Fairytales haven’t always had happy endings. Dark and sinister finales were once as common as kisses from princes and happily-ever-afters in folk stories, which sometimes reflected violence, harrowing social conditions, injustices and exploitation.

This is the focus of the Ian Potter Museum’s upcoming summer show, All the Better to See You With: Fairytales Transformed. Curator Samantha Comte felt the current social and political climate was ripe for a renewed look at the original, darker side of these stories, especially at a time when dystopian narratives – such as the television remake of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – have become so popular.

The starting point for the exhibition, says Comte, was work by Portuguese artist Paula Rego. “She’s an older artist who has been working with fairytales for a long time, but with a very feminist bent, similar to [author] Angela Carter,” she says. Rego’s Little Red Riding Hood suite of pastel drawings – featured in the exhibition – introduce Red Riding Hood’s mother into the fairytale. She sits in an office chair with a wolf stole around her neck, after killing the animal with a pitchfork.

Other fairytales that get a contemporary reinterpretation include Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid, in a group show that features acclaimed Australian and international artists including Tracey Moffatt, Patricia Piccinini and Kiki Smith. Works span photography, film, sculpture, painting and even video games such as The Path, a contemporary horror game that visitors will be able to play at the exhibition. A series of old fairytales from the University of Melbourne’s rare books collection will help show the evolution of these popular stories.

“I’m really interested in how fairytales change in response to context,” Comte says. “Transformation has always been central to fairytales – both the theme of transformation in the content and how the genre itself has evolved over time.”

Comte commissioned works by four Australian artists specifically for the show. Kylie Stillman has created a sculptural work out of fence palings, and Sally Smart has produced a series of videos that references French folktale Bluebeard and the work of iconic German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger.

One of the more arresting works is Patricia Piccinini’s 2002 series, Still Life with Stem Cells. It contains an eerie, hyper-realistic sculpture of a little girl, surrounded by and cradling fleshy mounds. Piccinini’s film The Gathering will show alongside the installation. It depicts a girl on the floor, surrounded by what Comte describes as “strange little furry things”, which crawl and move around in an unnerving manner. These works don’t reference specific fairytales, but touch on the same dystopian and transformative themes in an abstract way.

In How Some Children Played at Slaughtering Australian artist Amanda Marburg’s bright dreamy landscapes explore the Grimm brothers fairytales. “Even though I’ve described this show as being very dark, there is also some really beautiful imagery,” Comte says.

All the Better to See You With will run at the Ian Potter Museum from November 23, 2017 to March 4, 2018. Admission will be free.