Fantasy Films

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Fantasy Films


Arguably, any film relying on fictional situations and characters might be considered fantasy. Indeed Hollywood's "dream factory" prides itself on transporting its audience to myriad fictional settings. In practice, however, fantasy is a term reserved for a specific subset of films featuring characters, events, or settings that are improbable or impossible in the world as we know it. This loose definition yields a staggering array of films that vary widely in subject matter, tone, and intended audience. The children's film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for example, would seem to have little in common with Conan the Barbarian (1982), yet both are considered fantasy because of their fantastical characters and events. While some films feature isolated moments of fantasy in otherwise realistic or dramatic contexts, the designation fantasy is usually reserved for movies whose imaginary elements pervade the entire story. For example, despite the miraculous rain of toads occurring near its end, the gut-wrenching drama Magnolia (1999) is not considered fantasy.

In addition to the wide variety of films that fall within the fantasy classification, confusion often arises about science fiction and horror. Although many consider these to be separate genres, their relation to fantasy cannot be overlooked since all three revolve around elaborate fantasy scenarios. Defining fantasy film as a discrete genre is problematic due to the large number of story types it encompasses, and therefore it may be more useful to consider fantasy as a "mode" rather than as a genre. Seen in this light, science fiction and horror are genres that express distinct aspects of the fantasy mode, while other story types might be considered as additional subgenres of the mode.


The term "speculative fiction" is sometimes used to avoid making a distinction between various strands of fantasy, science fiction, and horror or to account for the considerable overlap among the three. While both science fiction and horror films are certainly types of fantasy, many would agree that each is distinct in its purview and that each operates differently in terms of themes, conflicts, and iconography.

Whereas science fiction relies on scientific paradigms, technologies, facts, and paraphernalia to create hypothetical but scientifically credible scenarios, fantasy is subject to no such restrictions. Fantasy does not need to convince the audience that its story is realistic—rather, it invites the audience to temporarily expand its credulity—hence the phrase so often associated with this genre, "the willing suspension of disbelief." Rather than appeal to science, fantasy favors magical or mystical explanations. Fantasy films are usually logically consistent, but their internal logic belongs to an imagined rather than a scientific world. Although the iconography of science fiction includes spaceships, computers, and ray-guns, a fantasy film is more likely to feature flying horses, crystal balls, or magic wands. In practice, however, many films are hybrids. For example, the science fiction film The Empire Strikes Back (1980) invokes no scientific premise to explain Yoda's mystical powers or Luke's mastery of the "the Force," a skill that defies logic and must be accessed through a kind of intuition. Likewise, E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) features an adorable alien whose ability to heal wounds seems more miraculous than medical.

While some science fiction films are dramatic or upbeat, many attempt to frighten the audience, thus blurring the line between science fiction and horror. Typically, the divide between pure horror and science fiction depends on the presence of scientific elements. Another distinguishing factor concerns the nature and the source of the horror: science fiction is more likely to be concerned with an external threat on a grand scale (for example, aliens attacking the Earth in War of the Worlds [1953]), whereas horror is more likely to stem from internal, human evil on a more personal scale (for example, evil ghosts threatening a family in Poltergeist [1982]). While some fantasies invoke horror and some horror films are clearly fantasies, films of terror that would not be considered fantasy include slasher films such as Friday the 13th (1980) or thrillers such as Dial M for Murder (1954), since in each case the source of fear is rooted in a (hypothetically) realistic threat. A science fiction film such as The Andromeda Strain (1971) may also provoke fear, thus overlapping with horror, but it too would be excluded from a pure fantasy classification because its horrific scenario is grounded in the logical conclusions to scientific hypotheses.

Horror films most often overlap with fantasy when they feature monsters or creatures with no clear scientific explanation (the frightening but misunderstood ape in the classic 1933 film, King Kong), or when they enter the supernatural realm (ghosts, vampires, unexplained phenomena). What distinguishes supernatural horror from pure fantasy is the pervasive presence of a horrific and threatening scenario. Ghosts in films like A Guy Named Joe (1943) or Beetlejuice (1988) function very differently from ghosts in horror films like The Haunting (1963); the tone of the films differ accordingly.

Even though science fiction and horror blend with fantasy in many movies, many fantasy films fit neither of those categories and instead find their roots in fairy tales, myths and legends, comic strips, and children's stories. Excluding pure science fiction and horror, the major strands of fantasy might be grouped into the following general subcategories: sword and sorcery/medieval fantasy: Dragonslayer (1981), Willow (1988), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003); children's stories: Peter Pan (1953), James and the Giant Peach (1996), the Harry Potter series (beginning in 2001); fairy tales and myths: La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), Jason and the Argonauts (1963); creatures and monsters: King Kong (1933), Monsters, Inc. (2001); supernatural: Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Bedazzled (1967), Ghost (1990); magic or miracles: Big (1988), The Santa Clause (1994); comic book or superheroes: Dick Tracy (1990), Spider-Man (2002); romantic fantasy: Splash (1984), Groundhog Day (1993); comic fantasy: Beetlejuice (1988), Ghostbusters (1984); dream fantasy: The Wizard of Oz (1939); action fantasy: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); martial arts fantasy: The Matrix (1999), Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000); musical fantasy: Brigadoon (1954), The Lion King (1994); utopian fantasy: Lost Horizon (1937); dystopian fantasy: Brazil (1985); time travel: Time Bandits (1981), Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989); self-referential: (1963), Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Pleasantville (1998); avant-garde or surreal: Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930).

These subcategories account for some of the major strands of fantasy, but they are by no means exhaustive, nor do they include such films as the delightfully warped Being John Malkovich (1999). Moreover, no matter how many highly particular categories are devised for fantasy films, many films nonetheless fit into a number of categories. The Princess Bride (1987), for example, is a romantic comedy but also a fairy tale; The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a musical but also a dream fantasy with a fairy-tale bent. A further distinction might be made between fantasies that are live-action (Edward Scissorhands, 1990), animated (Peter Pan), puppet-based (The Dark Crystal, 1982), or entirely computer-generated (Toy Story, 1995). Here again, many films combine categories—for example, Mary Poppins (1964), which employs interludes of animation within a live-action setting, or the live-action/animated film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), widely acclaimed for its innovative special effects.


One of the first filmmakers associated with fantasy film was the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861–1938), who used trick photography and elaborate sets to create fantastic stories such as Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902). As longer feature films developed in the silent era, a smattering of science fiction and fantasy narratives appeared such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1916), and The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which starred the silent film idol Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939). In Germany, directors such as Robert Wiene (1873–1938), Fritz Lang (1890–1976), and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) set the stage for a darker type of fantasy associated with German Expressionism. Highly influential to the horror genre, these disturbing tales of evil and supernatural forces included such classics as Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Metropolis (1927), and the vampire movie Nosferatu (1922), known for its chilling visuals and trick photography. Hans Richter (b. 1919) took a more experimental approach to special effects, using stop-motion animation in Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts before Breakfast, 1928), a short avant-garde film that featured flying bowler hats and other inanimate objects brought to life.

The advent of sound film in 1927 was accompanied by innovations in special effects, creating new possibilities for cinematic fantasy. Though not as dark or gruesome as the German silent films, Hollywood's spate of monster and horror films in the 1930s, such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), used a similar bag of special effects tricks, including miniatures and stop-motion photography to create fantastical creatures such as the ape in King Kong, created by special-effects pioneer Willis O'Brien (1886–1962). On a lighter note, the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad delighted audiences with its vibrant colors and fantastic scenarios. Fantasy also benefited hugely from the special effects wizardry of O'Brien's protégé Ray Harryhausen (b. 1920) and from George Pal (1908–1980), who produced and directed Tom Thumb (1958), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

By the 1950s, science fiction had emerged as a major genre in its own right. Playing on fears of nuclear holocaust and anxiety associated with space travel, most science fiction films used special effects to create frightening aliens from outer space or monsters created by atomic radiation. During the same period, Hollywood audiences were treated to The Thing From Another World (1951), The Blob (1958), and a host of alien invasions. Japanese filmmakers introduced their own infamous monster in Gojira (Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1954).

The confluence of sound, special effects and Technicolor could also yield a more light-hearted type of fantasy, as evidenced by the perennially popular musical, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Combining song and dance within a fairy-tale narrative, the film drew on the conventions and sensibilities of the musical, a genre known for creating its own particular versions of utopian and romantic fantasy. Musical fantasy also became a common element in many Indian films, such as Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951) by Raj Kapoor.

The combination of music and fantasy has long been a hallmark of Disney films. Perhaps best known for its work in animation, Disney has specialized in fantasy stories since its inception, with a heavy emphasis on musicals and children's fare. Classics such as Pinocchio (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), hailed as the first full-length animated film, were precursors to the recent trend in animated musicals like The Little Mermaid (1989). While many fantasy films are intended for youthful audiences and are derived directly or indirectly from children's books or fairy tales, some successfully operate on the adult level as well. The term "family film" often denotes films like Shrek (2001) that appeal to all ages by combining fantasy worlds with clever animation and more sophisticated humor.

Children's stories, fairy tales, and myths have influenced many American fantasy films, yet other cinematic strands of fantasy could be found in the "art" films of Europe, which often featured innovative, complex, and sometimes disturbing fantasies. Eschewing narrative coherence, the Surrealists used vivid set pieces, special effects, and montage to explore the possibilities of cinema as an expression of subversive and subconscious impulses. In France, the Spanish-born Salvador Dali (1904–1989) and Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) collaborated to produce Un chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929), a short experimental piece that has retained its ability to shock and disorient film viewers. In 1930, the two applied their artistic sensibility to the politically explosive feature L'age d'or (The Golden Age).

Avant-garde and experimental filmmakers pushed the boundaries of cinematic expression, but fantasy also continued to flourish in more traditional forms. Drawing on his earlier explorations of surreal effects, Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) applied his imaginative skills to the creation of a classic fairy tale, La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946). Current audiences are familiar with Disney's animated version of the story, but for many, Cocteau's black-and-white, live-action fantasy remains the quintessential version.

b. Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau, Maisons-Lafitte, France, 5 July 1889, d. 11 October 1963

Jean Cocteau is perhaps best known for his classic fantasy film, La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), based on the fairy tale by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. The multi-talented Cocteau was a painter, poet, and dramatist who is also remembered for his experiments in surrealist and avant-garde techniques.

Founded in the early 1920s, the Surrealist movement concerned itself with the connection between reality and fantasy, rationality and the unconscious. By harnessing and combining these opposing spheres, the Surrealists attempted to create a kind of "super-reality" characterized by disturbing, irrational, and dream-like images. While many employed shocking images in order to critique the status quo, Cocteau devoted himself to the aesthetic ramifications of the movement. In Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932), Cocteau used special effects to create a disjointed, expressionistic commentary on the angst of the artist. Inspired by the myth of Orpheus, this short experimental film used dream-like images to suggest the sacrifices that the artist makes in the service of art.

In Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau created a more traditional, full-length narrative. Starring Jean Marais and Josette Day, this beautiful black-and-white film tells the story of a young woman who finds herself a prisoner of a strange man/beast in atonement for her father's theft of a rose from the Beast's garden. Beauty is frightened by the growling Beast and by the enchanted manor he inhabits. Bodiless human hands usher Beauty into the castle and magically serve her dinner, while lifeless statues periodically awaken to observe her actions. Cocteau used simple but clever mechanical effects to create these and other celebrated moments of cinematic fantasy. Ultimately, Beauty and the Beast come to love one another, and when the Beast is killed at the end of the film, he turns into a prince as he and Beauty fly into the sky in a romantic embrace. Jean Marais plays three characters here: the Beast, the Prince, and Beauty's original suitor (Avenant), who simultaneously changes into the Beast just as the Beast is transformed into the Prince.

In Orphée (Orpheus, 1950), Cocteau returned to the mythological theme of his first film, updating the story and creating a full-length narrative with a surreal bent. Set in modern-day France and once again starring Jean Marais, the film tells the story of Orpheus and his lover Eurydice as he follows her into the underworld following her death. Here and in other films, Cocteau employed a mirror motif to connote either a window into a distant place or a portal into another world. Continuing his obsession with the role of the artist, Cocteau rounded out his trilogy of Orpheus films in 1960 with Le Testament d' Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus), in which he appeared as himself.

Beauty and the Beast earned Cocteau the Prix Louis Delluc as well as a number of prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Cocteau was elected to the French Academy in 1955.


Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932), La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), L'Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle Has Two Heads, 1947), Orphée (Orpheus, 1950), Le Testament d' Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus, 1960)


Cocteau, Jean. Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film. New York: Dover, 1972.

Evans, Arthur B. Jean Cocteau and His Films of Orphic Identity. Philadelphia: Arts Alliance Press, 1977.

Fraigneau, Andre. Cocteau on the Film: Conversations with Jean Cocteau. New York: Dover, 1972.

Katherine A. Fowkes

Elsewhere, Sweden's Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918) was responsible for a number of surreal films, such as Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), in which a knight returns from the Crusades and challenges Death to a chess game. In Italy, Federico Fellini (1920–1993) broke from the neorealist movement to produce his disjointed, dreamlike classics (1963) and Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965). And in Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) produced the ghostly Ugetsu monogatari (1953).

Beginning in the late 1970s, Hollywood experienced a renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy, stoked in part by the films of George Lucas (b. 1944) and Steven Spielberg (b. 1946). Star Wars (1977) and E. T.: the Extraterrestrial (1982) were among the many popular films to whet movie-goers' appetites for a more upbeat type of science fiction than had been popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Star Wars drew inspiration from Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), directed by the well-known Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. The 1980s also saw a spate of medieval sword and sorcery films, spurred by the popularity of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. While films such as Dragonslayer (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985) were not widely popular, they paved the way for the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first of which premiered in 2001. That same year, the runaway success of the Harry Potter children's books spawned the franchise for another film series about magic and heroism with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001).

In the 1990s, Ghost (1990) emerged as the most popular among a series of supernatural melodramas that eschewed horror for comic or dramatic stories. Even The Sixth Sense (1999), which initially presented itself as horror/suspense, eventually revealed itself to be more of a melodrama in the tradition of Ghost (1990), Always (1989), and Truly Madly Deeply (1991). Many supernatural melodramas drew inspiration from earlier films. City of Angels (1998) was a mainstream remake of the art film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987), directed by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders (b. 1945). The Preacher's Wife (1996), Michael (1996), and Meet Joe Black (1998) provided variations on a type of non-horror, supernatural film that had experienced popularity in the 1930s and 1940s—for example, The Bishop's Wife (1947), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), and Death Takes a Holiday (1934).

In the United States and elsewhere, it was computer-generated imagery (CGI) that most affected the look and feel of cinematic fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s. The technology didn't truly come of age until the underwater fantasy The Abyss (1989) and later Toy Story (1995), an "animated" film made completely with computer imagery. Also notable for their reliance on CGI were the highly successful Jurassic Park (1993), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), and The Mask (1994). The Matrix (1999) introduced a striking new approach to the choreography of action and fight sequences. The Matrix was heavily influenced by martial arts specialists in Hong Kong and China, including John Woo (b. 1946) and the Vietnamese-born Tsui Hark (b. 1950), whose popular action/fantasies such as Suk san: Sun Suk san geen hap (Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, 1983) have earned him comparison to Spielberg. The Matrix also drew inspiration from Japanese anime films such as Mamoru Oshii's (b. 1951) Kô kaku kidôtai (Ghost in the Shell, 1995). One of the first anime films to make an impact on Hollywood was Katsushiro Otomo's (b. 1954) violent techno-fantasy, Akira (1988). And although Hayao Miyazaki's (b. 1941) Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997) and Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001) have not been widely viewed in the United States, their box-office success in Japan has helped make anime fantasy a major movement in international cinema.


Much that has been written about fantasy focuses on it as a literary genre, but it can be equally applied to cinema. Although it is common to classify fantasy texts by themes and motifs or by the extent to which story-worlds and events deviate from realistic representations, Tzvetan Todorov concentrates on the response generated by the "fantastic" events in the story. In this light, fantasy must be considered not just one "mode," but three, since it creates a continuum stretching from "the marvelous" to "the uncanny," depending on the extent to which the characters and/or the reader experience feelings of awe and hesitation provoked by strange, improbable events. If the narrative's impossibility can be explained rationally or psychologically (as a dream, hallucinations), then the term "uncanny" is applied. The purely "fantastic" comes into play only during the hesitation and uncertainty experienced by the characters and/or the reader/viewer when faced with an impossible occurrence. By contrast, the term "marvelous" is applied to self-contained story worlds such as those of The Lord of the Rings or The Dark Crystal (1982), which do not ask the reader or viewer to question the reality of the story. (J. R. R. Tolkien called this "subcreation," also referred to as "High Fantasy.")

The Wizard of Oz demonstrates all three modes operating within a single fantasy. Unlike films that propose an alternate, imaginary universe as the setting for the entire tale, The Wizard of Oz frames its fantasy world with the real world of Kansas, suggesting that Oz is only a fantasy of the imagination. In light of Todorov's definitions, we can see that upon first encountering Oz, both Dorothy and the audience are operating in a "fantastic" capacity. But wonder and disbelief eventually give way to "marvelous" acceptance, and Dorothy and the audience participate in the quest to find the wizard and ultimately kill the wicked witch. While Dorothy and the audience may continue to "marvel" at the strangeness of creatures and events in Oz, it is never suggested that Oz is not actually "real" until the end, when the dream explanation shifts our understanding of the events into the "uncanny" mode. Our prior willing suspension of disbelief only adds to the impact of the final scene, when the audience shares Dorothy's consternation at being told it was all "only" a dream.

As a psychological phenomenon, the term "fantasy" refers to our unconscious desires (dreams, daydreams, wishes). For this reason, Rosemary Jackson notes that fantasy stories are perhaps the type of fiction most amenable to psychoanalytic interpretations. Although Jackson applies her analysis only to fantasy literature, it can be easily extrapolated to film. Drawing on Todorov's definition, Jackson argues that the fantastic is inherently subversive. By raising questions about reality and by revealing repressed dreams or wishes, fantasy makes explicit what society rejects or refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, to the extent that it includes the surreal and experimental, fantasy is often explicitly subversive. The original surrealists thought art should be shocking and politically progressive, and they intentionally disrupted those cinematic conventions that help create coherence and meaning for the viewer. But most mainstream fantasy films take care to adhere to the conventions of classical cinematic storytelling while constructing coherent space, time, and narrative causality. Nevertheless, horror differs from fantasy in this respect: it is a form of mainstream fantasy whose formulaic content is often examined for its subversive potential and for symptoms of a culture's repressed desires.

While horror has received much critical attention, other types of fantasy are often rejected as being merely "escapist"—a term generally associated with works of art that one is not supposed to take seriously. Most fantasy films are considered escapist because they temporarily transport viewers to impossible worlds and provide unrealistic solutions to problems. Even Jackson concedes that most fantasy is "marvelous" instead of truly "fantastic," more a matter of wish fulfillment than of challenge. Indeed, referring to The Lord of the Rings trilogy from which the films were adapted, Jackson describes Tolkien's fantasy as inherently conservative and nostalgic. With its magic, fantastical beings and clear-cut delineations of good and evil, The Lord of the Rings presents a compelling fantasy mirrored to some extent in the Harry Potter films. Many would argue that Harry Potter, like The Lord of the Rings, uses imagination to uphold rather than to transcend traditional values. Both tend to reinforce a hierarchical world based in traditional notions of morality, gender, and heroism. Both rely on a sense of mystical destiny and grace that, while not explicitly religious in nature, exhibits the strong influence of a traditional Western and Christian perspective. Both series feature a reluctant and somewhat unlikely young hero, and both offer the audience an escape into a different world where difficult problems are solved through magic as well as old-fashioned courage and integrity. The Harry Potter films differ from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, in pitting the viewer's own sense of "reality" against the magical world of wizards and witches.

A psychoanalytic approach to fantasy must take into account not just the psychological underpinnings of the characters but the pleasure and appeal of the story for the viewer. The most successful fantasy films provide viewers with vicarious experiences that resonate with emotional, if not physical, reality. Both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings demonstrate the appeal of fantasy as a vehicle for wish fulfillment through their glorification of magical (hence unrealistic) solutions to serious problems. The viewer lives vicariously through the characters of Frodo and Harry, who strive to overcome the forces of evil. The psychological appeal of fantasy helps to explain the frequency of the Oedipal scenario in these types of narratives. For example, Star Wars features a classic Oedipal struggle between Luke and his father. Superhero movies also construct appealing fantasy scenarios, often starring unlikely or reluctant male heroes reminiscent of Frodo and Harry. Superman (1978), Batman (1989), and Spider-Man (2002) were popular movies that featured "ordinary" protagonists whose unremarkable talents presumably resonate on some level with most viewers. This ordinary-ness is revealed as a mere facade, however, masking the true superhuman powers of the character—another attractive problem-solving solution for consumers of fantasy.

Similarly, many recent supernatural/ghost movies also deny the reality of death by magically bringing back beloved characters as ghosts, as in Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply. A psychoanalytic interpretation of such fantasies, however, yields a more subtle interpretation. Whether or not such films are wish-fulfillment fantasies matters less than whether or not wish-fulfillment fantasies are inherently conservative. There is certainly nothing subversive about a story in which a male character wishes to become more macho (as in Spider-Man), for such fantasies merely reinforce traditional Western ideas about masculinity, echoed in many of the fantasy films discussed here. But just because some fantasies are conservative does not necessarily mean that escapism is a worthless denial of reality and therefore of no cultural value. For example, recent melodramatic and comedy ghost films share a tendency to challenge traditional gender roles by creating passive and "emasculated" male characters (Ghost, Truly Madly Deeply, The Sixth Sense) who contrast sharply with the active male protagonists found in most Hollywood movies.

Regardless of whether or not these and other fantasy films are truly subversive or politically liberating, many fantasy movies provide an interlude in which viewers are invited to entertain forbidden desires and other heretofore unimagined possibilities. Thus, to draw on Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis's definition of fantasy as a psychological phenomenon, a fantasy film is thus literally the "mise-en-scène of desire," the setting whereby impossible desires may play out to their logical conclusions.

SEE ALSO Children's Films;Genre;Horror Films;Science Fiction


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Katherine A. Fowkes