Today is the birthday of one half of the illustrious sibling storybook scribes, the brothers Grimm. Nineteenth-century author Jacob Grimm, along with his brother Wilhelm, produced some of the most widely read stories and influential tales in the history of literature. Their fantasy and folklore narratives have inspired a myriad of film adaptations — some of the best frequently forgotten. Discover ten obscure fairy-tale films, many you can watch right now, below.
A Christ-like child is born from a horse in the hollow of a tree and granted superhuman strength after suckling the mare’s milk. She tells him a frightening story about dragons and evil ones ruling from the depths of a powerful underworld. The eponymous figure in Marcell Jankovics’ 1981 animated Hungarian film sets out to defeat them and restore power to the Forefather of his realm. Jankovics received an Oscar nomination for his 1974 animated short, Sisyphus. His work on The Son of the White Mare is equally impressive and unites experimental and psychedelic visuals (Alejandro Jodorowsky: be jealous), Eastern European folk tales, and an ominous soundtrack.
Underground cinema provocateur Kenneth Anger released a poetic, avant-garde ode to the commedia dell’arte, Japanese myth, and the stylings of old Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg. The clown Pierrot longs to capture the unattainable moon, in which a rabbit lives (inspired by folk tales), but is entranced by the illusory Columbine (Harlequin’s mistress), who is conjured from a magic lantern. Nature eventually confronts the hero. The film saw two releases: the 1972 version featured 1950s and ‘60s pop songs (above — and in my mind the more romantic and dazzling of the two), while the 1979 cut was sped up and matched with A Raincoat’s 1976 single, “It Came in the Night.”
Nineteenth-century writer Sergey Aksakov’s Russian folk tale, The Scarlet Flower (a retelling of Beauty and the Beast), has inspired numerous adaptations. Lev Atamanov’s 1952 rotoscope animation stands amongst the most beautiful.
Reminiscent of the films of Guy Maddin, Milford Thomas’ Claire is an homage to 1920’s cinema, shot on a hand-cranked 35mm camera, boasting in-camera effects and set against painted backgrounds. A mystical moonchild is born from an ear of corn (inspired by a Japanese fairy tale) and brings love to a childless couple — both men. A live orchestral soundtrack complements the emotional tale.
This retelling of Voltaire’s Candide from mondo filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi takes on the form of an exploitation-style fairy tale filled with Fellini-esque antics and characters. Favorite Italian composer Riz Ortolani delivers an eclectic score.
The Mavka is a Slavic mythological figure that appears as a ghostly nymph, sometimes after the drowning of a young girl. She often lures forest-dwellers and men deeper into the woods. Ukrainian filmmaker Yuri Ilyenko’s 1981 film depicts her story as a sensual, woodland dream.
An incredible 1930 stop-motion animation from pioneering filmmaker Ladislas Starevich that is often overshadowed by Disney’s Snow White, even though the movie preceded that work by nearly a year. At the time, feature films starring puppets were unheard of — especially those created for adult audiences. The Story of the Fox brings a mythical animal kingdom to life and remains a forgotten masterpiece.
Subversive cinema champion Amos Vogel once wrote of Italian filmmaker Carmelo Bene — once labeled the “enfant terrible of Italian stage and screen” — who created an experimental adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio:
“Founder of one of Italy’s most famous experimental theatres, poet, actor, author, playwright, and leading avant-gardist, Carmelo Bene is an unknown genius of contemporary cinema. . . . Bene’s films are visual, lyrical and auditory cataclysms, whose lava-like outpourings are of unequalled hallucinatory perversity. Their visual density and creative exuberance defy description.”
Troubadour Tom Waits provides the soundtrack for indie animation icon Bill Plympton’s Idiots and Angels — a noir fairy tale with dark comedic twists. A battle between one man’s selfish whims and the newly sprouted wings on his back is acted out, heavy on the surreal, Lynchian vibes.
This collection of hand-colored “fairy films” from the dawn of cinema produced by Paris’ Pathé Frères company is a must-see for fairy-tale enthusiasts. Fantastical creatures, beguiling women, and supernatural beings frolic in bejeweled, theatrical settings. A DVD featuring a reimagined soundtrack from contemporary experimental artists (Chris Watson, Fennesz, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Ryoji Ikeda, Philip Jeck, BJNilsen, and others) was recently released.