Oz Perkins’ latest, unceremoniously dumped into January, is a revisionist Grimm story as atmospheric as it is thin.
The original fairy tales documented by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were often bloody, dark stories. As time passed, and we decided that children were too fragile for the originals, we reshaped them into toothless Disney stories of romance and happy endings. And as society began to critique the passive nature of these saccharine protagonists, the 2010s gave us badass butt-kicking makeovers for our heroes, like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
At the dawn of the century’s third decade, however, we see fairy tales leaning harder into their older, more folkloric elements, crafting stories that mine terror out of feeling decidedly old and out-of-step with our understanding of the world. It happened with The Witch, and now we’ve got Gretel & Hansel, directed by Oz Perkins (son of Anthony), which opts for an eerie atmosphere and a decidedly dark interpretation of its source material.
The movie opens with one fairy tale framing another: Gretel’s favorite childhood story of a young child, beset by illness in their infancy. In a desperate bid to save the child’s life, her father takes her to a local witch. While the witch saves her life, she also gives the child the power of prophecy and witchcraft. As the child grows, so does her power and evil, until the townsfolk have little choice but to exile her to the woods.
Early in the film, Gretel (Sophia Lillis, IT) and Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are cast out of their childhood home by their mother, sent out to make their way in the world. The pair wander through the woods, starving and delirious until they happen upon a house (though made of wood and not candy). Inside they find a feast, and a kindly old woman named Holga (Alice Krige), who takes the siblings in to feed and shelter them. The two stay on with her, performing various odd jobs in exchange for her hospitality. Eventually, Holga helps Gretel realizes that she has the potential to become a witch, and mentors her in developing her powers, a feeling Gretel relishes. When Hansel mysteriously vanishes, however, she’s reminded that all gifts come at a cost.
What stands out more than anything in Perkins’ interpretation of this childhood classic is its visual aesthetic. The mise-en-scène is an amalgamation of influences, with period costumes juxtaposed against anachronistic architecture. Foggy woods à la Burton’s Sleepy Hollow give way to scenes awash in unnaturally colored lights similar to giallo classics like Suspiria, with a heavy dose of the “witch house” aesthetic popular in the early 2010s. Galo Olivares’ cinematography shifts between highly structured shots, often focused on geometric shapes (similar to Midsommar) into shaky-cam close-ups of characters with a wide-angle lens.
One recurring motif of a crescent moon over the witch’s house is reminiscent of Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin, known for his vivid, grotesquely-detailed fairy tale illustrations. This mishmash of visual designs successfully conveys Gretel’s disorientation; she’s never sure if she’s dreaming or awake, or if what she sees is real or imaginary. Just like how a dream often combines random disparate elements of our daily lives, the incongruous visual styles of Gretel & Hansel communicate this dreamlike state. The film is also well served by ROB’s dark and foreboding score, with its synth hums and tense, heartbeat-like percussion.
Just like how a dream often combines random disparate elements of our daily lives, the incongruous visual styles of Gretel and Hansel communicate this dreamlike state.
To be sure, the high-level concept of this retelling is compelling. As indicated by the title, this is primarily Gretel’s story. Holga notes that Gretel also possesses the potential to become a witch, transforming the old tale of good and evil into a more Witch-like relativism. This is a good concept, especially insofar as Gretel accepts the gift the witch offers her but refuses the price.
But what frustrates Perkins’ focus on Gretel is Lillis’ flat delivery and the script’s convoluted dialogue. He heavily relies on Gretel’s frequent voice-over to provide commentary (but thankfully little exposition) on her inner thoughts and the events around her. Lillis’ performance is extremely deadpan, to the point of being robotic; she uses passive voice, and never uses contractions. The point may have been to make Gretel seem aloof, but it comes off more annoying than anything. It also doesn’t make sense in context, since in the end what pits Gretel against the witch is her humanity.
It’s especially frustrating to see Lillis (who’s been better elsewhere) feel so limp in contrast to Krige’s eerie, uncanny turn as Holga. Her interactions with the children walk a fine line between mother and monster, infusing simple gestures like tousling Hansel’s hair with an unsettling combination of maternal affection and devilish calculation. A veteran of sci-fi and horror for decades, Krige’s long been a master of the macabre; she’s practically had the ‘gaunt, sneering witch’ industry on lockdown for the past twenty years (Silent Hill, Carnival Row). She’s a genius bit of casting, and her raven-eyed creepiness is what holds a lot of Gretel & Hansel together.
It’s hard to get a grip on Gretel’s character given its rushed pacing, specifically in the climax. Despite the slow, tension-building pace of the majority of the film, as it approaches about 60 minutes of its 80-minute runtime, you are left wondering how they are going to wrap it up. And the final confrontation between Gretel and the witch is very unsatisfying — she’s defeated so easily. It would have also made the confrontation more impactful if it took more time to show Gretel being seduced by the witch’s power. There were also some allegorical aspects of the film (specifically in the allegory of Gretel’s onset of puberty symbolized by her magic abilities) that would have been better served with more runtime to develop.
The imbalance between Gretel &Hansel’s visual excellence and the failings of the plot makes it hard to wholeheartedly recommend. But it can’t be completely dismissed; it’s visually compelling, and Perkins has a real eye for atmosphere. It’s surprising that this type of film is getting a wide theatrical release, as it (thankfully) eschews the gross-out tactics and jump scares of most wide-release horror films. Moreover, a January release seems to doom it into obscurity, when it would make more sense to release it closer to Halloween. That said, this could have a good life on streaming or on-demand services for a good Netflix and chill when you’re in the mood for something more creepy than scary.
Gretel & Hansel is fattening up audiences in theaters now.