Pencil Dan Perez, Writer & Editor

The 13 Best Fantasy Films You Never Saw
by Dan Perez

Note: this article is copyrighted material, and may not be reproduced elsewhere on the web.

Red line

This article originally started out as a survey of the thirteen best fantasy films we've all seen (you know, Wizard of Oz, Legend, The Company of Wolves, etc.), but I quickly decided it'd be a lot more interesting to take the road less traveled and examine some fantasy films which are less well-known, and often undeservedly so.

Of course, the task of choosing which thirteen films was made more difficult by the old definitions debate: what makes a film a fantasy film, as opposed to science fiction or horror? Often movies blur the line between these genres. Is The Company of Wolves fantasy, horror or both? And even when you settle on a workable definition of fantasy, where do you draw the line? Consider Sunset Boulevard. Most people would be quick to say that this movie isn't fantasy. On the other hand, it is narrated throughout by a dead man after his murder (Billy Wilder scrapped the original sequence in which the William Holden character sits up on the slab at the morgue and starts telling the story). Finally, how do you choose the best thirteen movies out there?

I decided on a few criteria. First and foremost I wanted to find films that are currently available for video rental (Chinese Ghost Story lost out here--while it can be purchased, usually by mail order, it's not easily found for rental). I've avoided movies which depend on technology as a plot engine (like The Quiet Earth) as too science fictional. I've made judgment calls about drawing the line between horror, science fiction and fantasy. Lastly, I decided to include a few films that stretched the boundaries of the fantastic.

So here they are: fifteen fantasy films that will amuse, delight and challenge. They should all be seen more often than they are.

Beauty and the Beast (1946, 95 minutes, black-and-white), also known as Belle et la Bette is Jean Cocteau's dreamy, gorgeous adaptation of the classic fairy tale. A magic spell enchants the castle in which the lovely Belle (Josette Day), come to save her father, encounters the hirsute, fanged Beast (expressively played by Jean Marais). Fantastic sets include disembodied arms bearing candelabra and pouring wine. The movie contains many unforgettable images, chief of which is when the Beast turns his all-too-human eyes toward Belle.

In addition to the Beast, Marais portrayed Belle's suitor back in the village, and the Prince who is restored when the magic spell is broken.

Black Orpheus (1959, 103 minutes, color) is a little-seen Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Language Film). It's a modern-day version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set against the vibrant backdrop of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a streetcar conductor whose guitar and song makes the sun rise, and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) is his beautiful, doomed lover who will dance in the Carnival parade, under Death's watchful gaze. The rythmic beat of samba drums is the hypnotic pulse of this movie, present in nearly every frame until Orpheus seeks Eurydice in the symbolic underworld of a Brazilian hospital complex. Directed by Marcel Camus.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, 85 minutes, black-and-white) was also released as Daniel and the Devil and All That Money Can Buy, but by any name, it's a superb adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's classic story. Walter Huston ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre") sparkles with malevolent glee as Mr. Scratch, a.k.a. the Devil, on the loose in rural 1840s New Hampshire. He strikes a deal for the soul of a down-on-his-luck farmer (James Craig), but when it's time to collect, the repentant farmer seeks out statesman and attorney Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to save him. Webster risks his own soul to convince Scratch that a trial by jury is the proper way to settle the matter. The catch, of course, is that Scratch gets to select the members of the jury.

Arnold makes a perfect foil for Huston, and there's never a false note in the movie, right down to the Oscar-winning score by the great Bernard Herrmann. Watch for Simone Simon's unsettling turn as a diabolically beautiful housekeeper. A 107-minute laserdisk version is available. Directed by William Dieterle.

DreamChild (1985, 94 minutes, color) follows Alice Hargreaves, the woman who, as a girl, inspired Reverend Charles Dodgson to write (as Lewis Carroll) the Alice in Wonderland stories. Now 80, she journeys to America in 1932 to be honored during Carroll's centenary celebration. But the elder Alice (played wonderfully by Coral Browne) is haunted by visions of Dodgson's creations (and frightening visions they are, thanks to Jim Henson's Creature Shop), and by her childhood memories of Dodgson (Ian Holm, in a typically good performance) himself.

This movie treads on some difficult ground (Dodgson's obvious love for little Alice) with sensibility and restraint, and skillfully illuminates the down side of unwanted celebrity. The fantasy sequences are memorable, thanks to Henson's wizardry. Directed by Gavin Millar.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953, 88 minutes, color) sounds like a horror film, but is actually an oddball, live-action musical from the fertile mind of Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Don't be put off by finding this amongst the children's videos; there's plenty here to tickle adult sensibilities, as well.

Tommy Rettig plays Bartholomew Collins (not Cubbins), a boy whose piano lessons, administered by Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), are snooze-inducing. While asleep, he dreams he is held prisoner in the silly-sinister Terwilliker Institute, where he and 499 other boys will be forced to play a gigantic, doubledecker piano for the tyrannical doctor. Plucky Bart must devise a way to escape, while rescuing his mother (Mary Healy), who is held in hypnotic, administrative thrall by Terwilliker. The boy is aided by a reluctant plumber played by Peter Lind Hayes.

Even if you're not a fan of Dr. Seuss (!), you'll be captivated by the marvelous, amusing sets and costumes (look for the great leatherbound books on musical notes in Terwilliker's sleeping chamber), and by a show-stopping production number featuring musicians playing typically Seussian instruments. Some of the songs, alas, are almost as sleep-inducing as little Bart's piano lessons, but the movie overall has an eccentric, irresistible charm. Directed by Roy Rowland.

Heavenly Creatures (1995, 99 minutes, color) is a surprise, coming as it does from director Peter Jackson, whose previous film was the spectacular gore comedy Dead Alive. Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story of two girls who invent a fantasy world called "the Fourth World," which becomes an escape from the tedium and unhappiness of their lives in 1950s New Zealand. But it also becomes an unhealthy obsession, eventually spiraling into a murder plot.

Jackson concocts some wry moments of social satire (such as when a psychologist can barely get out the word "homosexual") and a flawless period feel for the film, and, as the tortured, delusional teens, Melanie Lynsky and Kate Winslet are terrific.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941, 93 minutes, black-and-white) is Alexander Hall's engaging story about Joe Pendelton (Robert Montgomery), professional prizefighter and amateur saxophonist who is mistakenly claimed by a bumbling angel (Edward Everett Horton) after a plane crash. Claude Rains plays Mr. Jordan, who returns Joe to Earth in a new body, and supervises his readjustment.

Charming on nearly every level, Here Comes Mr. Jordan won two Oscars (for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay) but has been eclipsed by the competent 1978 remake Heaven Can Wait, with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. You've seen the latter, most likely, so check out the original. You won't be disappointed.

The Magic Flute (1974, 134 minutes, color) is the Mozart opera (complete with dragons, trips through the underworld and the titular enchanted instrument), as filmed by the great Igmar Bergman. Is there any doubt you're getting a double dose of culture here? Still, it's sweet-tasting as Bergman playfully presents a glowing rendition of the opera itself, in the style of 18-century productions, and a clever examination of the nature of theatrical "reality" as well. As the overture plays, you'll be sitting in your living room watching the people who are watching the opera. Who is really the audience here? Bergman is asking. Then, as the play begins, you'll quickly realize that Bergman ignores the hallowed boundaries and conventions of the stage in ways that only a filmmaker can, creating an intriguing fusion between the visual arts of theater and film. And Bergman masterfully pulls all this off without interrupting the narrative flow of Mozart's magical opera. A treat.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988, 92 minutes, color and black-and-white) is a haunting, gorgeous, low-budget film with an utterly captivating plot. Peasants in a 14-century mining village, terrified of the Black Plague, seek to fulfill the prophetic visions of a young boy. They use a siege engine to tunnel through the Earth, emerging in modern-day New Zealand, where they must forge a copper cross and place it atop a cathedral before dawn breaks. If they succeed, their village will be spared the ravages of the pestilence.

It sounds like an improbable premise, but thanks to Vincent Ward's thoughtful direction and terrific performances by all the principals, you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen. An utter delight.

Paperhouse (1988, 94 minutes, color) is an engrossing tale of a young girl (Charlotte Burke) experiencing vivid, increasingly more menacing dreams (some of which occur during fainting spells) which seem to be stimulated by changes she makes in a pencil-and-paper drawing. The visions seem somehow linked to another real-life person her doctor mentions: a boy dying of muscular dystrophy.

This coming-of-age story was the first feature for Bernard Rose, who had previously directed music videos. Despite being a little overlong and having a sometimes overpowering soundtrack, Paperhouse is poignant, frightening and powerful.

Rashomon (1950, 88 minutes, black-and-white), despite winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, and being director Akira Kurosawa's first big international success, is rarely seen these days outside university film courses. A pity, since it's a powerful examination of the human condition, focusing on our need to embellish the objective truth to fit our subjective needs--in other words, the wellspring of fantasy itself.

Beneath the ruined Rashomon gate of medieval Kyoto, three men take refuge from a torrential rainstorm, and two of them relate a tale of murder and lust. After a nobleman is murdered and his wife raped, four witnesses (including the murdered husband, who speaks through a medium in an eerie scene) testify to the events that transpired, and every story is different, tailored to that particular witness's point of view. Whose version is the truth? Is any version really the truth? It's a fascinating dilemma and Kurosawa guides us through its subtleties and ambiguities with great skill. The film features one of Toshiro Mifune's many wonderful performances (as the bandit arrested for the crimes), and inspired many other movies, including two American remakes.

Return to Oz (1985, 110 minutes, color), Disney's dark, moody sequel to The Wizard of Oz, dismayed a lot of critics and viewers in its original release because it wasn't as bright and joyous as the first film. Too bad they couldn't meet this film on its own terms (and odd, too, as these same people gleefully embraced The Empire Strikes Back as a follow-up to Star Wars) because it still brims with imagination and style.

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk), haunted by memories of Oz, is sent to quack doctors by her well-meaning aunt Em and uncle Henry. Escaping an untherapeutic electroshock therapy session, Dorothy finds herself back in Oz, where the Emerald City lies in ruin, its inhabitants turned to stone. She meets a delightful automaton in the form of Tik Tok and they embark on a quest to liberate the Scarecrow (now ruler of Oz) from the stony clutches of the Nome King (Nicole Williamson).

Some of the best special effects work here comes from Will Vinton's claymation studio, which brings both the Nome King and his petrified minions to life. Both Williamson and Jean Marsh (Princess Mombi) play dual roles in the electroshock sanitarium. Fairuza Balk makes a fine debut as Dorothy, too. Directed by Walter Murch.

Starman (1984, 115 minutes, color). Remember when John Carpenter used to make good movies? This was one of his best. Nominally science fiction, I think it works as fantasy just as well. After an alien reconnaisance probe is shot down by the military, its pilot (Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-nominated performance) clones itself into human form. It turns out that the clone takes the form of widow Karen Allen's late husband, who is shocked to see him again. Bridges convinces Allen to embark on a road trip to the meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona, so that he can be picked up by a rescue craft. Naturally, they fall in love along the way.

A wonderful film in many respects, Starman's highlight is Jeff Bridges' knockout performance as the alien in a human body. Karen Allen is excellent as well. The down side is a standard Evil Government "let's catch him and do experiments" subplot, but it's easily enough ignored as you watch the chemistry between the leads, aided by Carpenter's restrained, naturalistic direction.


Copyright 1995 Sovereign Media Co., Inc. & 1996 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.

Red line

Main PageEmail Dan

Red line