Fairy tales have always been dark material. While most of us probably grew up with Disney's wondrous, family-friendly animated adaptations, the lore behind them is usually far from happily ever after. Like the blood in Cinderella's shoe or the baby in Princess Talia’s belly, there was always a throughline of the darkest elements of human nature amidst the enchantment and adventure.
While the naughtier bits of the original stories were naturally scrubbed for Disney’s family-friendly princess catalogue, there are surprisingly few movies out there that embrace the dark nature of fairy tale origins. The decent ones are even fewer, but I’ve rounded up some solid picks for an adults-only trip to fantasy land. Check them out below.
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Of all the films on the list, keep the kids far, far away from Freeway. A hard-R exploitation slant on ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, Freeway star Reese Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz, a wild, willful and oh so foul-mouthed high schooler, who's always decked out in red attire. An underprivileged city kid, Vanessa goes on the run when her cracked out mother and lecherous stepfather are arrested for solicitation and possession. Determined not to head back into foster care, Vanessa hits the road to find her long lost grandmother and start a new life, until her car stalls on the side of the freeway and she meets the not-at-all-subtly named Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a serial killer and necrophile who is the big bad wolf to Vanessa's Little Red. Pretending to be a soft-hearted youth counselor, Bob gets off on extracting Vanessa’s dark secrets and perverse memories of abuse, but Vanessa, in her immortal words, "ain't no trick baby" and figures him out for the predator he really is faster than you can say, “What big teeth you have.”
There's no Huntsman in Freeway; Vanessa is very much her own savior, and once she turns the tables on Bob, the film spins off into even crazier directions, defying expectation at every turn. A quick trip to the penitentiary and one sexually (and morally) ambiguous prison friendship later, the film finally arrives at her Grandmother's House where Vanessa squares off against Wolverton one last time. It's a wildly perverse slant on the iconic sequence (seriously, keep those kids far away), indicative of the film as a whole. Which is to say, it's all batshit crazy and occasionally vile, but it's “Once Upon a Time” like you've never seen before.
Snow White: A Tale of Terror
Originally aired as a cable teleplay, Snow White: A Tale of Terror is somewhat of a tonal mishmash at times, but is redeemed by a revisionist slant on the wicked queen that manages to humanize her without softening her edges. Both the script and Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of the iconic fairy tale villain eschew the traditional portrait of the character, opting instead for something more relatable instead. As ever, the queen is vain and murderous, but unlike her traditional counterparts, she's a sympathetic woman, attempting to be a good mother figure to Monica Keena's Snow White (or Lilli, as she's called in the film), only to face rejection and disrespect at every turn. While a mysterious darkness follows her, brought about by her enchanted mirror (and super squicky relationship with her brother), Queen Claudia is kind and patient until a traumatic stillbirth awakens the wickedness within her.
From that point on, the movie takes a decided turn into adults-only territory. Claudia doesn't just demand Lilli's organs; she tries to feed them to the king. Lilli doesn't end up sharing a hut in the forest with a bunch of domestic dwarves, but in the midst of a ragtag group of miners, one of whom gets real rapey. Fortunately, the mysterious and strapping leader Will (Gil Bellows) intervenes, and subs for Prince Charming in the process. As Claudia's attempts to murder Snow with magic repeatedly fail, the queen succumbs more and more to her madness, and yet, perhaps one of the most unnerving elements of A Tale of Terror is the fact that you often find yourself rooting for her. It's a refreshing inversion on the oft-told tale. A throwback to the story's Grimm roots, Snow White: A Tale of Terror has all the cannibalism and crucifixion you never knew you wanted in a fairy tale, but it also has an extra dose of humanity.
The Company of Wolves
Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire) is a filmmaker with a gift for the weird and the wondrous, a gift that surfaced early in his career with only his second film, The Company of Wolves. A revisionist fairy tale aimed at exploring the act of storytelling itself (mainly, the act of controlling female sexuality through portentous parables), The Company of Wolves dives deep into the erotic undertones of the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ myth. The film follows Sarah Patterson's Rosaleen, a modern teen who dreams she's living in a 17th-century village, where bloodthirsty wolves trawl through the forest. Rosaleen's grandmother (Angela Lansbury) fills her head with tales of werewolves, jealousy, and sexual menace. "They're nice as pie until they've had their way with you," she says, "but once the bloom is gone, the beast comes out."
The film earns it's R-rating easily, with ever-present themes of sexuality and a graphic werewolf transformation that begins (yeah, begins) with a man ripping the flesh off his face. But it's not the violent spin on fairy tale lore that makes The Company of Wolves a compelling adaptation of the classic tale, but the meta-commentary on how these tales, and society at large, teach women to see themselves and what they teach women to fear. The peculiar, erotic finale sequence, which finally reenacts the real ‘Red Riding Hood’ myth and finds Rosaleen in a dance of seduction and shifting power dynamics with a handsome wolf, subverts the classic ending by granting her the autonomy to take out the threat single-handedly. The film states its case plainly: "If there's a beast in man, it meets its match in women." Rosaleen emerges in control. Women are not victims of sexuality, but equal and worthy participants.
Darren Aronofsky first tried his hand at adult fairytales with The Fountain, his gorgeous but challenging 2006 tale of love, metaphysics, and biblical allegory, but he got it just right in 2010 with Black Swan. The director's twist on 'Swan Lake' is a frenzied psychological thriller centered on Natalie Portman's Nina Sayers, a prima ballerina who lands the role of The Swan Queen in a production of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake'. A dainty and deeply repressed woman, Nina is perfect for the purity and precision of the White Swan, but her demanding and demeaning director Thomas doubts she can capture the ferocious seduction of the Black Swan. Stifled by her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) at home, pitted against the vivacious Lily (Mila Kunis) in the studio, and awash in a surge of pent-up sexuality pretty much everywhere, Nina's pursuit of perfection drives her into madness, and Aronofsky drags the audience along with her.
As Nina falls further down the rabbit hole of her mind, Aronofsky develops a pitch perfect atmosphere defined by the slippery logic of nightmares. Reality breaks and bends around her, her psychological fractures manifesting in hallucinations, paranoia, and a psychosomatic physical transformation that finds her physically becoming the Black Swan. Heightened by tremendous performances all around and dazzling cinematic craftsmanship from Aronofsky, Black Swan is a deranged spin on an already dark tale, supplanting madness for magic and artistic ambition for true love.
Guillermo del Toro's crowning achievement as a director is also the standard-bearer for adult fairytales. An original tale, del Toro's fantastical Spanish-language feature offers a refreshing break from the Western European influence that dominates the genre, following the young Ofelia (Ivanna Baquero) as she tries to navigate the political and personal turmoil of 1944 Spain. Trapped under the thumb of her wicked stepfather (a lovely piece of subversion), Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a sadistic high-ranking army officer bent on destroying the rebel uprising, Ofelia uncovers a world of magic when she discovers an ancient labyrinth and the mythical faun Pan. There, Ofelia learns that she is a long lost princess of legend and that she must complete three dangerous tasks to prove she hasn’t become mortal, return to her realm, and reclaim her throne.
Intertwining the real-life horrors of war with Ofelia's enchanting gothic wonderland, Pan's Labyrinth is visually resplendent with stunning creature effects, cinematography, and del Toro's signature eye for rich, detailed production design. The creature creations are otherworldly, but feel organic and always a little frightening (or in the cast of the Pale Man, the fleshy fairy-chomping monster with eyes in his hands, completely and utterly terrifying). The extraordinary Doug Jones embodies both Pan and the Pale Man, giving them distinct character and physicality, and the creatures of del Toro’s world are surrounded by a wealth of well-crafted imagery, invoking the magical and the mundane as needed to balance the story’s two realms.
Narratively, it's equally impressive for the thread of earnest sentiment that runs through Ofelia's journey. Each character is treated with dignity, from Ofelia's ailing mother (Ariadna Gil), to the pair of rebels that have infiltrated Vidal's home -- the courageous Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and the quietly noble Doctor Ferrio (Alex Angulo) -- and, Ofelia herself, who is tenacious and brave, but ultimately also a child thrust into the midst of two momentous narratives. Even the villainous Vidal, who is uncompromising, selfish and cruel -- a ferocious embodiment of fascism's rigidity and toxic masculinity -- is endowed with humanity, a fact that makes his warped worldview all the more horrifying. A singular vision, Pan's Labyrinth is the rare treat that delivers spellbinding magic and sobering glimpses at the human condition in equal measure.
Are fairy tales good for adults? ›
We learn from the characters in stories, even as adults. They help us because we connect to our own lives, dreams, anxieties, and consider what we would do in their shoes. Fairy tales help children learn how to navigate life.Is Grimms fairy tales for adults? ›
Gore and sexual acts are features of this German retelling (dubbed in English) of several well-known fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty. Other fairy tales depicted with sexual acts and violence include Snow White and Cinderella. This movie is not for the young or the faint-hearted.Why do adults need fairytales? ›
They convey messages of overcoming adversity, rising from rags to riches, and the benefits of courage. Fairy tales are also extremely moral in their demarcation between good and evil, right and wrong. Their justice references the ancient tradition of an eye for an eye, and their punishments are ruthless and complete.Why do adults love fairy tales? ›
Many of us are stirred by fairy tales, because we see those same scenes unfolding around us — tension, conflict, suspense. As we make sense of the overarching narrative, of what life is really about, we begin to make sense of our own lives. We begin to believe.Are there any British fairy tales? ›
The Story of the Three Bears – An English Fairy Tale from Andrew Lang. The Story of the Three Bears is one of the world's best-known fairy tales. It was originally written by English poet Robert Southey in 1837.What is the most beautiful fairy tale? ›
- The Questing Knights of the Faerie Queen. by Geraldine McCaughrean.
- Snow White: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm. by Brothers Grimm, Illustrated by Charles Santore.
- Cupid and Psyche. ...
- The Tale of The Firebird. ...
- Sleeping Beauty. ...
- The Sword in the Stone. ...
- The Selfish Giant. ...
- Hansel and Gretel.
The most popular fairy tales throughout the ages. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and more!Who is the most liked character in Fairy Tail? ›
The most popular Fairy Tail character of all time is Natsu Dragneel! Erza actually beat him on quite a few lists and Gray Fullbuster actually did as well, but overall Natsu came out on top.Has Grimm been censored? ›
Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by the Brothers Grimm – The stories of the Brothers Grimm were banned for some time in Allied-occupied Germany due to certain themes being glorified in Nazi propaganda.Are the Brothers Grimm stories scary? ›
“Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” he wrote, referring to the gory plots of Snow White, Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel. Grim, indeed. And exciting, too, to generations of children and adults for two hundred years – and perhaps for another two hundred.
What are the most famous Brothers Grimm fairy tales? ›
- Cinderella. ...
- Snow White. ...
- Hansel and Gretel. ...
- The Musicians of Bremen. ...
- The Frog King. ...
- Rapunzel. ...
- Little Red Riding Hood. ...
- Low self esteem.
- Unrealistic ideas of love.
- An outdated sense of reality.
- An extreme misunderstanding of good vs. evil.
Fairy tales often have strong moral lessons embedded in the story, where children can easily understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. They learn to be the hero, not the villain and celebrate that good triumphs over evil.Are fairy tales for children or adults? ›
All of us, children and adults alike, need stories that begin in delight and end in truth, and that means fairy tales are for everyone.Do fairy tales set us up for disappointment? ›
First of all, although these fairy tales are very positive, they usually set unrealistic expectations of life which could induce disappointment in children in foreseeable future. They create false worlds where everything seems to work out perfectly and lead to the notion of 'living happily ever after'.Do all fairytales have a moral lesson? ›
What are some morals in fairy tales? All fairy tales attempt to help people know how to be good people. This can be cautionary like "do not judge a book by its cover" or prescriptive like "be kind to others regardless of who they are."Do fairy tales teach morals? ›
“Fairytales help to teach children an understanding of right and wrong, not through direct teaching, but through implication.Do we even as grownups still like stories? ›
We do not like all stories. Some of them are not worth remembering. Those that have proven by being remember for a long time that they were worth remembering are the one we really love. We love them because they reveal us to ourself, this revelation is the joy we feel reading them.Do fairy tales set us up for disappointment? ›
First of all, although these fairy tales are very positive, they usually set unrealistic expectations of life which could induce disappointment in children in foreseeable future. They create false worlds where everything seems to work out perfectly and lead to the notion of 'living happily ever after'.Do fairy tales affect reality perception? ›
Fairy tales affect a child's emotional, physical and mental development. Fairy tales teach children how to deal with basic human conflicts, desires, and relationships in a healthy way. They are unable to affect their perception of reality.
Why are fairy tales still relevant today? ›
Through fairy tales, children are given opportunities to imagine and think creatively. Imagination fosters social-emotional development, which in turn develops critical thinking in children and cultivates creative problem-solving abilities.Why should adults read children's literature too? ›
Reading your favourite children's literature will have the same effect. Try re-reading a book that was one of your favourites as a child and it will instantly take you on a nostalgia trip. Sometimes children's books for adults help you remember simpler times when you were not bogged down by grown-up troubles.How does storytelling affect the brain? ›
When you listen to a story, your brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller. And reading a narrative activates brain regions involved in deciphering or imagining a person's motives and perspective, research has found.Why do adults tell stories to children? ›
* Storytelling is a great way to teach children the life lessons you want them to learn. Great stories allow children to explore and think about love, hate, jealousy, kindness, power, good and evil. * Storytelling stimulates children's imagination and their use of language.Why are fairy tales so dark? ›
The simple answer is that a lot of older fairy tales weren't supposed to be specifically for kids. They were just stories that people told, as much for grown-ups as for their children. Besides, the idea that a child's innocence should be protected from all bad things in life - consequences, death, pain, grief, etc.What are the negative effects of fairy tales? ›
- Low self esteem.
- Unrealistic ideas of love.
- An outdated sense of reality.
- An extreme misunderstanding of good vs. evil.
Based on the Jungian interpretation, fairy tales teach children how to deal with basic human conflicts, desires, and relationships in a healthy way; acquiring these skills can ultimately impact a child's health, quality of life, or even influence its values and beliefs in the future.Why are children not interested in fairy tales today? ›
Stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are so ingrained in popular culture that it can be all too easy to overlook the damaging ideologies that they perpetuate via misogynistic characters, degrading plot lines and racial uniformity.Do all fairy tales have a clear moral? ›
What are some morals in fairy tales? All fairy tales attempt to help people know how to be good people. This can be cautionary like "do not judge a book by its cover" or prescriptive like "be kind to others regardless of who they are."How do fairy tales teach morals? ›
You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or where heroes and villains contest the very fate of ...
Is Romeo and Juliet a fairy tale? ›
The most famous version of the tale was written by William Shakespeare and first performed in about 1595-97. Unlike a fairy tale, Romeo and Juliet contains no magic, has no enchanted setting, and there are no fantastical creatures such as giants or ogres. It is an old, fictional story, but is not a fairy tale.Is fairy tail appropriate for 10 year olds? ›
I think Fairy Tail is about 11+ but I would deffently say it's down to the parents discretion due to the references of drinking, sexualised charaters and fight scenes. Female charaters are shown to have big breasts and panties are shown from time to time.
Many well-known fairy tales feature stereotypes: the evil old witch, the female-in-distress, the heroic male, and the happily-ever-after that involves heterosexual marriage into a royal family… But by no means are all fairy tales like this!