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Not Quite Horror: Tale Of Tales (2016)

Tale of Tales

Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Tale Of Tales.

The rules of Not Quite Horror are simple. If a movie is categorised as Horror on IMDb, it won’t be included here, which is why you’ll never see me covering proper horror titles here. NQH was created to showcase movies that aren’t classified as horror but exemplify the traits of the genre and should therefore be taken into consideration by fans who might otherwise not bother with them.

Matteo Garrone’s lush, opulent and truly bizarre collection of adult fairy-tales Tale Of Tales is listed by IMDb as Horror. However, I’m breaking the rules to include it here because it is, by all accounts, a Not Quite Horror movie.

Based on the folk tales of Giambattista Basile, the flick takes in three separate, yet ultimately intertwined, stories concerning a trio of neighbouring kingdoms and the royalty that presides over them. British character actor Toby Jones is the king of one section and, in his segment, he feeds a flea to the size of a large dog/small horse and kind of, maybe falls in love with it to the detriment of his relationship with his daughter (a revelatory Bebe Cave) whom he promises in marriage to a violent ogre.

Salma Hayek in Tale Of Tales

The money shot of the flea at full size is equal parts disturbing and cute, given the thing was lovingly created as a real-life, practical object by a team of FX artists (Jones himself described the puppets as “rather beautiful”). It’s not the only instance of practical creature FX in Tale Of Tales either, as prior to that Salma Hayek’s unhappy Queen sends husband John C. Reilly out into the depths to slay a sea monster and, later, her son tussles with a cave-dwelling beastie that looks as though it might just be the long lost mother of The Descent‘s creepers.

There’s also gore galore, the red stuff showing up frequently and not just in the slaying of monsters but in the aftermath of a gruesome (though barely glimpsed) flaying and, in the image which is rightfully being used to sell the movie, the devouring of a certain creature’s massive, still-beating heart. The scene itself is short, but the setting – a perfectly all-white, spotless, ornately decorated room – and the act – Salma Hayek, clad in funeral black, chows down on a huge, real hunk of meat (lamb perhaps?) – is stomach-churningly beautiful in its intensity.

In many ways, this moment signifies the inherent oddness at the, er, heart of Garrone’s film. Tale Of Tales is both gorgeous and disgusting, often at the same time. Although characters are mostly dressed in finery, a stench emanates from the frame, often resulting from the selfish actions that we know will be their downfall. Essentially, the three stories revolve around family, loyalty and self preservation, with fantastical elements elevating them above plain drama.

The performances, particularly Vincent Cassel as a caddish King looking to screw anything that moves, are pitched a little higher than one would expect from actors of this calibre. Even Toby Jones (excellent, as always) is more showy than usual. However, given the dark fairy-tale subject matter and the prevalence of otherworldly oddities, it stands to reason that everything else is turned up to eleven to match the super-high collars and breathtaking backdrops.

Bebe Cave in Tale Of TalesThere are scenes in Tale Of Tales that, were one to stumble upon them in isolation, could easily be mistaken for still-life paintings. Likewise, the tactile representations of the creatures, in particular, make the fairy-tale weirdness easier to swallow. Although the IMDb classification perturbs me slightly (describing a film as Horror with a capital H is one way to turn a huge amount of un-inducted viewers off), there’s a real sense that Tale Of Tales is not only aware of its genre leanings, but that it’s flouting them, exploiting them even.

Take, for example, the moment that sees a young princess covered in blood, after triumphantly standing up to her aggressor. It’s a moment that recalls Carrie, The Descent, a multitude of badass-women-in-horror-covered-head-to-toe-in-blood moments. And it’s unlikely Garrone didn’t intend to pay homage in his choosing of it, considering how much thought and care evidently went into the representation of everything else that makes up this strange little world.

And yet, it’s not fully-fledged horror. Garrone has created a story loaded with fantasy, fairy-tale, romance and drama elements, with splashes of horror here and there, but to categorise Tale Of Tales as horror when movies like Snowtown and ’71 aren’t seems limiting.  There is a reality to it, but it’s a strange reality, the kind evidenced in Pan’s Labyrinth, which utilised a civil war and family drama to juxtapose its fantasy elements. Garrone instead gives us the picturesque Italian countryside, all lush greens and deep browns, to plant us in a world similar to our own, a world that seems simultaneously recognisable and off-putting.

All things considered and in spite of the violence, sexual deviance and prevalence of monsters both mythical and human, is Tale Of Tales a pure, straight horror movie? Not quite. And it’s all the better for it.

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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