With its striking Technicolor visuals and a chilling narrative that journeys through a world of witches, hidden labyrinths, and the dark woods, Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a surreal fairy tale nightmare. The dizzying 1977 horror film follows American ballet student Suzy Bannion, who attends a prestigious dance academy somewhere on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. Like Grimm’s Gretyl trapped in an occult fantasy, Suzy’s mythological voyage to the bowels of the school’s wicked underworld is an intensely breathtaking trip. The film’s lurid, gothic grandeur was actually inspired in part by another fairy tale movie — Disney’s Snow White.
Even though Ellen Page’s wardrobe (a red hooded jacket) was apparently an incidental choice (perhaps a comment on how deeply these tales have embedded themselves into our subconscious), the allusion to the story of Little Red Riding Hood seems obvious. A young girl engages in a cat and mouse game with an older man, which is when the comparison goes beyond mere visual clues and thrills with its Jungian thematic of wild, budding feminine power.
Jan Švankmajer’s Little Otik is a fairy tale within a fairy tale and explores the cyclical and destructive nature of human desire through the director’s unique live-action/animated style. Švankmajer takes an absurd look at how one couple strangely copes with their inability to have a child. Like most traditional fairy tales, Little Otik is a cautionary story — this time aimed at the adult generation.
The Company of Wolves
Angela Carter’s feminist revision of Little Red Riding Hood, The Company of Wolves, inspired Neil Jordan’s 1984 gothic fairy tale film of the same name. (Carter also co-wrote the screenplay.) A dreamlike, richly symbolic, and exhilarating twist on the girl-to-women allegory, Jordan’s film immerses us in a dark, erotic dream that threatens to swallow us whole.
Stemming from a series of Russian folk tales, 2010’s dark version of Swan Lake — Darren Aronofsky’s gothic psycho-thriller, Black Swan — is a tragic fairy tale nightmarish. Nina’s hallucinogenic view of the world around her and the ballerina’s masochistic struggle with her own desires recalls Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes — based on the gory Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.
Fusing fantasy, the supernatural, and Guillermo del Toro’s dark visual poetry, Pan’s Labyrinth confronts the violent rumblings of reality (in this case, fascist Spain) with the equally fearsome monsters of a strange underworld. Like the fairy tales that the film calls to mind throughout, the director’s ability to intertwine beauty and horror so closely together is potent magic.
A Tale of Two Sisters
Based loosely on a popular Korean folk story, A Tale of Two Sisters is more like a typical fairy tale than your standard Asian ghost girl story (thankfully). A monstrous stepmother, coming-of-age drama, and supernatural strange permeate the somber Korean chiller that is an intriguing and skillfully composed updating of its ancient literary origins.
A disturbing, grotesque fairy tale from Terry Gilliam — that is sometimes entirely frustrating — Tideland provocatively leads us through one little girl’s eerily macabre fantasy world. There, she navigates her way through the real-life neglect and loss that has left her an orphan. All the rotting corpses truly reinvent the word Grimm.
The City of Lost Children
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s gripping dystopian fantasy is a visually stunning twist on the fairy tale. A malevolent scientist kidnaps young children and attempts to unlock the secrets of their dreams. Absurdly disorienting, The City of Lost Children‘s dream logic narrative mimics the parallels that fairy tales illustrate about our real lives — fantastically recomposed.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an uncanny blend of classic stories like Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood. Add to that the tragicomedy and eroticism of Lolita, topped with Nosferatu-inspired imagery, all of which combine for a truly heady tale about — most simplistically — a girl getting her first period. Valerie‘s sublime fantasy recalls the feral origins of fairy tales, before Disney helped sanitize them for the kiddie generation.