From the sword and sorcery boom of the 1980s to that of Peter Jackson beloved the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the fantasy genre has been explored from dozens of angles in film. While the genre is often associated with a sense of fantasy, many fantasy films aim to examine the darker sides of their fantasy worlds.
From nostalgic nightmare fuel to cult classics of modern fantasy, the following films are some shining examples of a seamless blend of horror and adventure, forging an entirely unique experience all their own.
‘Gretel & Hansel’ (2020)
When their mother is driven mad by an unknown evil, the Hansel brothers (Samuel Leak) and Gretel (Sophie Lillis) are fleeing their home. They eventually discover a house in the woods inhabited by old Holda (Alice Krige). The woman seems hospitable at first, but it’s not long before the children begin to suspect that she has more sinister intentions in mind.
This flawed but underrated genre exercise was released in the January 2020 dump, too bad considering it sits above most throwaway films from that year. It’s an eerie and genuinely unsettling take on Grimm’s fairy tale, with undertones of Giallo and ’80s horror fantasy in every frame. The PG-13-rated film also feels less like a watered-down R-rated affair and more like the edgiest children’s films of yesteryear, infusing the entire ordeal with an infectious sense of nostalgia.
“The Black Crystal” (1982)
Set on the fictional planet of Thra, Jen (Jim Henson), one of the last of the Gelfling race, embarks on a journey to find a shard of the sacred Black Crystal, believed to provide balance to the universe once. Unfortunately, the rest of the crystal is possessed by the evil Skeksis, a vulture-like race intent on using the crystal’s power to take over the universe.
Anyone raised in the 80s or early 90s is likely to have been cursed with nightmares of this wildly imaginative cult classic. Puppeteer Henson put his penchant for world-building apart from the lightest muppets exposed, imbuing every dark corner of Thra with equal parts danger and wonder.
‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
In 1944, in Spain, Ofelia, 11 years old (Ivana Baquero) travels with his pregnant mother (Ariane Gil) and father-in-law, the ruthless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), in their new home. One night, she wanders through the woods and encounters a mystical faun (Doug Jones). He tells Ofelia that she is the reincarnation of a princess from years ago and that she can one day return to her forgotten kingdom if she completes three tasks.
The modern master of dark fantasy, Guillermo del Toro, brings this haunting allegory to life with its inventive creature concepts and distinct vision. One scene, in particular, involving a grotesque child-eating monster known as the Pale Man, is considered by many to be the pinnacle of horror in modern fantasy storytelling and shouldn’t be surpassed any time soon.
“Return to Oz” (1985)
After being sent to a mental hospital for claiming to have visited another realm, young Dorothy Gale (Fairouza Balk) tries to escape in the middle of a violent storm. To her surprise, she wakes up in the fantasy world of Oz she once knew, to find that a new evil is now threatening the land.
This Bizarre, Late, Unofficial 1939 Sequel The Wizard of Oz is more faithful to the work of L. Frank Baum than the beloved classic, especially in its darker atmosphere and more adult themes. From masked lunatics with wheels for appendages to a witch with a collection of interchangeable heads, Back to Oz is filled with unsettling choices that make it a one-of-a-kind curiosity for fantasy cinema.
“The Secret of the NIMH” (1982)
Widowed Mother Mouse Mrs. Brisby (Elisabeth Hartmann) kidnaps her children from their home when the threat of a farmer’s plow looms on the horizon. Unfortunately, one of her sons is sick and she has to stay close to home to protect him. She eventually accepts help from lab rats with heightened intelligence from experiments, only to find herself embroiled in a power struggle between them.
On paper, The NIMH Secret is an offbeat project for a family movie, but one that works oddly better in execution than it’s entitled to. The animation is stunning and specific, and the predators Ms. Brisby encounters on her journey are brilliantly crafted, moving with wild intensity. This underrated classic is one of the most ambitious and best-executed works of animation not released by Disney.
“Solomon Kane” (2009)
In early 17th century England, sword-for-hire Solomon Kane swears to renounce violence after encountering a demon, which gives him a new outlook on life. However, an evil looms on the horizon and he will soon be called upon again to wield his sword and save the world.
For all those who are disappointed with the 2004s Van Helsing but fancy a similar movie, look no further than the cult hit Solomon Kane. The film squeezes every ounce of potential from its modest budget to create a sprawling but eerie world filled with inventive creatures and plenty of scares to complement the swordplay.
‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999)
Based on the classic short story by washington irving, sleepy hollow follows Agent Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as he travels to the titular small town to investigate a series of beheadings.
Tim Burton fits like a glove with the gothic mystery of sleepy hollow, bringing his penchant for spooky atmosphere and storybook fantasy to the table. One of his few R-rated offerings, it’s a glimpse into the joyfully horrific possibilities that often aren’t fully realized in his career.
“Spirited Away” (2001)
Chihiro, 10 years old (Rumi Hiiragi) and his family discover a seemingly abandoned amusement park. Before she knows it, Chihiro is taken to another realm, where the park is a resort for supernatural beings.
animation master Hayao Miyazaki created what many consider his magnum opus with the weird and beautiful world of Taken away as if by magic. The film’s most intriguing invention is No-Face, a mysterious, sentient creature that on separate occasions represents sheer horror and endearing sweetness. With this one voiceless character, No-Face embodies the complex dichotomy of Miyazaki’s fantasy vision.
“The Witches” (1990)
While staying at a hotel in England with her grandmother, Luke (Jason Fisher) accidentally discovers a secret clan of witches. He soon learns of their plan to turn all the children into mice with a magic potion and must stop them before it’s too late.
A leftover from the 80s stream of nightmarish kids movies, The witches, uses practical make-up and off-putting cinematography to create an unsettling atmosphere throughout. Angelique Houston for the High Witch is a terrifying presence in her own right, but a memorable scene where her face is peeled off is likely to disturb even the toughest viewers.
After moving to a new home, young Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) explores the house, discovering a secret door that acts as a gateway to a parallel universe. While the grass initially looks greener, she soon realizes that the mirror version of her family has no intention of letting her go home.
Brought to life using LAIKA Studios’ stunning stop-motion animation, Coraline recalls the great names of stop-motion of the 90s like James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Similar to those movies, it has a constant undercurrent of darkness just below the surface, with small touches like black button eyes and broad features like the final demonic form of “Other Mother” facing forward. climax of the film.
KEEP READING: Films That Blend Sci-Fi and Fantasy