Dark fantasy, as a genre, is hard to pin down, but the films on this list should give you a good idea of what happens when these horror-tinged stories are done correctly.
Steeped in dark, brooding tones, featuring moody antiheroes, and set in strange, mystical worlds with supernatural villains that force protagonists to confront their own shortcomings — a well-executed dark fantasy film has all of these elements, plus a deeper theme that couples our deepest fears with the greatest heights of human imagination. They’re eerie and disturbing, thought-provoking and logic-defying — they’re the best cinema has to offer. Here are some of the most worthwhile dark fantasy films you can stream right now.
Not only does Ron Perlman easily sell a devil-may-care attitude while he’s hammering bad guys in the face, battling Russian sorcerers, killing Nazis, and tangling with tentacled behemoths in this dark fantasy film, but Guillermo del Toro directs this thing, which means the visuals are just as spellbinding as the action, and the hero wrestles with moral dilemmas that feel every bit as perilous as the villains he fights.
Paul Bettany and Dennis Quaid star in this dark fantasy epic that clings to some of the genre’s most-essential tropes. Bettany plays the archangel Michael, who’s disobeyed God’s order to protect humanity and an unborn child who might be the planet’s only hope of survival. A battle between good and evil steeped in religious themes are classic markers of a good fantasy flick, and the hordes of possessed, zombie-like creatures descending to wreak havoc on a group of heroes fulfill the dark requirement well enough.
The Crow (1994)
The legacy of The Crow has, sadly, been marred by the tragic death of its male lead, Brandon Lee. Lee was hit by a defective blank on set and died during surgery with just a week left of filming. The movie was refashioned to serve as a kind of tribute to the young actor, and it’s gained a cult following since, particularly because Lee plays a badass rockstar brought back to life to get revenge on the men who raped and killed his fiancée. It’s full of action and impressive stunts done by Lee himself, but the actor pairs his fight prowess with an emotional range that only elevates the story at the heart of this flick.
Dakota Fanning voices the titular young heroine of this fantasy drama about a girl who discovers a secret world much like her own. Coraline is a preteen, disappointed by her current reality, who finds the door to another world that resembles an idealized version of her own. She enjoys this alternate reality for a time before realizing this version of her life holds sinister secrets that might threaten her real family. It’s a strange, beautifully-drawn world, one that’s probably better viewed by the older-kid crowd or adults who just don’t want to grow up.
Solomon Kane (2009)
This dark fantasy action film stars James Purefoy as the titular badass, a man on a classic redemption trek who must defeat a servant of Satan to make good on his promise. Solomon Kane, once a mercenary, then a pacifist, and now a warrior against the forces of evil, faces off against Malachi, a kind of sorcerer who made a deal with the Devil in exchange for absolute power. Demons, ghouls, ghosts, they all show up, but the real anti-hero is Kane, a man marred by life circumstances, vowing to do good despite his dark nature.
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Heath Ledger’s final role on film was as Tony, a mysterious vagabond in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The actor tragically died one-third of the way through filming, which led to his role being recast three times to suit the evolving needs of the story. Despite that, or maybe because of it, the sprawling fantasy film feels wholly inventive and original, following the story of an old man who made a bargain with the devil for immortality, trying to weasel his way out of the deal by using his traveling theater troupe and a magical mirror.
Pan’s Labryinth (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy war epic focuses on a young girl named Ofelia, who grows up during a time of political unrest in her native Spain after a brutal civil war ravages the country. Ofelia escapes the horrors committed by her stepfather when she accepts a challenge from a magical fairy, who believes her to be the reincarnation of Moanna, the princess of the underworld. If she completes three tasks, she’ll achieve immortality. The film is a play on folklore and fables from Del Toro’s youth, but there’s an undercurrent based in reality — the real cost of war — that grounds this film and makes it even more compelling.
This vampire thriller starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan time-hops centuries to tell the story of a mother and daughter on the run from others of their kind. Arterton plays Clara, a woman who becomes a vampire by mistake and quickly turns her daughter, Eleanor (Ronan) so that they can live together forever. Unfortunately for the two, vampirism is a privilege enjoyed mostly by rich, noblemen and they’re forced to live on the run, hiding their identities from humans and immortals alike. Drearily alluring, the film plays on maternal bonds and sexist tropes to give its two female stars a story that feels singular, even for a dark fantasy film.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
No dark fantasy list would be complete without a Tim Burton entry and his totally ’90s flick about an artificial boy with scissor blades instead of hands who’s adopted by a Cleaver-style suburban family. Johnny Depp plays the gloomy, emo-punk hero, an orphan who finds acceptance and love from a strange town before he’s vilified for things beyond his control. The movie is an angst-ridden ode to feelings of isolation and the yearning of self-discovery so many adolescents face, but it’s tinged with just enough fantasy to heighten the movie-watching experience.
This British-American flick is a hodgepodge of ’80s nostalgia and laughable special effects, but it’s also become something of a cult classic over the years thanks to its dark fantasy vibe and iconic tagline. The plot follows an immortal warrior who must face off against his arch-nemesis while keeping his identity secret from the modern world, but the film deals exclusively in deeper themes of mortality, the meaning of life, and the accent Christopher Lambert is using.
This Swedish fantasy film is one of the stranger offerings on this list. It follows the story of a young woman named Tina who has a facial deformity and an ability to sniff out scents, helping her to excel at her job of catching criminals. When she meets a stranger similar to her, she learns of her true identity and the dark, mysterious elements that knowledge brings. There’s some hard-to-stomach content here, but director Ali Abbasi weaves it in beautifully with weird, Nordic noir vibes that make this film a true genre-bender.
I Kill Giants (2017)
This fantasy drama based on a graphic novel follows the story of a young girl named Barbara, who believes herself to be a giant killer. In reality, Barbara’s mother is dying in the family’s upstairs bedroom, and vengeful giants are something the girl’s mind has concocted, an evil she can defeat, unlike her mother’s illness. As the film weaves fantastical hallucination with very real, grounded problems, we see how dark fantasy can be used to illuminate issues of grief, loss, and growing up.
Luca Guadagnino’s buzzed-about dark fantasy remake is a mind-bending exercise in the cinematic. Dakota Johnson plays Susie, a young dancer who arrives at a prestigious academy where disturbing happenings begin to take place. After one dancer goes missing, another dies, and a third is severely injured, the students begin investigating their instructors to discover they belong to a coven of witches with troubling rituals that rest on the dancers playing their parts.
It’s rare that Disney gives us a dark fantasy, and even more notable that they delivered this film in the early ’80s, when stories of wizards and dragons might shock more conservative audiences. That’s part of what makes this movie from Matthew Robbins such a great, classic, fantasy epic. There’s magic and mayhem lurking in this story about a strange medieval world ruled by superstition and religion.