Like many other genres “Dark Fantasy” also has some classic titles to look out for. What was “Dark Fantasy” again?
Dark Fantasy is a subgenre of Fantasy that usually focuses on adult topics showing a less-than-perfect and idealistic side of the tale. Fantasy centered mostly on optimistic fairy tale stories, stories about elves, orcs, dragons, ghosts, strange creatures, etc. Dark Fantasy can take these elements to a darker less optimistic level usually including adult themes like death and religion.
To better understand the concept let’s look at Disney fairy tales most of us are familiar with. These are classic PG Fantasy films. Now let’s try to imagine these films as Dark Fantasy stories. What would they look like on the screen? How would the story change?
Actually, there are books that tell the original stories the Disney fairy tales are based on. These are Dark Fantasy stories that were adapted to a more child-friendly level. For example, let’s look into the story of “Sleeping Beauty”. The original story was written by Charles Perrault and published in “ Histoires ou Contes du temps passé” in 1697, which in its turn was based on the Sun, Moon, and Talia by Giambattista Basile (1934).
In the Perrault version, a King finds the beautiful sleeping princess. He tries to wake her up in vain but taking advantage of the situation, he rapes her. She gets pregnant and gives birth to twins somehow still in that unconscious state. She awakens after one of her babies sucks the flax from the spindle that was maintaining her unconscious out of her finger.
The king comes back, and they fall in love (really?). But the King is married to someone else. His wife finds out about the princess and the children. She tries to burn the princess, tries to kill the children, have them cooked, and fed to the king. This is nothing compared to the sweet fairy tale we know, right?
This is Dark Fantasy, using dark, twisted concepts along with a dose of fantasy to create a story. As you see, these stories are not new. They have been around for a while. Some are considered classics because of their themes and impact on cinematography.
Now, let’s dive into three “Dark Fantasy” stories that have been on-screen during the 20th century:
Starting with “The Seventh Seal“, a 1957 Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman and based on his own play “Wood Painting”. If you are a regular visitor of this site and the title sounds familiar to you that because you have probably read 5 Interesting Foreign Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films Vol.1. For those who are seeing this title for the first time or those who wish to refresh their memory let’s look into the story of the Seventh Seal.
The story takes place in Denmark during the “Great Plaque”, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history that took place in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The title refers to a passage about the end of the world from the Book of revelations. It tells the journey of a knight, Antonius Block as he plays a game of chess with the personification of death, a pale black-cowled man resembling a monk.
The film is strongly influenced by the way of thinking of the late middle ages of the 14th century which revolved around death and pessimism because of the various disasters that happened including the Great Plague, also known as the Black Plague, war, famine, and Western Schism. Locally the film was met with a divided critical response. Internationally it did extremely well and established Bergman reputation as a director. Today it is considered a classic of world cinema and its legacy remains in film and television with the portrayal of death, as a pale man in black, and several scenes from the movie being reenacted like the “Dance of Death”.
Next is “The Holy Mountain”. This Mexican film is based on the novels Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross and Mount Analogue by René Daumal. And directed, written, produced, co-scored, and co-edited by and starring Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The film tells the story of how a group of materialistic people embarks on a journey to the Holy Mountain led by a powerful Alchemist. The world they live in is corrupt and greedy, Among these people, we will find a thief ironically resembling Jesus, a cosmetics manufacturer, a weapons manufacturer, a millionaire art dealer, a war toymaker, a political financial adviser, and a police chief. Before starting the journey the Alchemist led them through various transformation rituals. Their main purpose is to gain enlightenment, the secret of immortality, from nine immortal masters who live on the Holy Mountain.
It’s interesting to know the preparation the cast did in that era. The Director spent a week without sleep and the main cast members underwent three months doing several spiritual exercises including Yoga, Zen, and Sufi along with eclectic concepts from the Kabbalah, the I Ching, and the teachings of George Gurdjieff under special guidance. LSD and psilocybin mushrooms were also used during the making of the movie to help the performance of certain scenes.
The film was released during several international film festivals in 1973 but didn’t get a wide release. 33 years later a restored print was released in Cannes in 2006 and the DVD was released in 2007. It was well-received both by critics and the audience. The film has a lot of symbolism and the final message at the end of the film resonates in this digital era.
Known more as a Comedy Horror film, you are probably wondering why this film is on this list. What is the darkness in the story? Well, let’s see a young man receives a very cute pet called “Mogwai” which literally means “Monster” in Cantonese. This cute pet, if it gets wet, spawns other creatures who transform into small destructive evil monsters called gremlins. For its PG rating, it was considered to be too violent. Ironically the first version of the script was even much darker having the Mogwai transform into a gremlin. The dark themes include gluttony, death, and violence.
The perceived cuteness of the Mogwai wouldn’t let you believe that such evil comes out of it. The evilness of the spawns comes out instantly and there doesn’t seem a way to reverse it. The film received positive reviews as well as negative reviews from critics and was a commercial success. Not only from the box office results but also from the sold merchandise which included dolls, stuffed animals, video games, and novels. The sequel Gremlins 2: The new batch was released in 1990. Talking about the influences of films, The Gremlins along with another film influenced the Motion Picture Association of America to create what we know as the PG-13 rating.
These are just some of the classic Dark Fantasy stories we have seen from the 20th century. We will continue exploring more titles in Vol. 2 so stay tuned….
Which one of the discussed movies is your favorite? Or maybe yours is not included on the list? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.