Don’t go into the woods. It’s a moniker so deeply imbedded in the human psyche it’s almost primordial. As Miss @melmoy has explained on the podcast, these words of caution harken back to a time when danger, specifically supernatural danger, was thought to be more prevalent the further one journeyed from the home, and this often manifested in journeys into the woods. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Dark canopies, flitting shapes, mysterious sights and sounds–who knows what hides behind the trees, under the rocks, in the underbrush? The forest as threat is an old storytelling element, often used as the setting for folk and fairy tales where strange, magical events took place. Almost every Brothers Grimm story involves the mysterious wood, and Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In Osgood Perkins‘s take on the German classic, the fairytale gets a vibrant update and the woods become more deliciously sinister than they’ve ever been before…
Sixteen year old Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is turned out of her mother’s home when she is unable to secure a job as housekeeper to a local creep. She takes her eight year old brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) with her, planning to fend for herself by finding other work or throwing themselves at the mercy of a nearby convent. After heading off into the woods and receiving some helpful advice from a kindly Hunter (Charles Babalola), the siblings find themselves drawn off the path to the home of an elderly woman named Holda (Alice Krige), whose table is full and whose beds are warm. But something is wrong in Holda’s house, and Gretel begins to suspect that these sweet gifts are not given freely.
It’s always tricky taking established stories, particularly fairy tales, and giving them a fresh spin, and there’s numerous methods employed to make them longer, more surprising, or more enticing for a modern audience. Rather than padding the Grimm story with additional fluff, Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and co-screenwriter Rob Hayes keep the bones and add depth to the themes and character motives suggested by the original story. The result is a sleek 87-minute feature that tackles a well-trod tale through a contemporary lens that engages notions of female empowerment and the agency of children in a world where social constructs allow adults the unchecked ability to severely diminish that agency. Despite the brief, and appreciated, runtime, the film can feel a bit slow at times. It’s far from plodding, but Gretel & Hansel is nonetheless a restrained film that invites you to soak in the atmosphere being unspooled on screen.
And, to be fair, it is a sumptuous atmosphere. Gorgeous, lingering shots and gauzy reds and yellows make the film feel like some sort of cross between ghostly tableau and Argento dreampiece. Much credit is due to cinematographer Galo Olivares (Roma) and production designer Jeremy Reed (Hard Candy) for their seamless blending of beautifully unsettling camerawork and anachronistic sets to conjure sensations of unease and enchantment in the viewer, often within the same frame.
Lillis carries the film well, bringing equal parts warmth and weary determination to Gretel in a vein subtle though perhaps more subtle than her turn as Beverly Marsh in It (2017). Newcomer Leakey is a bit awkward with his delivery most times, but he and Perkins are careful never to let Hansel slip into the realm of supremely annoying child characters in horror, and for that I’m grateful. Krige delivers the most tasty performance as Holda, being fantastically creepy and hissing out the film’s best lines like some sort of bewitched serpent. Given that the film is rated PG-13 and is clearly meant to function as gateway/intermediate horror for a younger audience, it’s impossible to think that Krige’s Holda won’t leave a memorable impression on the minds of any youth in attendance.
While the ending might feel a bit rushed or anticlimactic for some, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of last weekend’s The Turning (2020), and it provides room for a satisfying denouement that should sweeten any bitterness left by the relatively mundane final confrontation. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, Gretel & Hansel is doubtless a beautiful film with a striking mood that doles out its pleasurable imagery and wicked sense of framework slowly and effectively. Though it does not shatter expectations when it comes to fairytale horror, it more than meets them, offering up a buffet of mesmerizing cinematography and spellbinding colors. Come and feast.
Gretel & Hansel
5 – Totally Terrifying 4 – Crazy Creepy 3 – Fairly Frightening
- 2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror