In theaters now!
GRETEL & HANSEL (2019)
Directed by Oz Perkins
Written by Rob Hayes
Starring Sophia Lillis, Samuel Leakey, Charles Babalola, Alice Krige, Jessica De Gouw, Beatrix Perkins
Find out more about this film here!
The latest “dark fairy tale” to hit the big screen and major distribution circuit is a truly pitch black one, but not one that I think should have been released nationwide in theaters. I’m not saying you shouldn’t support horror in cinema. Nine times out of ten, I’ll go see a horror film in theaters because I still love the experience and want to support mainstream horror. The thing is, GRETEL & HANSEL is as far from mainstream horror as you’re going to get. And by putting this into theaters and then watching it fail at bringing in a huge box office, this only cements the opinions of the horror haters out there who say horror can’t be profitable. I’m not saying that GRETEL & HANSEL is a bad movie. It’s not. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve to be in theaters. I’m very glad I was one of the few to see it in one. But what I am saying is that I think GRETEL & HANSEL was released on the wrong platform—a platform that had the odds stacked against it. And that’s why the film didn’t really blow the doors off the box office. I try not to equate ticket sales to quality, but still, I think that when horror does well, it benefits the horror industry and its fans. Setting GRETEL & HANSEL up in this way just isn’t fair to the film or those behind it.
Had Orion released GRETEL & HANSEL to arthouse theaters and maybe a simultaneous release on Netflix, I think it could have developed a cult following and may be discovered as a pleasant surprise as with Perkins’ previous films I AM THE PRETTY THING IN THE HOUSE and THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER did. But unfortunately, this isn’t the movie that is going to introduce Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins) to the masses. GRETEL & HANSEL is an extremely dark, atmospheric, visually mesmerizing, and downright diabolical little fairy tale. It seems to fit right in with Perkins’ previous films in that it features a headstrong female character in the middle of a dark, dangerous landscape—a landscape that leaves deep scars in the lead long after the credits have rolled. What it is not is a shock-a-minute thriller that modern audiences are used to.
The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely with only slight changes. This Gretel (IT’s Sophia Lillis) is the older, more responsible, and overly protective sibling of Hansel (Samuel Leakey) a naïve, yet ambitious little scamp who looks up to his sister. Hansel annoys Gretel with questions about everything and a limited understanding of the way the world works, yet Gretel’s dedication to take care of him trumps her own dreams of independence. When they are forced to leave their home due to details I’ll leave unspoiled, they make their way through the dark forest to find work and shelter. What they find instead is a triangular home (I’ll get into that in a bit) housing a table full of food and an elderly woman who is all smiles and welcomes (played exquisitely by Alice Krige). As Krige’s Holda fattens the two up with treats, she teaches Hansel how to use an axe and educates Gretel on the dark arts of witchcraft. Plagued by nightmares, the irresistible pull towards adulthood, and a curiosity for the dark arts herself, Gretel struggles with the new powers Holda is teaching her and whether or not to accept them.
Perkins does a decent job with stretching the rather short and sweet fairy tale to feature length. By making the conflict between Gretel’s maternal instincts to take care of Hansel and her own urges to become the woman she feels she is meant to be, Perkins (from a script by Rob Hayes) modernizes Gretel’s plight to fit modern concerns many women face—choosing between career and family. This struggle is intriguing and makes for some decent conflict for Lillis to grapple with. The problem is that even though this film is shorter (just shy of an hour and a half), it still feels a bit padded with multiple dream sequences and slow droning shots of mood. The slow pace of the film is going to scare away a lot of the tweensters this film (rated PG-13) is geared for as it is nudity and swear-free. The film is no gorier than an episode of THE WALKING DEAD, but manages to have some potent disturbing moments like the much advertised scene where Holda pulls a ponytail out of her mouth. More mature viewers might appreciate the slower pace, but again, with the brief runtime and the rather singular focus on Gretel’s plight, this film seems to be light on weighty themes. Had there been a little more attention to Hansel’s dreams of being big and strong and how that differs from Gretel’s passions, that might have been enough thematic heft, but I think casting Hansel as such a young child put limits on what they could do with the character.
What makes up for that is the astounding visuals in almost every frame of GRETEL & HANSEL. From the dark and tangled forests to the recurring triangular imagery, watching this film is a spooky and foreboding experience. The witch’s home stands like an opaque triangular monument in the middle of the forest, lit only by alien-like red lights from its interior. Gretel looks through a triangular hole in the window, looking like the Illuminati pyramid from the dollar bill. For those looking for conspiracy, there’s a lot of imagery tying the occult and the triangle as one can find at least one triangle in almost every shot be it in the way the cast are centered on in the shot or natural triangles made by slides, windows, house arches, wood piles, and silhouettes. With there being a link between witchcraft and the triangular shape, Perkins shows a diabolically delicious eye for giving every inch of this film some sort of macabre angle.
On top of that, Perkins borrows heavily from Alejandro Jodorowski’s HOLY MOUNTAIN, specifically when we first see the dark figure of the witch and her secret room, filled with angles that make the figures in the room feel small and insignificant. Any Jodorowski appreciator will notice these details, yet again details that would be lost on mainstream crowds. In the lavish setups of decadent foods and candies, Perkins also evokes the gorgeous and disturbing imagery of classical macabre painters such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s food people or Joel-Peter Witkin’s grotesque mix of food and human body parts. Nightmare logic and surreal imagery are present in full force as well during the various dream sequences. All of it making quite the visual buffet that any with an appetite for unconventional sights and sounds will savor. Paired with the sometimes affective/sometimes distracting synth score by someone only named ROB (reminded me a lot of Tangerine Dream’s LEGEND score) and GRETEL & HANSEL is a substantial feast for both ears and eyes.
Unfortunately, in order to appeal to the mass audience, I feel GRETEL & HANSEL makes the mistake of dumbing itself down by utilizing almost constant narration that often tells what the scene is about while showing it at the same time. There’s a sequence towards the end that I think would have been much more powerful if not for Gretel’s on the nose monologue. The entire film feels like Gretel’s lengthy explanations were for those in the cheap seats that just don’t get subtle storytelling. Having seen the lengthy silences in I AM THE PRETTY THING IN THE HOUSE and deftly paced tension in THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, I can only imagine the use of narration was something added to GRETEL & HANSEL as an afterthought (most likely by a studio with no faith in the audience). I would have preferred the silence to the ever-present narration, but I think that would have made this film all the more arthouse than it is and thus, less digestible for mass consumption.
A lot of hubbub has been made about the changing of the title, but I do think this film warrants that change. This is very much Gretel’s story, so having her name come first in the title works in that sense. Lillis proves once again that she is an actress that will go far. Her role here is comparable to Ana Taylor Joy’s in THE VVITCH. She’s a girl on the verge of becoming a woman and that theme is ever-present throughout the film. Alice Kirge is equally commanding under heavy makeup and seems to be having a blast chewing the scenery along with the little kiddies. While the themes are much less in number and depth in GRETEL & HANSEL, this film would view as a nice companion piece to THE VVITCH. It is it’s own movie, but I feel that had THE VVITCH not been in theaters, this one wouldn’t have been able to make it there. I can see the company meeting now stating the mild success with THE VVITCH as the main selling point of GRETEL & HANSEL.
I hate it that I am having to think about all of the industry jargon—the sales and the distribution angles, but these are the things that ran through my head as I was watching GRETEL & HANSEL. Those long droning moments of dread were effective for the most part, but Perkins extends it through to the entire film and it did wear on my own well-trained patience and my mind wandered to the production side—never a good thing. While his previous films have shown a lot of restraint in terms of size and scope, GRETEL & HANSEL is Perkins’ biggest film to date and his most ambitious visually. This film made my eyes go wide and my mouth water numerous times, but that feeling was quenched quickly with a few mouthfuls of popcorn and a soda slurp, leaving me hungry for a little more heft to the story, to which GRETEL & HANSEL proved a bit lacking.
If gorgeous and grotesque imagery is enough for you, you’ll find GRETEL & HANSEL fits the bill. I loved the way this one looked and am a huge fan of the slow creep prevalent here and in all of Perkins’ films. Still, with story taking the backburner to sumptuous visuals, it left me with hunger pangs by the film’s end.