Above all else, there’s a lot to appreciate about the approach taken for Gretel & Hansel. Finding a new way to tell the famous German folk tale originated by the Brothers Grimm can be a challenge, but director/co-writer Osgood Perkins had an idea suitable for 2020, holding onto his own stylish tendencies in the process. That in mind, for all the effort put in to deliver a satisfyingly moody piece of work, highlighting the struggles of a young woman in medieval society, this is a horror fantasy also functioning as a coming-of-age tale, suitable enough for a younger audience. There’s dark stuff here, but the nasty witch in this film is still a decent stepping stone up from Hocus Pocus.
There’s just enough setup to provide context for the accepted fantasy world this film exists in, along with how Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is getting on in this society. After a prologue highlighting the magic in this world, we focus on 16-year-old Gretel and her 8-year-old brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey), following their choice to flee their home. Desperate for food and work, they eventually find their way into the home of Holda (Alice Krige).
Honestly, younger horror fans who relate to Winona Ryder’s Lydia in Beetlejuice, or perhaps Coraline for a more modern reference, will probably see something they like in this offbeat tale focused on the journey of two younger souls traveling through the dark wood, only to find shelter in the home of a powerful witch. With plenty of focus on witchcraft, spells, and particular kinds of looks for the characters, I can imagine a teenage crowd feeling right at home with the atmosphere presented here.
Not unlike Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (a cinematic page-turner), Gretel & Hansel does have the appeal of a horror film that can play for an audience taking a leap from more family-friendly films to the more extreme side of things. That said, while there is a familiar narrative at play, the film has a good amount of arthouse sensibilities that bring to mind films like The Witch. Really, if one slapped an A24 label on this film’s poster, plenty of cinephiles would easily find themselves more drawn to the movie based on the look of Gretel & Hansel alone.
Everything taking place is shot with purpose. While the story progresses in a straightforward manner, Perkins doesn’t hold back in his concentration on the mood of the film. Filmed in Dublin, Ireland, and relying on a square-ish 1.55:1 aspect ratio, Gretel & Hansel has a great look that brings the characters into full focus through a grand presentation, while still feeling intimate in shot choices. Perhaps the nature of fables and fairy tales being examined as stories with truth behind their conception plays into these choices, but they are effective.
Lots of close-up angles (along with the dreamy imagery and voiceover work) had me thinking of Terrence Malick’s more recent efforts. At the same time, the use of colorful environments and deliberate lighting gave me thoughts of Nicolas Winding Refn. For a wide release horror film arriving in January, Gretel & Hansel has its arthouse sensibilities practically bleeding off of the screen, and the film is all the better for it.
It’s also necessary because even at 87 minutes, the relaxed pacing, unfortunately, did not help the film remain continually captivating. Sure, it’s quick enough to keep a level of tension. An audience ideally knows the gist of the original folk tale, and the ominous opening doesn’t exactly set up the film for a resolution allowing everyone to go home happy. With that in mind, even as the film offers up some narrative twists, I wish there was a greater impact to be felt by how things decided to shake out for our characters.
Fortunately, the limited cast is solid. Lillis has operated well as a young genre star, between her turns in It and HBO’s Sharp Objects. Here she gets to hold the screen as the lead heroine. A choice is made to approximate a certain kind of accent for her character, and it fits in making her a believable, matter-of-fact young woman smart enough to know a bad situation when she sees one.
It speaks to a current environment where women are fighting back against a system that’s held onto certain kinds of pressures, and so here’s a film that puts Gretel in charge, without hammering in the empowerment messaging. That said, she’s also devoted to the right cause, which mainly means looking after her brother. So, the film does find a way to explore what that responsibility is and what it means to take steps toward seeing about one’s self.
Meanwhile, Krige offers proper menace as the witch in sheep’s clothing. Perkins finds all the angles possible to show her old, make-up-enhanced face, allowing for different levels of danger to creep in and out of the film. She’s assisted further by the presence of other creepy bits of imagery. The reliance on dark, shadowy figures does a lot for the film, in general, which almost helps justify stretching out this tale as long as it goes.
I was mostly here for Osgood Perkins though. Between him and the crews he has worked with, the filmmaker knows how to create dread and tension through his well-designed settings and atmosphere. His previous efforts, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (excellent!) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, were enough to have me on board with his take on a period-set Grimm fairy tale, and there was a lot to admire here. Even while taking the premise as far as it could go, I’m happier a film like this out there than not. And yes, for a younger crowd, it works as a fine stepping stone into a deeper pool of horror.