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The 8 Ball 5.26.14: Top 8 Dark Fantasy Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 05.27.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Dark Fantasy Films

Welcome back to the 411 Movie Zone 8 Ball, ladies and gentlemen! I hope you enjoyed your Memorial Day and if you saw X-Men: Days of Future Past you enjoyed it. I loved it and felt it was the best of the genre to date, delivering on absolutely everything that it needed to. We're moving on though, and this coming weekend Maleficent opens with the hopes from Disney of capitalizing on the success of Angeline Jolie and Sleeping Beauty. The film looks to contain strong elements of darker influences within its fantasy setting and with that in mind we're looking at dark fantasy films this week. Fantasy loves to mix in with other genres to come up with new and creative tales, and horror/thrillers are one where it often does it well. Let's take a trip into the dark, dark woods and see what gems there are for us to find.

Caveat: Okay, so let's define "dark fantasy." There are a few definitions of the phrase, but what I was looking for was simply a predominantly fantasy film which blends in elements from darker genres such as horror and thrillers. These films are able to orient themselves more toward an adult crowd due to the fact that younger audiences will probably be scared away. The films had to contain a significant level of those darker themes; for example I didn't include Willow because while it has a darker and grimier aesthetic, it is essentially a straight-up fantasy. I also left out any kind of sci-fi oriented film, as dark sci-fi is its own thing.

Just Missing The Cut

Solomon Kane (2009)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Mirror Mask (2005)
Army of Darkness (1993)

#8: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

There was a moment when compiling this list that I wryly thought to myself, "Or I could do the top Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton films and come up with the same list." I don't think there's much doubt that Del Toro and Burton are more or less the masters of dark fantasy when it comes to film-making. Both directors have two films that they were involved in which are on this list; the first up is Del Toro with the sequel to his adaptation of the comic book Hellboy. The first film also counts as dark fantasy to be sure, but I actually appreciate The Golden Army just a little bit more. The fantasy elements are obviously more overt thanks to the presence of the elves and goblins, but the story is more cohesive and tighter while the actors--admittedly all fine in the first film--seem more comfortable in their roles. Luke Goss makes for a fantastic sympathetic villain in Prince Nuada, del Toro is an assured hand and all the elements come together nicely with only a few bumps along the road. Dark fantasy isn't always successful when it crosses into comic book film territory but it did very well here.

#7: Legend (1985)

The 1980s was an underrated period for fantasy films. Sure, everything looked kind of cheap due to the lack of technological advancements we have today and the low budgets that a disdainful Hollywood assigned to films in the genre, but that just forced filmmakers to be more creative and gave them a chance to truly excel. A wonderful example of that is Ridley Scott's 1985 dark fantasy tale Legend, a film which cast the 1980s belief that fantasy had to be Disney-esque right out the window. Featuring a young Tom Cruise in his pre-Top Gun but post-Risky Business period when his star was still on the rise, Legend is a deep fantasy which contains a lot of darker horror elements, but none so prevalent of course than that of Tim Curry's character of Darkness. The demonic villain is one of the more memorable images from 1980s fantasy and Curry delivered great work in the role while Mia Sara, in her first film role, does great work. I mentioned Disney above and Scott offered this film to the studio but they were afraid of its dark tone...an irony considering they're banking their hopes on that dark tone for Maleficent. Cruise is a capable lead here and the production elements were actually very nice-looking for a film from this era, making it one that has stood the test of time.

#6: The Dark Crystal (1982)

Here's another classic from the 1980s. As I said before, budget was often a problem if you wanted to make any sort of genre film during the eighties and the special effects technology to make everything look amazing just didn't exist yet. Jim Henson and Frank Oz were able to take what was available at the time and push the envelope, using their skill in puppetry and animatronics to facilitate a wonderful (and wonderfully dark) tale. The Skeksis were terrifying in their day and the Garthim weren't much better while the old sage Aughra is definitely not the kind of creature you'd see on Sesame Street. It isn't all dark and scary though and there are several moments of real inspirational joy in the film. The voice acting is all solid and the animatronics work stands up surprisingly well (though not perfectly) to this day. This film kicked off a franchise in other media than has included comic books, fiction, manga and a video game, with a tabletop role-playing game in the works and a sequel that has been long in development. Even if it looks a little dated these days, it remains a highlight of the genre.

#5: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

The first of the Burton films to hit the top eight comes in at #5, and it's frankly painful that I couldn't push it any higher. It could be argued that Burton works almost entirely within the dark fantasy genre; even films like Beetlejuice, his Batman films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows contain strong elements of the subgenre, or at least the aesthetics of it. Obviously not all of them have been successful but when he's on his game, he is one of the unmitigated masters of dark fantasy. Edward Scissorhands is a great example of that, a bizarre tale about an artificial man who is taken in by a suburban family and falls in love with their daughter. Johnny Depp is great here, invoking a creepy adorableness and invoking some serious sympathy for his outcast protagonist. Burton drew from his own feelings of isolation and awkwardness in crafting the lead character and you can certainly feel that personal touch while the supporting cast is great and Bo Welch's production design team created an amazing look for the film. It made an immediate cultural impact and paved the way for more films with darker looks and themes throughout the 1990s and onward. It is fair to say that many of our favorite films here at 8 Ball Headquarters never would have been given a chance if not for this one.

#4: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

And here comes the second Burton film. Burton is so strongly associated with The Nightmare Before Christmas that many people mistakenly attribute the film's direction to him. In truth he was a producer and wrote the story; it was stop-motion maestro Henry Selick who was actually at the helm of this one. It is not hard to see why anyone would make the mistake though; Burton's macabre fingerprints are all over this project, obviously due to his involvement in its genesis. The film began as a poem that Burton wrote while he was working for Disney in 1982 and he eventually made a deal with them to develop a full film, although released through the Touchstone imprint because--again--Disney thought it would be "too dark and scary" for their audience. The stop-motion work here is exceptional and the production design is nearly unmatched. Jack Skellington is a great character who straddles that line between endearing and creepy quite nicely, the same line that Sally and the rest of the characters tiptoe around as well. This one owes quite a debt to Danny Elfman of course; Elfman provided a score and songs that have stood the test of time and are just as memorable today as they were twenty years ago, adding those touches that push Nightmare Before Christmas from very good to truly great.

#3: Coraline (2009)

Some people might scoff at the idea of putting Coraline ahead of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they're welcome to do so. They're both amazing films and I like them pretty close to equally, but this one gets the edge for one simple reason: Neil Gaiman. Gaiman wrote the novel on which this film was based, which is one of the great children's dark fantasy books of all-time. He's no stranger to that genre for either children or adults; most of his works touch on dark fantasy in some way and several of them are in development stages for films or TV series. Henry Selick makes his second appearance on this list; he wrote the screenplay and directed the film for Portland-based stop-motion studio Laika and did a wonderful job with it. The tale of imaginative eleven year-old Coraline Jones, who finds a door in her family's new house that leads her to an Other World, is PG but is not quite for kids. The imagery and themes covered in this film could be quite scary but it's not really horror either; that puts it right in the dark fantasy field. Selick and Laika did a great job creating the visuals for this film and Other Mother is fantastically creepy while the voice work is great from Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman and the rest of the cast. This film helped bring stop-motion back as a viable force after several years of dormancy and it has become one of my favorite mediums for filmmaking.

#2: Labyrinth (1986)

For some this might be a little too light to be called "dark fantasy" but there are definitely some horror and thriller themes that are too light for it to be considered a straight fantasy. This is another Jim Henson film and stars a very young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a girl who must rescue her baby brother from David Bowie's goblin king Jareth before he's claimed forever. Henson again relied on his puppetry pedigree to make this one work and while there are undoubtedly some elements that you wouldn't find in most dark fantasy (musical sequence, anyone?) it is definitely the kind of film that can give younger kids nightmares. Bowie isn't any kind of great actor but he does fine work here as Jareth and Connelly is an affable lead heroine. There are strong elements of several darker-themed literary sources sprinkled throughout; among others, designer Brian Froud used Wuthering Heights as an inspiration for his visuals. The film was a commercial failure upon its release, which was a big blow to Henson emotionally and effectively ended his directing career, but it has since risen in esteem to be recognized as one of the greats of that era.

#1: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Yeah, this is pretty clear and away the winner for this genre as far as I'm concerned. Guillermo del Toro's Spanish-language fantasy/psychological thriller is one of his finest works, a visually stunning yet exceedingly disturbing film. I remember people taking their kids to this one and being shocked and appalled at the content, which just goes to prove that no one reads ratings notes anymore; the film is violent and scary but also contains a very strong story full of heart and meaning. Del Toro's visual style was perfectly suited to this story and the faerie folk are wildly inventive in their look and style while young Ivana Baquero nails her role as young Ofelia, who believes she is the reincarnation of a fairy princess. This is the film that perfectly melds horror and fantasy into one cross-genre experience that you don't need to know Spanish to be touched by. The film won three Academy Awards for art direction, cinematography and makeup, and to be frank it should have won more. It stands as a testament to how powerful genre stories can be if done right.

Disguise of the Episode

Current Series/Season: Season One (2001 - 2002)
Episodes Watched: 16
Last Serial Completed: The Prophecy - Sydney is tested by the DSR to discover her mysterious link to a chilling 500-year-old picture and prophecy foretold in a Rambaldi manuscript. Meanwhile, after uncovering the identity of the rogue group leader, "The Man," Sloane learns through fellow Alliance of Twelve member Edward Poole that a close friend may be in cahoots with the enemy.
Episodes Remaining: 89

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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