A guide to our favorite dark and twisted fairy tales...
When you think of fairy tales, sweet images of magical wonderlands, talking critters, elves, goblins and of course, fairies, most likely pop into your head. Tales for kiddies meant to stir the imagination and, as is often the case, offer some kind of moralistic lesson. But take away the Disney-fication of many of the classics and you might find something quite different, dark and twisted tales filled with disturbing imagery more nightmarish than warm and fuzzy.
Director Catherine Hardwicke’s (Twilight) new Red Riding Hood is just such a tale. The heroine, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), is no longer a little girl, but a young woman in the medieval town of Daggerhorn planning to run away with her boyfriend in order to escape an arranged marriage. And what of the big bad wolf? He has evolved into a murderous werewolf. After her sister is slain by the beast, Valerie discovers a connection with the wolf that might be the town’s only hope for salvation.
Needless to say, the PG-13 Red Riding Hood isn’t exactly for little kids but is the latest in a long tradition of cinematic tall tales intended for more mature audiences, from Dario Argento’s blood-soaked gothic fairy tale Suspiria to the infamous David Bowie codpiece extravaganza Labyrinth.
The Story: Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy. After a few mysterious occurrences and a couple of murders, Suzy discovers the disciplinarian staff of the school is really a coven of witches.
Based On: Director Dario Argento reportedly had cinematographer Luciano Tovoli watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to model the color scheme for Suspiria. Other influences Argento has cited include the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Edgar Allen Poe and Hans Christian Andersen.
Messed Up Moment: Dubbed one of the scariest films of all time, Argento doesn’t waste any time letting audiences know what’s in store. When Suzy first arrives at the Academy, she sees expelled student Pat (Eva Axen) leave the academy in a hurry. Seeking refuge at a friend’s house, Pat is attacked and repeatedly stabbed before being bound by a cord and hung, smashing through a large stained-glass ceiling, the colorful shards falling to impale her friend below.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
The Story: In “another world, another time” on the planet of Thra, as explained by the narrator, a Gelfling (an elflike creature) known as Jen embarks on a grand adventure to search for the missing shard of a magical crystal in order to restore order to the world. Huh?
Based On: Clearly relishing the opportunity to escape the sunny world of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson took bits and pieces from countless classic fairy tales and put them in a blender. From the “once upon a time” opening narration to the dragons and endlessly bizarre, creepy creatures, it wasn’t exactly what parents who had raised their children on Henson’s work were expecting.
Messed Up Moment: Perhaps Henson had been spending too much time around kids and needed an outlet, but when the frightening Skeksis straps the childlike Podlings to a chair reminiscent of a medieval torture device and sucks out their life “essence,” the scene is intensely disturbing even to adults today.
The Story: In a fantasyland rife with fairies, goblins and demons, the inimitable Tim Curry portrays the Lord of Darkness, a not-so-nice guy who sends his goblin henchman on an errand to remove the horns from the forest unicorns which will result, of course, in permanent darkness. The only hope for more sunlight is a long-haired Tom Cruise as Jack o’ the Green and the love of his life, Princess Lia (Ferris Bueller hottie Mia Sara).
Based On: Although not based on a specific piece of literature, director Ridley Scott reportedly steeped himself in the work of the Brothers Grimm prior to production and has cited Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live-action version of Beauty and the Beast as an influence.
Messed Up Moment: Tim Curry’s fire engine-red, horned, satanic Lord of Darkness is terrifying every moment he’s on screen. Late in the film, with Lia as his captive, Curry leans over the unconscious young girl with a maniacal grin, his sweaty chest reflecting nearby flames. She jumps awake and moves away. “Beneath the skin, we are already one,” he tells her.
The Story: Jim Henson is at it again, albeit in slightly more lighthearted form than Dark Crystal. 15-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) wishes her baby half-brother Toby would just go away. When Jareth, The Goblin King (David Bowie) appears, she begs for Toby’s return. Jareth tells her that she must complete his labyrinth or he will keep Toby and turn him into a goblin.
Based On: As with Dark Crystal, Labyrinth draws on scores of classic fairy tales. In one scene, Sarah eats a poisoned peach, a sub for the apple of the Grimm tale.
Messed Up Moment: Just about any moment David Bowie appears on screen in tights and a codpiece holding a baby is pretty disturbing. Other than that, the nightmarish masquerade sequence is visually disturbing, as is the idea of androgynous Bowie hitting on jailbait Connelly.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
The Story: New York Police constable Ichabod Crane is dispatched to the upstate town of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of unexplained beheadings. Armed with his modern and cutting-edge tools of the trade, the squeamish Crane is informed that the killer is a supernatural being.
Based On: Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Messed Up Moment: The gruesome beheadings are disturbing enough, bodies standing still just after their heads have been lopped off, blood spurting from their neck like water from a tipped fire hydrant. In the end, when the Headless Horseman is finally reunited with his noggin, Lady Van Tassel meets a pretty horrific ending when the Horseman takes her with him into the depths of hell.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The Story: Set in 1944 Spain, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother to join her new stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). A lover of fairy tales, Ofelia follows an insect she believes to be a fairy into a labyrinth where she first encounters Faun (Doug Jones) and discovers a magical fantasyland. She must complete three tasks before the full moon in order to return to the real world.
Based On: Director Guillermo del Toro has cited countless influences on Labyrinth, but a few highlights include the book Sands of Fairy Tales and the writings of Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.
Messed Up Moment: Del Toro’s vision has no shortage of disturbing moments, but one standout is the scene with Ofelia and Pale Man (Doug Jones) on the food-laden table. When two eyeballs appear on a plate before Pale Man, he places the eyeballs in his hands and lifts his hands up where his eyes should be in order to see. A moment later he snatches two fairies from the air, bites off their heads and wipes their blood from his lips with the back of his hand. Mmm, tasty fairies.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The Story: A young bookworm named Bastian (Barret Oliver) ducks into a dusty old bookstore to escape some bullies and swipes a mysterious old book to read despite warnings from the grumpy proprietor (Thomas Hill). The wondrous book transports Bastian into the magical world of Fantasia to help the Empress battle an oppressive force known as “The Nothing.”
Based On: Michael Ende’s German 1979 German fantasy novel of the same name. The novel is an original work, though Ende’s fantastical world draws on many classic fairy tale themes. There is a young princess, a child warrior, a gnome, sorcery and swordplay and creatures such as Gmork the werewolf and, of course, the iconic Falkor the Luck Dragon.
Messed Up Moment: As this list surely proves, the ‘80s was the time for oddball fairy tale flicks disguised as kids’ movies. Sure, they’ve got the magical worlds and muppets, but they’re also filled with enough twisted imagery to give David Lynch a run for the money. NeverEnding Story also has some mixed moral messages (stealing is okay if you leave a note), but nothing tops the horrifying ending where Bastian obtains sweet, sweet revenge by riding Falkor towards the bullies from the beginning while unwittingly scaring the bejesus out of innocent men, women and children standing in the crossfire.
What’s your favorite dark fairy tale? Let us know.