an Audrey" is a great phrase but unless you have professional people available it's the only way to be sure of having an Audrey that works. (We had a young chestnut tree named George for a short while.)
If panto in the village hall isn't am dram I don't know what is. Well, yes, Jan, we have to see you in costume - as Puss in Boots? or whatever else you've done. Don't forget that panto is almost totally unknown in North America and I was sick with chicken pox the one time there was a performance.
(I still don't care much for Angela Lansbury, but I admit that watching Murder She Wrote for a while did nothing to improve one's opinion of the lady. She has an odd manner and even odder speaking voice and can you really listen comfortably to that patter song?)

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 13/08/2018 - 23:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I obviously have to ginve Into the Woods another try.

Jan (not verified) Tue, 14/08/2018 - 16:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

One thing that A.L. has in her favour is she looks a lot kinder now than when she was a lass. When she was invariably cast as a baddie. Was it her in "Gaslight"? With Charles Boyer was it?
Not really sure.

Remarkable career she's had though. Can't take that away from her. Such longevity

I have sent the panto photo to Fowler but unsure as to whether the general public are ready to be exposed to such a shocker.

Jan (not verified) Thu, 16/08/2018 - 16:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Audrey 2 is the plants full name. Named by Seymour to honour Audrey the masochist with the dentist boyfriend. Audrey being the girl he loves + his colleague in the Skid Row florists. Now THERES a modern grown up fairytale of note. I really love that show one of me favourites.

Was it Alan Menken the lyricist? I am not at all sure but if it is him did he not go on to write the songs for the musical Disney films "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast." We have have just completed a trivia loop there Mr. F.

John Griffin (not verified) Sat, 18/08/2018 - 15:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brotherhood of the Wolf is magnificent, layered, complex and poignant, with some superb action sequences. Highly recommended. I had it on VHS!

Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 22/08/2018 - 23:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Guillermo Del Toro's 'Hellboy II' was definitely in the 'fairytale' region. I loved his interpretation of 'The Tooth Fairy' - ravenous hordes of little fairies that eat teeth, and any other living tissue. I cannot recommend Mike Mignola's 'Hellboy' and 'B.P.R.D.' graphic novels highly enough. They differ from the movies, and are a good, frightening read.

Pat O (not verified) Thu, 23/08/2018 - 19:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Comencini's Pinocchio is the best ever. The 1970s-80s was a great time for European fairytale movies and TV that appealed to adults as much as children. In particular Barrandov Studios in Prague, still under communist control at that time, made a host of excellent modern fairytale TV series with not very subtle social commentary. Nowadays there are similar fantasy series - I watched one on Walter Presents a while ago about a water-breathing race that were living unnoticed in modern society

Wayne Mook (not verified) Fri, 24/08/2018 - 21:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Angela Lansbury is splendid in The Manchurian Candidate, must watch that again.

Powell and Pressburger films always remind me of adult fairy tales, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman and A Canterbury Tale, especially, although Black Narcissus does have that odd artificial and overwrought feeling.

Any number of horror films have the same feeling, The Universal old horrors do, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dracula ('31), and they're Hollywood. I'd also lump in the magical toys films especially the gothic feeling Dolls and Puppet Master (the Puppet Master really isn't worth tracking down, even though a remake is due and Charles Band has made umpteen sequels, think Child's Play and then reduce the quality - some of the later Child's Play films really are bizarre esp. Seed of Chucky.)

Of modern Hollywood I'd probably throw in Being John Malkovich as a modern fairy-tale plus Terry Gilliam esp. Tideland and Tim Burton esp. Edward Scissorhands.