The horror genre has a long history, just like the fear of monsters under the bed. Fear is implanted in us at a young age, in part, through fairy tales and bedtime stories passed down for centuries. At the top of the list for such stories are Grimm’s Fairy Tales; the stories of witches, monsters, and bad parenting all in the name of teaching a lesson. They’ve inspired the timeless works of Disney, but true to the original tones of the stories, the Brothers Grimm have also inspired several horror films over the decades. The most recent one being 2020’s Gretel & Hansel, directed by the son of “Norman Bates,” Oz Perkins. With horror royalty in his blood, how does Perkins adapt the classic tale of children lost in the woods at the mercy of a hungry witch?
Sixteen-year-old Gretel, played by Sophia Lillis, and her younger brother, Hansel, played by Samuel Leakey, are forced to flee from their unstable mother, into the woods, after Gretel refuses the suspicious intentions from a wealthy man seeking a housekeeper. During the night, the siblings are saved of a ghoulish man by a huntsman who, out of his sense of duty, offers them shelter. On their way again the next morning, hunger takes over. The two consume some random mushrooms that cause them to hallucinate, and Hansel is drawn to the smell of cake. This leads them to a house in the middle of the woods occupied by a crone, played by The Borg Queen, Alice Krige. Showing the same hospitality as the Huntsman, she shelters the children, offering them the work and food they are seeking. Gretel grows suspicious of their new guardian when she begins to hear the voices of children in the woods and has visions of a mysterious girl from a bedtime story she was read as a child. The crone soon reveals herself to be a powerful witch with hungry eyes for Hansel, but sees more sinister potential in Gretel, who shows signs of sensitivity to the supernatural.
On the technical side, Gretel & Hansel is a contender for one of the best-looking horror films of recent memory. Newcomer, Galo Olivares, makes his cinematography debut after working closely with Alfonso Cuarón on the Academy Award winning Roma. The film presents each shot with calculated, symmetrical framing and characters mainly at the dead center. Think of a Wes Anderson film with Guillermo Del Toro’s color palette. It creates a sense of stillness and dread in the viewer where, after the first scare, it will have you darting your eyes around the screen looking for any movement in the background. The main stand-out of the film though has to be the score composed by Robin Coudert, better known as ROB, who has previously lent his talents to French horror directors, Alexandre Aja and Franck Khalfoun. The score combines an electronic, yet folksy tone, that creates a calming yet hypnotic listen that could stand on its own outside the narrative.
On the casting side, the film is pretty compact, comprised of only three and a half major characters. I say that because the single scene with Charles Babalola’s Huntsman character really doesn’t add anything. Babalola gives a sweet, commanding performance, but the character is otherwise forgotten. Sophia Lillis offers the same doe-eyed innocence and capability that won us over in the It franchise, but shows that she’s able to carry a film on her own. However, her voice over monologue feels detached, almost like it was added quickly in post-production following a test screening. The film could stand stronger without it, relying on its visuals to communicate. Lillis is also the only actor noticeably without a European accent. Samuel Leakey is actually kind of a stand-out, as he believably portrays a naïve child without coming off as too annoying or unbearable. Alice Krige though, really steals the show as the witch, flip-flopping between kind old crone and terrifyingly chilly sorceress. She’s fully aware of the power and control she has and what horrible things she had to do to obtain them.
Gretel & Hansel should have become a modern cult film, making a splash on the festival circuit. It comes off as a festival favorite, but it was widely released to theaters instead in early January 2020, and managed to be a modest financial hit before the COVID shutdown. Aesthetically speaking, the film is going to be held up by comparison to Robert Eggers’ The Witch. With its visual style, it may have been an influence. G&H also tests the audience’s patience when it comes to tone and story progression. The opening scare and subsequent huntsman scene establish that the different worlds of the Grimm’s fairy tales may be connected, but the film does nothing further with that idea, dropping it. This leaves us questioning the purpose or origin of the ghoul in what was a very effective scene. The film’s frequent use of slow-burn pacing and over-lapping dream sequences do make for an effective mood piece, but at the end it is undercut by a rushed climax. As this is only an 87-minute film, it could have afforded an extra ten minutes to add on what it was actually building towards, but it feels like the film was rushed to completion. Understandably, the audience may feel frustration with this outcome.
Gretel & Hansel is a beautiful but flawed horror film with a mixed bag of potential. On one hand the film lacks payoff for the more mature elements of the narrative. But it is able to stay true to the source material, while adding a foreboding final shot to its fairy tale ending. This is also pretty shocking for a film that managed a PG-13 rating. A surprising amount of violence and gore makes its way into the third act, which is honestly pretty effective. This is a film that is otherwise accessible to a younger audience, but be wary of the nightmarish visuals by the end. I do want to recommend the film; however, it does not deliver on promises that I’m not even sure it realized it made. Visually, it is the house of candy from the story; it looks sweet but is hollowed on the inside.
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