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From fairy tales to scary tales: Hollywood embraces dark fantasies

Once upon a time, or more precisely, during the past few weeks, Hollywood started going wild for fairy tale movies. Julia Roberts, 20 years past her own Cinderella story in Pretty Woman, recently announced she has signed on to play the Evil Queen in The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, which is due out next year. Tarsem Singh, who made Jennifer Lopez's serial-killer thriller The Cell, directs.

Hollywood has also been abuzz about another Snow White project in the works – Snow White and the Huntsman – with Twilight star Kristen Stewart in talks for the lead (Selena Gomez was previously connected to the role) and Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen. In this version, Viggo Mortensen plays the huntsman who was supposed to kill the girl, but decides to mentor her instead as a woodsy woman warrior.

In March, we'll see Amanda Seyfried starring as Red Riding Hood in a new film from Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight movie. Actually, Red Riding Hood sounds a lot like Twilight. According to the studio synopsis, Seyfried plays a "beautiful young woman torn between two men" a "brooding outsider" (Shiloh Fernandez) and the wealthy Henry (Max Irons). There's a werewolf in the woods who sometimes takes human form. Hmmm – could it be someone brooding and outsider-ish who Valerie is close to?

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In a couple of weeks, Beastly will be in theatres. It's a remake of Beauty and the Beast set in a high school, starring Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens and Mary-Kate Olsen. In that story, a popular New York teen (Pettyfer) is transformed into a monster in order to find true love.

So what's this all about? You might imagine a cabal of Hollywood studio executives decided that comic books were getting far too complex and audiences really needed to get childish again. Why not fairy tales? But fairy tales aren't replacing comic books. New movies based on X-Men, Green Lantern and Captain America comics are due out this summer and The Amazing Spider-Man is scheduled for 2012.

What's happening is the guys continue to enjoy fantasies of mid-air acrobatics, gun fights and explosions, while women are attached to supernatural tales of sex and terror.

Looking at the recently minted celebrities associated with these projects, you get a clue to the audience for these new films: Stewart, Seyfried, Hudgens, Gomez, an Olsen twin. They're all stars to girls and young women. The Twilight movies, which have made almost $1.8-billion worldwide, are the model for girl movies that mark the transition from fairy tales to horror.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America's numbers, almost half of the movie-going audience in the United States and Canada is under 24 years old (though the total audience is only a third of the population) and a slight majority of them is female, including the horror fans.

For decades, it was assumed that horror movies were outlets for young males to watch girls in their underwear getting chased by masked knife-wielding maniacs. But nowadays women under 25 constitute about 52 per cent of the horror market and studios are increasingly catering to that group. Orphan (2009), written by Red Riding Hood's David Johnson, is typical of the trend of creating horror films with a female heroine – it stars Vera Farmiga as a mother defending her family from her evil adopted child.

The distance between fairy tales and scary tales isn't that long in a girl's life. Particularly successful for studios are scary movies that earn the PG-13 rating in the United States, or parental guidance for those younger than 13. In other words, these are first-date movies. In an Entertainment Weekly story, Mandate Pictures president Nathan Kahane, who produced The Grudge movies and Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, put it this way: "Girls are driving the ideas for those early dates. There aren't that many social opportunities to be in the dark holding hands, and that's what the PG-13 horror film offers."

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Given both the size of the market and the proven popularity of the stories, who can blame a couple of Oscar-winning veterans like Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron for jumping on the Evil Queen bandwagon?

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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