Weekend Viewing: Beasts and Beauties in modern fairy tale movies
"Red Riding Hood" isn't the first to rewrite fairy tales for modern audiences
With "Red Riding Hood" transforming the cautionary fairy tale into a werewolf movie, I thought I'd recommend some choice features reworked from fairy tales of ferocious beasts and beautiful maidens.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1946)
One of the most eerily beautiful films ever made, Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” is the quintessential fairy tale for grown-ups. Just compare Walt Disney’s bright, bouncy musical with Cocteau’s surreal take. Where singing candelabras and teapots light up the palace for Disney's plucky heroine, living statues and human-arm candleholders and eerie magical doors that creak open as if worked by ghostly sentinels fill Cocteau’s shadowy enchanted castle. It’s a weirdly spooky prison for the self-sacrificing Belle (Josette Day). Even stranger is the decidedly animal attraction of the ferocious, seductive and tragic Beast (a growling, glaring, elegantly hirsute Jean Marais). The primal tension is not lost on Cocteau -- when the curse is broken and the beast reverts to smug human form (Jean Marais sans fur), the audience’s disappointment is echoed by Belle. She sighs at the loss of her feral lover before taking the hand of her far less exciting Prince Charming.
‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984)
Decades before Catherine Hardwicke reworked the fairy tale with a sexual edge, Neil Jordan collaborated with Angela Carter for this dreamy re-imagining of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Doting Granny Angela Lansbury spins cautionary tales of beasts and men and lust unleashed as her little granddaughter struggles through the hormonal rush of puberty … and the seductive wolf beckons her to leave innocence behind. It’s a dense, deliciously designed fairy tale by way of a werewolf thriller, directed with a knowing intelligence and filled with decidedly sexual implications. The mix of fear, fascination and allure of the wolf makes this allegorical transition from childhood to adulthood both scary and satisfying. See also the Czechoslovakian “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” (1970), a surreal psycho-sexual fairy tale that explores the end of childhood with ravishing and weird imagery and Eastern European folkloric references.
‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)
Not a beast in any way but certainly misunderstood, Johnny Depp is sweetly haunting as the little boy lost in black leather, a wild fright wig, and a Swiss Army knife of attachments for fingers in Tim Burton’s bittersweet fantasy. “Rescued” from his gloomy horror movie castle and plopped into suburbia by a maternal Avon Lady, this wide-eyed “Frankenstein” -- by way of “Pinocchio” -- is a dazed clockwork boy with a sense of wonder and curiosity. In Burton’s world of guileless dreamers and eccentric innocents, that makes him easy prey for the petty jealousies and social predators of suburban America. But for all the social satire and horror movie references (including a touching cameo by Vincent Prince as the gentle creator), this paean to misfit outcasts and misunderstood artists is ultimately a magical and melancholy fairy tale for the modern world.
‘Freeway’ (1996) & ‘Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trick Baby’ (1999)
Matthew Bright’s films are familiar fairy tales turned into grotesque B-movie thrillers with a wicked sense of humor. “Freeway” is “Little Red Riding Hood” with Reese Witherspoon as a tough-talking juvenile runaway hitchhiking to grandma’s house and Keifer Sutherland as a serial rapist on her trail: the big bad wolf in reform school counselor clothing. The even weirder “Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby” features a bulimic juvenile delinquent and a riot-grrrl serial killer in training as a “Hansel and Gretel.” Also along for the ride is a nearly unrecognizable Vincent Gallo in drag, as a demented nun who fattens up children in her dungeon of perversions. Violent, twisted and often blackly hilarious, they skate the edge between energetic exploitation and savage satire.