The Most Underrated Fantasy Films, Part Three (1989-97)
With this list (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), we move into the first period of films I can actually recall seeing some of in theaters. Unfortunately, I didn’t see as many as I would have liked, as there’s a fair amount of foreign films and films I was still too young to see, or at the very least, too young to be aware of at the time, but boy would I love to now, since this is quite an inventive lot. Of course, the whole point is to highlight underrated films, so it makes perfect sense that I would discover them later on in life, especially given some of this subject matter! Let’s get started.
Definitely did not see this one in theaters, but would love to, as the films of avant garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky are really something to see. I first saw this on video, and still own a copy on VHS. It’s the very definition of a cult film, and revolves around a boy who grew up living in a circus, and I do mean that literally, not like “Running with Scissors” or whatever. (Nor does it have anything to do with Santa Claus, for that matter.)
It deals with a child magician raised by a knife-throwing father and a trapeze artist mother, who is also the leader of a cult that worships a little girl that was raped and dismembered and persevered as a patron saint. Mom discovers her hubby cheating with the heavily-tattooed woman in his act and it does not end well. Flash forward to the present, and the now-grown son has a new act with his mother, who has mysterious powers that she uses to some nefarious ends.
I won’t give away anymore except to say that the entire movie makes “Freaks” look tame by comparison, and that’s saying something. This one isn’t for all tastes, obviously, but if you like it, be sure to also check out the readily-available box set of Jodorowsky’s other work, which includes the seminal cult western “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain.”
Like a lot of kids, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” freaked me out when I first saw it, but I learned to love it. So did this film, also based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, which is even more horrific in its own way, particularly the ending. In fact, the movie actually chickens out on Dahl’s darker ending, which led him to dismiss it, but it’s still one of the more faithful adaptations out there.
The effects in this one scared the crap out of me, and I’ve been a little afraid of Anjelica Houston ever since, even though she was fine in the “Addams Family” movies and great in stuff like “The Grifters” and “Prizzi’s Honor.” How she isn’t on the recent season of “American Horror Story,” aka “Coven” is beyond me, especially with her relative Danny already on the show.
It revolves around a little boy who runs afoul of some witches and gets turned into a mouse for his troubles when he overhears something he shouldn’t. Something like, I don’t know, a plan by witches to eliminate all of the kids in England. Nice! Things do not go well from there, needless to say, but the film does manage a happy ending of sorts, which is a relief because it if it ended the way it was supposed to, I might have been even more traumatized than I was, which is saying something.
Anyway, I’ve loved movies and shows about witches ever since, so there you go. I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or whatever. In fact, although I couldn’t help myself to include more movies about these witchy women on this list (“Witches of Eastwick” also cropped up on the last list, and “Bedknobs & Broomsticks” on the first one), I stopped short of including some of the others I consider more guilty pleasures, i.e. “Hocus Pocus” and “Teen Witch,” so know that I did try to contain myself somewhat. One of these days, I’m going to just do a full list about witches and be done with it. Oh, and if you’re a Dahl fan, be sure and check out “Matilda” (1996) as well, from actor-director Danny DeVito!
Okay, technically, this one was a huge hit, but I never hear anyone talk about it, despite a cast that includes no less than Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis, and direction from Robert Zemeckis, of “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump” fame. The effects are still captivating (and often bizarrely-hilarious), even by today’s standards, and it’s fun to see Streep and Hawn play reprehensible human beings who try their best to out-Diva each other, not to mention Willis play a full-on geek.
It revolves around a magical potion that restores one’s youth, which is pretty much what everyone in Hollywood dreams of finding someday. The great thing about this film in retrospect, is how much more timely it seems in this day and age, where even the young regularly have plastic surgery to alter how they look or to look younger in general, in some cases when they don’t even need it, and not just in Hollywood, either.
If anything, I think it was ahead of its time in that regard. One could easily see this being remade, but I’m not sure one could top the line-up of talent here so easily, which makes it a must-see. I definitely get this on a much deeper level than I did the first time I saw it, so it holds up to re-viewings quite well. Besides, how often do you get to see Streep camp it up? This, to me, is what Tim Burton might do if he were hired to remake “All About Eve” his way, and if all that doesn’t make you want to see it, I’m not sure what else will.
I first saw this one on DVD during one of my Asian movie phases (I go back and forth between the horror and action stuff every so often), after hearing it compared to “Kill Bill” and finding out it was from the same director of “Warriors of Virtue,” Ronny Yu, which is a film that almost made this list and I loved as a teen. Yu also did two sequels to massive horror franchises in the 90’s, “Bride of Chucky” (arguably the best in the “Child’s Play” series, or at least the most fun) and “Freddy vs. Jason” (fun if a bit slight).
It’s about a swordsman who battles an evil cult, along with representatives of eight sects in China, and meets a woman who is part of the cult and opts to leave it to be with him. However, when she is accused of being responsible for the deaths of key members of his sect, he turns against her and she turns into a white-haired witch that vows vengeance against him and everyone else, even after she is cleared of the crimes. In Part 2, released the same year (albeit with another director at the helm), she forms another cult, this one made up of women who have been wronged somehow by men and who seek to eliminate the leaders of the sects altogether, including the aforementioned swordsman, who has gone into seclusion and is believed to be the only one who can stop her.
The swordsman is played by Leslie Cheung, another legend of Chinese cinema, as known for music as films. Cheung was also in John Woo’s superb “A Better Tomorrow 2” (which got him a HKFA nod as well), Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together” and “Farewell My Concubine,” which was also released in 1993 and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, so that was a big year for him. The witch is played by Chinese legend Brigitte Lin, of “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain” (a big influence on “Big Trouble in Little China,” which was on the last list) and the “Swordsman” series (she’s in 2 & 3, the former of which got her a Hong Kong Film Award nod).
If you like your Asian action films with a side order of fantasy, look no further. These two films are inventive, imaginative, and beautifully done, and by all means, check out some of Yu’s other work, especially the “Once Upon a Time a Hero in China” series and “Fearless” with Jet Li.
This was the film that brought famed director Peter Jackson to prominence, as well as the film that introduced us to no less an actress than Kate Winslet, who I’ve been a huge fan of ever since. I was already a fan of Jackson’s, who was then known as a horror guy, coming off the likes of “Dead/Alive” (aka “Braindead”) and “Bad Taste,” completely bent low-budget affairs that weren’t exactly critic bait. This film changed all that, and paved the way for bigger, if not better efforts like “The Lord of the Rings,” and the somewhat similar “The Lovely Bones.” It was also his first film to get an Oscar nomination and widespread critical acclaim.
It’s the true story of two teenage girls that have an unhealthy obsession with one another, with definite lesbian undertones. When one of their parents announces intentions for a divorce after an affair, the two girls conspire to kill the guilty party, her mother, who they blamed for everything. As the plan was to separate the two, they hope to stop it by killing her, but are caught when one of the girls’ diaries is found, which outlines their intentions.
The fantasy elements are somewhat similar in nature to the later “Bridge to Terabithia,” in that the girls “create” another place they call the “Fourth World,” and use their imagination to escape their dreary surroundings and messed-up lives. By the time they get around to killing the mother in question, what was once a fanciful means of escape has started to become a nightmare- shades also of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s all beautifully done, and, as the teens in question, wonderfully acted by Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, who went onto a recurring role on “2 and ½ Men,” of all things (as a stalker, no less!).
I suppose this may be questionable as fantasy, but I think it qualifies, and whatever the case, it’s lesser known by modern audiences and more current Jackson fans, who may only know his Tolkien-related stuff and maybe “King Kong.” Indeed, it’s one of his best, if not his best, and the aforementioned horror stuff is well-worth seeing as well, especially for cult film fans. A true classic.
Now, this is a quirky fantasy film! From the team that brought you the superlative “Delicatessen,” this underrated gem is all-but-guaranteed to be one of the quirkier films you’ll ever see. Featuring a wonderful Ron Perlman, of “Hellboy” and “Sons of Anarchy” fame, in the lead, it’s the story of man in search of his little brother, who has been kidnapped by a mad scientist who seeks to rob kids of their dreams, because he himself cannot dream. Helping him on his journey to where the boy is being kept, the titular city of lost children, is Miette (Judith Vittet), a little French girl. It’s a sight to behold, the hulking Perlman, tooling about with an adorable French tyke!
It’s available in dubbed form, for those who don’t do subtitles, but I find it amusing, given what Perlman’s known for, to hear him speak French, the language in which the film was made. Also, the whole lips-not-matching-the-dialogue thing takes me right out of a movie, so it might just be a matter of preference. Whatever the case, it may be directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s finest effort, though the latter went on to do the excellent-in-a-different-way “Amélie.” Like that film, this isn’t so much a film as an experience, not unlike the work of Fellini or David Lynch. In other words, it’s pretty out there- in a good way.
Another tale of witchy women, this to me was like the first sign that horror was making a comeback in a new, unexpected form after a bit of a dry spell. Like many of the films that came after it, it featured savvy writing, hot rising stars, and stylish direction- which “Scream,” released later that year, would drive all the way home, at least after a fashion. To compare to terms a horror fan will understand, “The Craft” was sort of like the “Black Christmas,” where “Scream” was the “Halloween” (and perhaps “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” the “Friday the 13th”). In other words, after the moderate success of “The Craft,” the stage was set for an even bigger hit of a similar bent, and “Scream,” though a slow starter, proved to be the true flare for the new horror renaissance that was about to happen. “Scream” might have stole most of the thunder, but it was actually “The Craft” that got the party started.
For one, we’ve got Neve Campbell herself in one of the co-leading roles, whose career was on the rise after solid work on the TV show “Party of Five”- Campbell would, of course, nab the lead for “Scream,” becoming one of the all-time great “Final Girls” in horror history in the process. In the lead was Robin Tunney, who went onto to star on “Prison Break” and “The Mentalist,” plus the cult fave “Empire Records.”
But arguably the best role and performance went to former child star Fairuza Balk-the underrated “Return to Oz” being another previous run-in with witches earlier in her career- she was Dorothy there, though, as well as being “The Worst Witch.” Chewing up the scenery like it was going out of style, Balk tore into her role as the witch-gone-bad with true ferocity and was all-too-convincing. This would lead to her playing a host of damaged characters, such her role in “American History X” and a wayward groupie in “Almost Famous.” Sadly, her career never quite took off, but she did land the lead in “The Waterboy,” for whatever that’s worth. I keep hoping she’ll nab a solid role in either a notable indie or a high-profile TV show and have a nice second act, not unlike Tunney, whose career also took time to kick in.
Also cropping up in supporting roles are Skeet Ulrich (aka Campbell’s leading man in “Scream”), Breckin Meyer (who went on to geek glory with “Robot Chicken,” plus other successful shows like “Franklin & Bash”), then-future Mrs. Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor (also Marcia in “The Brady Bunch” movies), plus bits with Brenda Strong (the initial victim on “Desperate Housewives”) and another future witch, Holly Marie Combs (“Charmed”). Nearly all the TV witches that followed this owe this movie a debt of thanks, including “The Secret Circle,” “The Vampire Diaries” and its spin-off, “The Originals,” as well as “American Horror Story: Coven.” “The Craft” paved the way, with its wish fulfillment-turned-nightmare plot and its attractive young cast of newcomers. If you like any of the stuff I just mentioned, you should love this one.
Though a hit at the time, this one has mostly been relegated to “the one with Sean Connery as the voice of the dragon” status. But, you know what? It actually holds up quite well, even by today’s special effects standards, particularly in regards to the dragon itself. I mean, it’s really not that much of a leap from this to “The Hobbit.” There’s still something fun and enjoyable about it that stands the test of time and cliché, at least as far as I’m concerned, and the storyline is kind of neat.
It’s about Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a man who trains the heir apparent to the throne, hoping that he will make for a better king than his father. When the king is killed and the son mortally wounded in a rebellion by his people, the mother (Julie Christie) takes the boy to a dragon she hopes will save him. He does, on the condition that the son rule fairly and honestly, but he is actually worse than his father. Bowen blames the dragon and becomes a vengeful dragon slayer, so fierce he wipes out the entire population, save one, with whom he enters into a “Brothers Grimm”-style partnership with (the movie version, not the writers). The dragon terrorizes a town, Bowen swoops in and “kills” him and he reaps the benefits of it, at least until he is caught, then new drama arises with another rebellion and it’s up to Bowen to figure things out (and who to side with- the king or the people), with the aid of his trusty talking dragon.
Granted, this may fall under the guilty pleasure of my youth category, and more about nostalgia than actual quality, but if you like this sort of thing (i.e. “Game of Thrones” or “The Lord of the Rings”) and you haven’t seen this, by all means, check it out. The cast is uniformly excellent, and also includes fantasy favorites like David Thewlis (“Lupin” from the “Harry Potter” movies), Pete Postlethwaite (“The Lost World: Jurassic Park”), Dina Meyer (“Starship Troopers”), Jason Issacs (“Lucius Malfoy” in the “Harry Potter” movies), and Brian Thompson (“The X-Files”). The director, Rob Cohen, went on to even bigger success with “The Fast and the Furious.”
Long before the dueling movies about Truman Capote and Snow White, there was this story so nice they filmed it twice. Based on the “true” story of the Cottingley Fairies, and I use that true very loosely, it’s about two girls who photograph themselves in the company of “real” fairies. The story becomes a huge thing, coming to the attention of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of “Sherlock Holmes” fame, who pays them a visit to determine the veracity of their claims. Remarkably, he decides it’s true and the photos became a longstanding bit of “evidence” that fairies actually existed, until the girls admitted they were fakes in the early 80s, save one, of course, which they couldn’t quite explain. Likely, they just wanted to keep the fairy dreams alive for those who believe- so clap your hands if you do! Then check out this movie.
It stars Peter O’Toole (“Lawrence of Arabia”), as Doyle, which alone is worth the price of admission; but then you’ve got, of all people, Harvey Keitel (“Reservoir Dogs”) as Harry Houdini to boot! Mel Gibson also crops up in an un-credited cameo, and Bill Nighy (“Shaun of the Dead”) has a small role as well. The same year, “Photographing Fairies” was released, about the same story, but the star power was considerably less, with only Ben Kingsley (“Iron Man 3”) to garner filmgoers attention, and not as Doyle or Houdini, either, so “Fairytale” handily beat the competition. IMHO, it’s the better of the two as well, but if you like the story (or you’re a die-hard Tori Amos fan), both are worth your time.
Speaking of Snow White, this take on the fairy tale is really interesting, and unlike the recent “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which transformed the story into an action adventure, and “Mirror, Mirror,” which turned it into a hyper-real fantasy flick, “Snow White: A Tale of Terror,” takes the legend and places it firmly into where it belongs: horror territory. Anyone who’s ever read the original Grimm fairy tales knows that the stories were intended as cautionary tales, more inclined to scare kids into doing the right things than ease them into sleep at night. Well, this take is definitely not for the kiddies.
The film’s main selling point is that none other than Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver, plays the wicked witch of the story, in a role that garnered her Emmy and SAG nominations. Weaver plays Claudia, a woman who infiltrates the family of Lily, the “Snow White” of this story, marrying her father, Fredric (Sam Neill, of “Jurassic Park” fame) after his wife dies under mysterious circumstances. As the story goes, Claudia becomes super-jealous of Lily and eventually tries to have her killed, leading her to escape to the woods, where she meets seven not-exactly welcoming miners, as the evil Claudia tries her best to finish the job the huntsman she sent failed at.
This is not a Disney-style Snow White, to be sure. It’s way darker, with some interesting, adult twists on the tale of old. Here, Snow White meets adversaries at every turn, with even the miners giving her some serious grief. “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Dawson’s Creek”-star Monica Keena fares well as the much-put upon Lily, who has to learn in all the hardest of ways to fight back, be it from the witch, lecherous miners or an enchanted forest. And, of course, poison apples. If you prefer your fairy tales to be of the darker variety, the way they were originally intended, this one’s for you.
If you don’t know the name Hayao Miyazaki, you really should. He’s a pioneer in anime and manga, and is sort of comparable to the Japanese Disney, which makes it fitting that Disney themselves have released many of his films in redubbed form in the States. Three of them were nominated for an Oscar, with “Howl’s Moving Castle” bringing home the big award in 2003, and many of his films have been nominated or have won awards worldwide, for a whopping 50 wins and 30 nominations. Stars line up to do voice work for the American translations of his films, including everyone from Anna Paquin, Kirsten Dunst, Cate Blanchett, and Tina Fey to both the Fanning sisters, Elle and Dakota on the female side; to Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Liam Neeson, Elijah Wood and Joseph-Gordon Levitt on the men’s side, with plenty more on both sides where that came from.
This one, “Princess Mononoke,” features Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson and Jada Pinkett Smith, plus voice-over legends Tara Strong (“Bubbles” of “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Twilight Sparkle” on “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”) and John DiMaggio (“Bender” on “Futurama” and “Jake” on “Adventure Time”). It’s the story of a young warrior, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup, of “Almost Famous”), who is cursed and must travel to the forest to find a cure. He becomes entangled in a war between the denizens of the forest and the humans attacking them, attempting to broker peace between the two by working with both, but neither side trusts him.
Even if you don’t normally like anime, you might like the work of Miyazaki, especially with the familiar voices that crop up in the American versions, rather than the over-the-top, hyper-kinetic voices one traditionally hears in more typical anime. The visuals are stunning, and Miyazaki’s imagination is boundless and inventive. What’s more, his films typically feature strong heroines and thoughtful premises, such as the theme found in this one, which deals with respecting our natural resources, like the forest. His work will crop up on later lists in this ongoing series, but you should also check out his earlier stuff, such as “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Castle in the Sky.”
One of the voice-over artists of our last film, Keith David, of “The Thing” fame, also voiced the titular character of this film in a fantastic animated series for HBO, which started in 1997 and ran through 1999 for three seasons. For the movie, though, they hired Michael Jai White, then best-known for playing boxer Mike Tyson in the 1995 biopic “Tyson” and to fantasy film fans as Jax, from “Mortal Kombat: Legacy.” That makes White the first African-American to play a major super-hero in a film, ever. (“Blade” followed a year later.)
It also boasts a killer soundtrack that ranks with one of the best ever made, and one of the first major instances of rock and EDM acts working together before it was a big thing and became a bit of a genre unto itself. We’re talking Metallica and DJ Spooky, Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps, Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot, and Korn and The Dust Brothers, among many others.
While the theatrical version was a toned-down PG-13, the readily-available “Director’s Cut” version is much better, so even if you saw this one in theaters, you might want to give this another go. It’s better than you might remember, though critics trashed it at the time- save, interestingly enough, Roger Ebert. IMHO, it was simply ahead of its time. At a time when superheroes were still considered and presented as more light-hearted fare, “Spawn” wasn’t exactly all fun and games. Seen now, post something like Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of “Batman,” it fits in just fine, especially if you prefer your superheroes of the dark and brooding variety.
I keep hoping they’ll reboot this one, seeing as it would fit in perfectly with the general feel of most superhero flicks these days. Creator Todd MacFarlane has been trying to bring back an animated version for years now, but I think this might be the rare reboot that could actually improve on the original, what with effects where they are these days.
Not that this version is anything to be embarrassed about, including a tour de force of vulgarity from John Leguizamo as the evil Clown, former Merlin Nicol Williamson (“Excalibur”) as Spawn’s mentor; plus Martin Sheen, Theresa Randle (“Bad Boys”), and a bad-ass Melinda Clarke, rehearsing for her impending role on TV’s “Nikita” in a skin-tight outfit that will haunt your dreams, in a good way. So will this bizarre film, which features a main character who literally makes a deal with the devil to live again- as the leader of Satan’s Army! Not exactly typical superhero material, but certainly interesting, and definitely underrated.
Last but not least is this oddball film from renown director Danny Boyle. Then coming off the triumph of the cult classic “Trainspotting,” Boyle went Hollywood, with bizarre and unorthodox results. I’m not sure audiences knew quite what to make of this mix of romantic comedy, action and fantasy, which stars then-regular Boyle leading man, Ewan McGregor as a fired janitor and Cameron Diaz as the daughter of a business exec he kidnaps for ransom.
The fantasy part involves the oddest of odd couples, Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo, as angels tasked with making these two a successful couple, Cupid-style. The problem is, their success rate is god-awful and all of their inspired relationships have gone down in flames, so they only have one more chance to get it right, or they will be condemned to spend the rest of their days on Earth as humans. Oh, the horror!
Things only get weirder from there, including the angels posing as bounty hunters (!), a rousing rendition of “Beyond the Sea” that probably helped McGregor land “Moulin Rouge!” and even an epilogue in…Claymation? You’re either going to love this or hate it with a fiery passion. I’m not sure there could be an in-between. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, least of all coming off the raw and disturbing “Trainspotting,” but a more recent re-watch made me realize I just wasn’t in the proper frame of mind at the time, and the film has really grown on me.
If you’re looking for a guy-friendly rom-com, you could do a lot worse, least of all with a cast that also includes Stanley Tucci (“The Hunger Games”), Ian Holm (“The Hobbit”), Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”), Christopher Gorham (“Covert Affairs”) and Timothy Olyphant (“Justified”). There’s also a comic and a novelization that are both well-worth checking out if you like this.
Well, that does it for list number three! Join me for the next installment, which will cover the late 90’s and finally bring us into the new millennium. See you then!