It's grounded in a historical medieval Europe (there is mention of Paris and the Black Plague) and earned its title with suitably nightmarish scenes and plot details. There's definitely the elements of a horror film at work. Not to mention, A Tale of Terror preceded the dark fairy tale remakes now in vogue over a decade later. Think Red Riding Hood, The Brothers Grimm, and Snow White and the Huntsman.
But what stood out to me about this movie was not the artistically rendered story elements (the title character's birth via Cesarean in the middle of the winter woods, a panicked bird trapped under the falling rains of sand in an hour glass); nor the perfect rendering of a blue-eyed, black-haired beauty who was a dead-on for Snow White (Monica Keena fit better than Kirsten Stewart as far as appearances); nor its intricately rendered costumes (right up there with Ever After); but its sympathetic portrayal of the wicked queen, played by Sigourney Weaver.
Looking at the traditional villains as protagonists and even heroes is also a current fashion in fairy tales. However, the stepmother of A Tale of Terror, Claudia, is neither innocent victim nor wicked beyond sympathy, though she is altogether fascinating.
In fact, I watched the movie for her story, and not for her stepdaughter Lilli--the Snow White character who was more a vehicle for setting into motion Claudia's ghoulish transformation than the transformed one herself. Though it also begs mentioning that Sigourney Weaver earns viewer attention with her compelling performance.
Certainly, I did not watch it for the contrived-feeling love story, which, soddered on to any movie with a lovely young female and a mildly attractive misfit gets you . . . pretty much every western romance since Pride and Prejudice and The Taming of the Shrew. The whole "all you are is a name" crossing verbal swords with the "you don't know me" retort was not given foundation earlier in the film nor invested in leading up to that moment, so it was a stretch to make me care or even believe Will and Lilli's anti-attraction.
No, I continued watching for the poor wicked "queen," who, after years of rejection from a bratty stepchild, loses her only son to stillbirth, never to conceive again. As a mother myself, I can creep onto the corners of such a grief and know just how much that would undo me. Maybe even to the point of madness.
But Claudia's madness is not harmless. She seems to have inherited powers that have laid dormant, or at least unused. And the source of both madness and black magic is the fabled mirror.
Overall, the film has potential, but it is weakly realized. There is a part at the end where Lilli says to Claudia, "You have no heart." Claudia laughs and replies, "That's too simple." Now, if something similar had been inserted at the end of Snow White and the Huntsman, it would really have carried its weight. Still, it is a good line and excellently delivered.
I tend to agree with Claudia. To lasso the wicked queen, at least this one, into a barred prison box labeled "evil" is too simple. There is real hurt in her, and a potential for her to herself become a mirror to humanity.
You don't watch this sort of film to find out what happens, because you know already. You probably don't even care so much to find out how it happens--i.e., how will the heroine possibly make it this time? You watch it for the same reason you read Milton's Paradise Lost or the Smeagol/Gollum parts of The Lord of the Rings. Because you have a fascination with what it takes to drive a human being slowly into evil. You have a desire to understand those who have gone before you in their descent, to search for the grain of humanity still left in them, perhaps because you know it would only take so much--a choice made in desperation, a word flung in anger--to turn down the wrong path yourself.
And you have pity for them.