[Review] GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

@craiggors

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

[Review] THE TURNING (2020)

@craiggors

While I think the horror industry is slowly but surely re-marketing January releases from “dumping ground” to “decent films,” there’s still a long road ahead before that shift in public perception can take a justifiable hold, and The Turning (2020) is a certainly a stumbling block on the path of this noble quest. It’s a shame because the film keeps ahold of itself for the majority of its runtime and only truly drops the ball in the final act; but it’s a fumble so disastrous there’s absolutely no way to save the game afterwards.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) from a screenplay by Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring, House of Wax) and based off the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), the film follows Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) as she accepts the post of live-in nanny to Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklyn Prince) Fairchild in their sprawling, palatial estate in upstate Maine. Kate is excited at the chance to help two orphaned youngsters flourish and grow despite their hardships, but she soon discovers that neither of the children is as innocent as they appear and that they, and their dark, foreboding home, are sheltering dark secrets.

Negative reception of the film aside, no one can fault the acting. Wolfhard is solid if a bit strange channeling his creepy, pervy side as Miles, and Prince is an energetic scene-stealer who can hold her own against Davis, who delivers a convincing, relatable performance of a woman with all the best intentions going up against a dangerous situation she can’t fully comprehend. Davis is one of those actresses who knows her craft and what she needs to do in order to amp up subpar material, yet still can’t seem to get a foothold in Hollywood proper. I fear this movie may not do her any favors, though from a technical standpoint it’s far from abysmal.

There’s some good work going on in The Turning outside of the performances, as well. Cinematographer David Ungaro frames some interesting, well-constructed shots throughout, and the production design of the house and the spirits make for some cool, spooky imagery. Sure the movie is chock full of tropes, and the majority of the scares are easy-to-predict jump ones, but at least it’s fun to look at. As others have pointed out, the true fault of the film is the screenplay, though I think it may be more accurate to pinpoint the ridiculous ending. It’s honestly not an awful film for the first two acts to the point where I caught myself in the theater wondering why the early reviews were so dismal and then the “ending” hit and I chided myself for being too trusting.

I use quotation marks not out of a sense of snobbish disdain, but because the closing moments of The Turning are some of the worst excuses for an ending I’ve ever seen. I can see what Sigismondi and the writers were going for–attempting to put a twist on the ambiguity so essential and infamous from James’s original novella–but they fail spectacularly. Instead, we’re left with an illogical and inane closing that feels like a poorly timed joke your least favorite uncle tells over Thanksgiving dinner. It’s so nonsensical and just plain dumb that it brings what would have otherwise been an average if watchable movie down into the depths of horror’s “worst of” category. The only thing I’ll give it is that it elicited physical reactions from almost everyone in my theater, though it was mainly groaning and exclamations of phrases one shouldn’t use in polite blogging.

The Turning is a movie with a good cast and a strong foundation ruined by an ending so baffling it leaves one irritated and wondering what could have been if original producer Steven Spielberg had stayed attached and brought forth a proper adaptation of one of the greatest psychological horror stories of all time. Instead, we’re left with a tropey showpiece that wasted time and talent, not to mention money. Mike Flanagan’s upcoming The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix lessens the sting somewhat, but it’s still best to turn away from this one and pretend you didn’t see a thing.

The Turning

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] UNDERWATER (2020)

@craiggors

You’d be forgiven for taking a glance at the trailer for William Eubank’s Underwater (2020) and assuming it was an Alien rip-off in the ocean. It’s a well trod plot structure familiar to even casual genre fans: humans push too far against the borders of the natural world and are met with monstrous, cosmic consequences for their hubris. Underwater doesn’t stray too far from that formula, though it does incorporate a bit more Lovecraftian elements than one might expect from this particular corner of the genre, and that adds some spice to an otherwise standard January horror release.

Tian Industries has pioneered the technology that will allow them to drill seven miles deep into the Mariana Trench. At the Kepler 822 station, where the drill is set up, mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) is reflecting on life under the waves when an earthquake hits, nearly destroying the facility and sending Norah scrambling for her life, picking up a few other straggling survivors along the way. After they assess the damager, our heroes realize that the only way back to the surface is to don diving suits and walk two miles across the trench floor to reach the escape pods at a nearby outpost. But there are other things than algae lying in wait in the deep, deep dark…

Underwater wastes no time inciting the action, with the earthquake hitting barely five minutes into the film and the danger and chaos never letting up for the entire runtime. As such, it’s a fast paced film, and any moments of character development or reflection are left to snippy quips of dialogue that the viewer must strain to catch amidst the never-ending adventure sequences. To be fair, this is not a film that requires its characters to be noteworthy or two-dimensional; it’s all about the riveting survival story, though the cast is game enough to do their best to give each of their characters some depth. Stewart in particular draws on her years in the indie film circuit to tap into some beats of raw vulnerability to balance out Norah’s frightened yet determined survivalist instincts.

Eubank (The Signal) and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (A Cure for Wellness) do the best they can to create a stylized, eerie sea world and bring Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad’s (The Legend of Tarzan) screenplay to life. There’s some cool set pieces and a solid sense of color in the production design, and Eubank knows exactly when to start showing the monsters, and how much, to maximize tension. That being said, the film still relies too heavily on its predecessors even as it strives to become its own beast.

What’s nice about Underwater is that it’s a horror film made specifically for horror fans, a trend in recent years that only seems to be getting stronger. It’s more than serviceable as an average popcorn movie that’s light on character and heavy on action. The script could have used another round of polishes, but an able cast, clever camerawork, and some properly ferocious monsters allow the film to tread water. You won’t exactly be riding the waves with this one, but you won’t be coughing for air either.

Underwater

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror