Dark fantasy is a rare thing to find in the movies nowadays. After a long reign of young adult fantasy, started by the Harry Potter phenomenon, however, a few really great pieces of cinematic art have tried to resurrect this very special kind of fantastic story. They’re preciosities to be cherished and shared with young spectators to challenge and move them as much as they do with adults.
This list gathers 10 of the best dark fantasy films of all time. They mix fantasy elements with horror, mature themes and, most often than not, Gothic-inspired visuals. Check them out.
1. El Laberinto del Fauno (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s dark fantasy masterpiece has all the landmarks of the Mexican director’s very distinctive pieces of work. The visuals, especially in the Art Direction department, are stunningly beautiful, full of little details and a fine-tuned sense of tone. The story uses a child’s creative journey through myths and monsters to trace a parallel to 1944 falangist Spain, and her own personal sense of loss and peril.
Ivana Baquero delivers what should have been a star-making turn (if you wonder where she’s been, check out MTV fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles), and Del Toro is in full control of his craft. El Laberinto del Fauno is the perfect dark fantasy film because it commits entirely to its bleak plot and evocative tone, especially considering Javier Navarrete’s haunting score, than brings all the elements together in a cohesive whole.
2. A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016)
The most recent film in our list, A Monster Calls is a terrific adaptation of Patrick Ness’ horror-fantasy about a young boy dealing with his mother’s terminal illness, the strained relationship he has with his grandmother, a distant father, and high school bullying, all of which awaken a tree-monster that helps him deal with things through stories. Needless to say the film is beautifully made – the animation sequences that illustrate the monster’s stories are especially gorgeous.
As usual with these films, the lead part requires a lot from the young actor portraying it, and Lewis MacDougall takes us in an unforgettable emotional journey, getting valuable assists from emotional turns by Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones. J.A. Bayona lets the story flow with few directing or visual flourishes, building a straightforward film with a beautiful and important message to send.
3. La Cité des Enfants Perdus (Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet has always had a taste for the eccentric in his films (see his most famous work, Amélie Poulain), but La Cité des Enfants Perdus, known as The City of the Lost Children in the US, is his true masterpiece of bizarre. Co-directed with Marc Caro, this unique dark fantasy film tells of a surrealist dystopian society in which a mad scientist kidnaps children to steal their dreams – at least until he messes with Ron Perlman’s younger sister.
With strong performances that fully understand the sheer weirdness of the film they’re in, La Cité des Enfants Perdus is maybe more in sync with the young viewer it’s supposed to reach, while not abandoning adult themes and imagery. It’s a cinematic experience that lovers of weird cinema will love, and everyone else will try (and probably fail) to fully grasp.
4. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
Perhaps the dark fantasy author of most note nowadays, Neil Gaiman was bound to have a place at this list, and Coraline is still his most faithful, better adaptation. That’s mostly because of Henry Selick’s absolute genius in visually translating the tale of a young girl discovering a door to a different world that is a strangely twisted version of her frustrating home life.
Selick has long been a master of dark fantasy, crafting beautifully ugly and sinister worlds for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. Coraline is still his crowning achievement, however, a children’s movie by the thinnest of margins, as it debates important questions about family tension and its effects on the young ones.
5. Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro, 2015)
While most people would characterize Crimson Peak as straightforward horror instead of dark fantasy, is has all the hallmarks of the latter: a young lead ingénue; a lavish production design with Gothic tendencies; at least one deranged scenery chewing performance (by Jessica Chastain); and a growing up story that tackles adult emotions and issues with delicate sensibility.
The story follows Edith (Mia Wasikowska), as she meets, falls in love and marries Thomas (Tom Hiddleston), an older man whose sister, Lucille (Chastain), bitterly resents his new wife. Del Toro fills his story with apparitions and suspense that, as usual, serves as a means of meditation on issues much more complex and rooted in everyday life.