Folklore and fairy tales have been around for centuries, long before the written word, and they were often quite brutal and bloody. Moral tales full of fairies, goblins, mermaids, dragons, and various other magical creatures that featured cannibalism, murder, and dismemberment to keep children in line. Sounds like horror, right? When fairy tales lean hard into their horror roots, that’s when the real magic happens. Here are 10 great horror films that blend the two together to unleash fairy tale carnage:
With The Nun arriving in theaters, now is the perfect time to catch up with director Corin Hardy’s feature debut. This dark fairytale is part creature feature, part body horror, and all Irish folktale as it follows a British plant conservationist and his family as they discover the hard way what it means to ignore warning signs and invade the territory of fairies, banshees, and changelings. Forget Tinker Bell, these fairies are truer to their origins; monstrous, mean, and deadly.
Snow White: A Tale of Terror
This horror twist on a fairy tale classic declares itself far removed from its Disney counterpart straight away, with Snow White’s father brutally performing a cesarean section on his dying wife to save his child. The film also imbues its wicked stepmother, Claudia (Sigourney Weaver), with a lot more sympathy as she tries again and again to bond with her stepdaughter to no avail. Also starring Sam Neill and Monica Keena, this take on Snow White is steeped in blood, sex, death, and Satanic ritual.
The original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, wasn’t quite the uplifting story it’s been made out to be in recent decades, and Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut sticks true to the origin story while setting it in a 1980s Polish cabaret. Mermaid sisters Golden and Silver come to shore and fall right in with a nightclub’s house band. One falls in love, the other lusts for human flesh, but both become rising stars. It’s a genre-bender unafraid to get weird, bloody, or tragic.
Based on a Czech fairy tale that tells of a couple so desperate for a child to the point where the husband carves one out of a log that sort of resembles a baby. The log baby comes to life, much to the joy of the erstwhile parents, but it happens to have an insatiable appetite. Otik is strange yet sort of cute, until it starts eating. When food doesn’t satisfy, it turns to hair, then animals, and then people. A wooden monster baby with a never-ending lust for gluttony means this won’t possibly end well.
The Company of Wolves
What if the story of Little Red Riding Hood didn’t have a wolf, but werewolves? Then you have Neil Jordan’s dreamlike Gothic horror fantasy film The Company of Wolves. A sort of anthology that weaves in Little Red Riding Hood among other werewolf centered fables, it’s hinged together by Sarah Patterson’s Rosaleen, a young girl maturing into womanhood. Angela Lansbury plays her grandmother. Remember, beware men whose eyebrows meet.
While The Company of Wolves opted for a lush fairytale aesthetic, Freeway gives Little Red Riding Hood a modern twist. Reese Witherspoon plays Vanessa, a teen on the run after her mom and stepfather are arrested on prostitution and drug charges. On the way to her grandmother’s house, she crosses paths with the film’s version of the Big Bad Wolf; serial killer Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland). An over the top satire, this version of the fairytale isn’t traditional horror but it is horrific. As if serial killing isn’t bad enough, Bob is a violent child pedophile.
It’s difficult to discuss dark fantasy horror films without mention of Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar winning Pan’s Labyrinth. Influenced by fairy tales, his childhood experiences, and lucid dreaming, del Toro crafted a fairy tale story of his own. Set in post-Spanish Civil War in 1944, young Ofelia and her sickly, pregnant mother move in with her new stepfather, the cruel Captain Vidal. Ofelia may or may not be the resurrected Princess Moana of the underworld, tasked with quests by the Faun to acquire immortality and entrance to her kingdom. Ofelia’s tasks mean encounters with child-eating Pale Man, but it’s not as brutal or as scary as the real world.
This horror fairytale just recently came off the festival circuit and entered limited theatrical release this summer but keep an eye out for this touching tale that’s as sweet as it is tragic. Told in two parts, it follows Clara, a nurse hired by the wealthy Ana as a nurse for her unborn child. The women, both lonely, form a strong bond, but Ana’s pregnancy is not quite human, and their lives are irrevocably altered on a fateful night. A modern-day fairytale that retains that sense of whimsy and parable leanings, Good Manners features one of my favorite horror subject matters. I won’t spoil it, though, as this one is best discovered going in blind.
An Estonian dark fairy tale story set in the 19th century, this stunning black and white film is a pagan folktale full of werewolves, ghosts, witches, magical beings called Kratts, and Satan, all while the plague looms near. Grounding the story of magic is peasant girl Liina, who longs for village boy Hans. But Hans only has eyes for an aristocrat’s daughter. There’s humor to balance the darkness of the 19th-century village, and the deep dive into Estonian folklore feels simultaneously magical and nightmarish. It’s also a bit disorienting with an untraditional narrative style, so this one will only be for fans of surreal slow burn stories. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Tale of Tales
Based on a collection of stories by Italian poet Giambattista Basile, Pentamerone, this dark horror fantasy film is an anthology that delves into the earliest versions of well-known fairytales. Three stories about obsession, all taking place in one kingdom, this fairytale isn’t afraid of gruesome bloodshed. Monstrous fleas, aquatic dragons, ogres, witches, and a vain king who prefers to flay the skin of his victims, this is not a bedtime story for kids. It also boasts a large ensemble cast of recognizable talent like Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, and Vincent Cassel.