Midwinter Movie Mathoms: Fantasy Films Reviewed

Reviews by Eleanor M. Farrell

Ah, winter in California! My poor leaky car is shipping more water than the Titanic. It's a fine time, rain or snow, to curl up with a good book or to crank up the VCR. Here are a half dozen intriguing films, now widely available on video, you may not have seen during their initial theatrical (or cable television) runs.

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

The Secret of Roan Inish Independent filmmaker John Sayles is probably one of the most original voices in the movies, and he never repeats himself. In this wonderful recent effort, Sayles collaborated with author Rosalie K Fry to translate her novel, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, to film. Its historical tale of a Selkie, captured by a fisherman and living as his wife until she discovers her hidden seal skin and returns to the sea, is reflected through the eyes of a young girl, Fiona, a descendant of these folk who once lived on Roan Inish, the "Island of the Seals." Sent from the city to live with her grandparents on the seashore after her mother's death, Fiona learns of her family's ties to the Selkies and hears the tragic story of her brother Jamie, whose cradle was carried off on the waves. With the help of her cousin Eamon, Fiona determines to find the truth of what really happened to Jamie, and reclaim her family's heritage on Roan Inish. As with Sayles' other films (Matewan, Lone Star), this is a quiet story that is all the more compelling because it explores the depths of human relationships without relying on spectacle.

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

H. Philip Lovecraft, private eye, is the only guy in 1948 Los Angeles unwilling to use magic to get an edge on the competition -- even when he owes his landlady, dance instructor and licensed witch Hypolite Kropotkin, money. Lovecrafts ethics intrigue millionaire Amos Hackshaw enough to hire the detective to recover a valuable stolen book, the Necronomicon. This witty fantasy noir, an original HBO movie, stars Fred Ward as the world-weary Lovecraft, and infuses the hard-boiled universe of Dashiell Hammett with a touch of... well, Lovecraftian horror, as Hackshaw attempts to summon the Old Ones to Tinsel Town with the aid of his book and the sacrifice of his spoiled virgin daughter. Does he succeed? There's a sequel (with Dennis Hopper replacing Ward), but it's not nearly as much fun.

Into the West (1992)

This subtle Irish film centers around John "Papa" Reilly, a Traveller (these caravan­living folk are the Irish equivalent of gypsies) who moves away to the city after the death of his wife in childbirth, drowning his despair in the local pub. His youngest son Ossie is befriended by a white horse who mysteriously appears one day -- from the Land of Eternal Youth, according to the boy's grandfather, who names the horse Tir Na n-Og. After the horse is stolen by an unscrupulous stable owner, Ossie and his older brother Tito escape with Tir na n-Og, pursued by the authorities, on a cross-country quest that forces the boys' father to face the demons tearing apart his fragile family. Written by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) and directed by Mike Newell (Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Into the West offers charming performances by its two young actors, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Rauidhri Conroy, nicely supported by veterans Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Barkin.

The Rapture (1991)

The main character in The Rapture is a rootless woman who works as a telephone operator by day and cruises cocktail lounges with her lover at night for other couples who want to "swing." Sharon's meaningless existence, punctuated by disturbing dreams of a pearl suspended in a void, leads her to join a circle of fundamentalist Christian co-workers who, led by a young black boy's prophecies, are awaiting the imminent coming of the end of the world. Writer/director Michael Tolkin's very controversial film, about a woman's journey from sin through redemption and beyond to the literal Apocalypse, will not appeal to everyone and will offend many, but it delivers a stunning and thought-provoking story, with a career-topping performance by Mimi Rogers (nicely bolstered by actors Will Patton, Patrick Bauchau and David Duchovny) as Sharon, whose hedonistic lifestyle is challenged by a need for deeper meaning, but whose religious faith is tested beyond bearing.

Robin Hood and the Sorcerer (1983)

Robin Hood and the Sorcerer The British television series Robin of Sherwood (shown in the U.S. initially on Showtime cable, then picked up by public television networks) is undoubtedly -- at least in terms of the stories themselves -- the best film treatment of the Robin Hood legends. Creator/writer Richard Carpenter knows his stuff: except for bowing to "modern" (dating from Scott's Ivanhoe) chronology by using a late twelfth century setting, the series manages to incorporate such diverse episodes as the financial troubles of Sir Richard at the Lee, the meeting of Robin Hood and King Richard (without the usual happy ending), the disputed identity of Robin himself (freeman or noble?), even the fight between Robin Hood and another outlaw, Adam Bell. Robin Hood and the Sorcerer is the first, film-length, episode of the series, and gives the origins of Robin and his small, not­so­merry band, infusing the story with a mythic understructure which has Robin chosen by the forest god, Herne the Hunter, to champion the poor and weak. The young cast (headed by Michael Praed as Robin) and gritty sets add to the authentic look (living in Sherwood Forest, especially in winter, was probably not a picnic!). So it's not as much fun as the Errol Flynn movie: this and the other Robin of Sherwood videos (four films are commercially available, and if you get hooked, you can probably find someone with all 22 episodes on tape) are another wonderful retelling of the exploits of the most famous of medieval outlaws.

The Navigator (1988)

One of the most mythopoeic films I've ever seen, this feature (subtitled A Medieval Odyssey) from New Zealand director Vincent Ward begins in a Cumbrian mining village in 1348, when the Black Plague threatens everywhere. A young boy named Griffin, who is prone to visions, sees that if the miners take some of their copper as an offering to God, creating a cross for a grand, far­off church spire, they will be spared. Thus begins a journey that takes this small group tunneling through the earth, to emerge in modern­day Auckland (which the miners decide must be a place of God's good because of its wondrous lights). The film's depiction of time travel, and the reactions of these medieval people to the wonders and terrors of the twentieth century, is totally original, and the mythic theme, as Griffin's visions are interwoven into the story, is enhanced by a masterful combination of color with black and white photography.

Web Reference

Internet Movie Database: a film database containing as comprehensive a listing as you can find on the web, the IMDb has information on theatrical and television movies, actors, crew, reviews, video availability, and web links. You can search for films by genres or themes, combinations of actors, character names, and much more.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of Mythprint.

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