GRETEL AND HANSEL
Starring: Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey, Alice Krige, Jessica De Gouw
Writers: Richard Hayes, Oz Perkins
Director: Oz Perkins
The thing about poison is that nothing in this big bad world tastes as sweet.
Osgood Perkins is no stranger to horror. His first two films — The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016) –- are moody, suspenseful films about supernatural events unfolding in slow isolation. His newest offering, Gretel and Hansel, explores femininity and budding maturity while bringing his dreamlike direction into this deliciously dark fairytale.
The title sets the tone for the film from the beginning: re-framing the fable around teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her journey out of maidenhood and “into the woods.” As the film opens, she’s just discovering the dangers of womanhood in her world, even as she’s set adrift within the metaphorical and literal forest. The de facto caretaker of her younger brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey), Gretel is no stranger to hardship. They live in a cursed land rife with famine and disease. Her only job prospect begins the interview by asking if her “maidenhood is intact.” As the family faces starvation, her widowed mother — succumbed to the kind of despair that turns to madness — turns them out of the house to fend for themselves.
Deep in the woods, they discover a strange house in the middle of nowhere. While it’s not made of gingerbread, it’s filled with a feast like nothing the siblings have ever seen. Caught pilfering food, they meet the mysterious owner, a woman named Holda (Alice Krige) who takes them in. Gretel begins learning medicine and herbalism from the old woman, and Holda sees the seeds of a stronger, darker power within her. As she explores this power and questions her future, Gretel begins to realize that things are not always as they seem, and she may be sacrificing more than she bargained for.
Gretel and Hansel isn’t a typical horror or fantasy film. This story plays out like a pre-Victorian fairy tale where events occur seemingly without reason. Especially in the beginning, the siblings have a number of strange encounters before reaching the witch. It’s a purposeful choice and one that may seem out of place for modern audiences unaccustomed to that type of storytelling. It does, however, make the strangeness of Hansel and Gretel’s world that much more obvious — and unsettling — to viewers. Anachronistic design in costume and architecture takes a page from It Follows (2014), and the risk works. The deliberate choices can be unnerving for viewers attempting to place the time and location of the story. The witch’s house, especially, is an interesting design. While it isn’t made of candy, the shape bears an overwhelming resemblance to the pointed hat so often seen in pop culture depictions of witches.
The slow pacing of the film may feel tedious to horror fans expecting more thrills or gratuitous elements. With its PG-13 rating, Gretel and Hansel uses gore sparingly but effectively. The suggestion of the worst is enough to keep the story moving without relying on jump scares or splatter sequences. Instead, it relies on building dread and suspense with mixed results. The movie is gorgeous, but the dreamlike narrative curbs any immediacy from any threat to the siblings. The film’s push into surrealism often leads to more questions than answers; it can be frustrating because it leaves you wanting for a more substantial plot.
The film has a lot to say about the power and fear that comes with womanhood. There’s a lot to unpack in the movie, and, surprisingly, it’s done quite well by Perkins and co-writer Hayes. There’s more than just the conflict of good and evil. Alice Krige’s witch is superb. She blends philosophical instruction with discovering power within a world unkind to women with darker hints at the price of that power. Instead of making her a servant, the witch shows Gretel the possibility of freedom from social expectations and the stifling position of her gender. The subtext is clever without overwhelming the story or feeling heavy-handed. The film manages to explore some complicated issues without deviating from the story too much; it tells a recognizable fairy-tale made richer with the additional context.
With eerie cinematography and unsettling moments, Gretel and Hansel is a dark fantasy worth a watch. While it does suffer from style and substance in terms of the narrative, the quiet menace that lurks behind the corners of each surreal encounter leaves you wanting just a little bit more.