Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you'll see death doing its work. In "Snow White and the Huntsman," Charlize Theron's Queen Ravenna studies her reflection with as much dread as vanity, observing decay at work like termites under glass. Her power comes from her otherworldly beauty, which can only be maintained by a diet of blood. Human, preferably, though she will snack on a bird's entrails with her clawlike steel fingernail accessories.

She is the raging tyrant of her domain, having married and killed the king and imprisoned her young stepdaughter. Yet the queen is enslaved by her obsession with the fragility of the flesh. Encountering such a deeply imagined character in a summer extravaganza is a wonderful shock, and there are many in this mesmerizing take on the Grimm fable. The film has the DNA of a blockbuster and the soul of a haunting folk tale. It is as dangerous, dark, intelligent and beautiful as its wraithlike villainess.

Kristen Stewart plays the imprisoned princess, who was "adored throughout the kingdom as much for her defiant spirit as for her beauty," a voice-over tells us. The role fits Stewart's usual moody sullenness -- who wouldn't be rebellious after spending a miserable decade under lock and key? She stretches a bit, too, hitting notes of tenderness and innocence. Her pure heart makes her the queen's nemesis and salvation. The mirror informs Ravenna that eating Snow White's living heart will grant her immortality. When the girl escapes from her tower cell into the forbidding forests beyond, her kindness wins over the drunken, brawling Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) sent to recapture her. Hemsworth, affecting a Gerard Butler Scots growl, plays the part like one of Kurosawa's dirty, low-born but honorable samurai. He gives the princess pointers on combat. She inspires him to move beyond his grief for his dead wife. The feeling between them grows until it becomes capable of miracles.

This is a movie with many things on its mind. It is a ripping swashbuckler in the vein of "Lord of the Rings." It's a feminist essay on outer and inner beauty, female heroes and fiends. It's a mesmerizing gothic horror film with counterpoints of enchantment and surreal beauty. It's a Christian allegory purer and simpler than the Narnia movies.

While it sounds like a recipe for overkill, Rupert Sanders' confident, serious-minded direction and the script -- by first-timer Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side") and Hossein Amini ("Drive") -- yields a dramatically engaging fantasy. Sanders crams his frame with nightmare details and scorched, barren vistas that owe something to Pieter Bruegel's panoramic medieval paintings. Later, when the mood lightens, there's an interlude in a rather psychedelic grove bustling with plants, animals and sprites reminiscent of "Pan's Labyrinth."

There are large-scale astonishments here, monsters made of black, volcanic glass and a bridge troll with the hide and temper of a rhinoceros. Theron, who resembles a dominatrix in her slinky black gowns and severe makeup, explodes into a murder of crows when enraged. The greatest of all the boldly stylized tricks is the conception of the dwarves who help Snow White wage a brimstone-and-thunder battle to reclaim her throne. A half-dozen of England's best character actors -- Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost and Ray Winstone among them -- have had their heads digitally grafted onto the bodies of little people. The effect is flawless.

The performances are impressive for a summer special-effects adventure. Hemsworth creates a tough but tender period hero completely distinct from his Thor. Theron fearlessly climbs the summit of high melodrama without toppling over into camp. As detestable as she is, she's so fully, formidably alive that we can't help but feel drawn toward her magnetic energy. Kristen Stewart skeptics may not be converted by her work, but she's used appropriately, sparingly, acting more through expression than dialogue. In a nice touch, her big third-act rally-the-troops speech starts out in a scarcely audible mumble. The princess has never been in public before, let alone delivered a speech. Naturally she'd need a moment to find her voice.

The film finds its commanding tone from the opening shot. I was struck by how completely it transported me into its strange, perilous world. Like any successful fantasy, it seems less a fiction than a window into a dreamlike alternate reality.