Following last year’s Snow White And The Huntsman comes the similarly revisionist Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters. With Jack The Giant Slayer also mere weeks away, kick-ass retellings of folk and fairy stories are clearly all the rage. But they’re not so new, as evidenced by these ten tales, all of which wrench familiar narratives in unfamiliar directions. All the better to disturb you with...
Folk Tale: Otesánek
Based on Otesánek, the Czech folktale about a childless couple who acquire a weird wooden tree-stump baby that eats anything and everything it comes into contact with (including several people), Little Otik is a typically eye-opening and grotesque entry on the CV of Czech animator extraordinaire Jan Švankmajer. See also Alice... said The White Rabbit.
Grimm-est Moment: When Otik devours the postman.
Folk Tale: Snow White
This extraordinarily dark TV movie never actually names a Snow White, but instead gives us Lilli (Monica Keena), with a terrifying Sigourney Weaver (pictured) as wicked queen/stepmother Lady Claudia. She won an Emmy for the role. What’s interesting here is that Lilli isn’t exactly an innocent at the mercy of an evil queen: her petulant behaviour towards Claudia is kind of the catalyst for everything – although perhaps Claudia’s order of Lilli’s execution is slightly extreme. Claudia also takes to cooing over a reanimated stillbirth. So y’know, maybe Lilli was onto something.
Grimm-est Moment: Claudia smacks her lips over a stew that she thinks contains Lilli’s remains.
Folk Tale: Red Riding Hood
A savagely witty modern-day retelling of Ms R.R. Hood, this was directed by Matthew Bright (who wrote the earlier, also really good Gun Crazy), and stars Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland. Witherspoon has the Red role: in this case a white trash girl from the slums of LA, heading to her grandmother’s house in a stolen car after her mom is arrested for prostitution. Sutherland’s Big Bad Wolf is a rapist serial-killer she encounters along the way. Things really don’t go well for him...
Grimm-est Moment: Witherspoon’s final smile…
Folk Tale: The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon
Kim Ji-woon’s 2003 horror is an adaptation of a famous Korean folktale, The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon. The film renames the female leads Su-mi and Su-yeon, but the meanings – 'Rose Flower' and 'Red Lotus' – remain the same, as does their fractious relationship with their stepmother. What’s different is the much-increased ghost quotient and the emphasis on terrifying mad craziness.
Grimm-est Moment: When the ghost of Su-yeon’s mother crawls out of a wardrobe.
Source: Red Riding Hood
Red Riding Hood again, in this case with Ellen Page as the Red-ish Hayley and Patrick Wilson as the vulpine Jeff. The story here is Hayley’s entrapment and torture of Jeff, who she believes to be a paedophile and murderer who grooms young girls online. The crux of the narrative is whether or not she’s correct. It’s a powerful and compelling two-hander, and more of an allusion to than an adaptation of the fairy tale. But in case you missed the point, Page gets to wear a red (riding) hoody.
Grimm-est Moment: Hayley apparently castrates Jeff.
Folk Tale: The Huldra
A beautifully enigmatic and eerie Norwegian chiller, Thale [tah-lay] is the story of a forest sprite who’s been kept separated from her kind for some years, until the death of her human guardian and the arrival at her cabin-in-the-woods of two crime-scene cleaners. Tapping into Norway’s rich mythological heritage (Thale is a huldra: a beautiful figure who sits under forest waterfalls, luring men who she then kills if they fail to sexually satisfy her), it shares DNA and an FX company with André Øvredal’s Trollhunter. But where Trollhunter is fast-paced and action-packed, the very different Thale is low-key and haunting, wth gorgeous cinematography by its director Aleksander Nordaas, and a siren-call score.
Grimm-est Moment: Those glimpses of Thale’s huldra compatriots in the woods.
Folk Tale: Red Riding Hood
Red Riding Hood again, although Neil Jordan’s version is twice removed from the original source, instead adapting and conflating Angela Carter’s two retellings from her short story collection The Bloody Chamber. It’s set simultaneously in the present day and a dream-state fairy tale past (given a gorgeous artificiality by the studio-based settings), which Jordan explained was due to his desire to give the film a “Chinese box” structure of stories within stories. Surreal and haunting, this Red Riding Hood is fecund with sexuality and blood. Maybe not one for your granny.
Grimm-est Moment: The incredible transformation in which a wolf jumps out of a character’s mouth. Also the famous scene when an entire wedding party goes Lycan.
Source: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Arguably the most Tim Burton of all Tim Burton films, his version of the Washington Irving perennial is a Hallowe’en theme park of twisted trees, pumpkins, spiders and headless horsemen. Johnny Depp – of course – is the ineffectual anti-hero Ichabod Crane, beleaguered by conspiracies, hauntings, and predatory women in the form of Christina Ricci and Miranda Richardson. It’s got a Hammer horror vibe made all the more potent by the presence of Christopher Lee and Michael Gough, and it features a wordless, feral Christopher Walken as the sharp-toothed Hessian.
Grimm-est Moment: When the Hessian erupts from the tree.
Source: Hansel and Gretel
This 2007 South Korean version is slightly different to the film that’s out today. Yim Pil-sung’s modern day retelling does include breadcrumbs and cannibalism and a cottage in the woods, but throws in premonitory drawings and people turning into china dolls and trees. The cottage isn’t edible in this case either, but a sinister 'House of Happy Children'. It’s a difficult film to talk about without revealing major spoilers, so we’d urge you just to seek it out. Trust us: it’s pure insanity from start to finish.
Grimm-est Moment: Chun Jung-myung discovery of the real ingredients of his last meal.
Folk Tale: Swan Lake
It's not based on a fairy tale per se, but Black Swan’s heritage is a rich one. There’s Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, obviously - in which a princess is transformed into a swan – and the ballet’s own influences mean the film is indirectly channelling elements from Russian folklore and German literature. And then there’s the doppelganger business, which you can find in Norse and Egyptian mythology, poetry by Donne, Shelley and Goethe, and in Dostoevsky, whose The Double was apparently a key text for director Darren Aronofsky.
Grimm-est Moment: Natalie Portman starts sprouting feathers.