Written by: Rob Hayes
Directed by: Osgood Perkins
Starring: Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, and Samuel Leakey
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
A grim fairy tale.
Before time and shifting social mores dulled their edges, the collection of Grimm Fairy Tales represented some of our most primal and paradoxical expressions of horror. While most of these tales ultimately provide a sense of comfort and justice, they force their audience to confront terrors that should otherwise be unspeakable. Case in point: “Hansel & Gretel,” a disturbing tale about a pair of starving, wayward siblings whose parents exile them into the woods, where they stumble upon a child-eating witch. Sure, it ends with the children surviving, but only after they’ve shoved the witch into an oven and burned her alive. Justice is served with a pound of burning flesh. You don’t even have to imagine someone turning it into a horror story—it already is a damn horror story.
Osgood Perkins does perhaps go even a step further with Gretel & Hansel, a bold re-imagining that feels less like a bleak fairy tale and more like an incantation of enchanting black magic. It doesn’t unfold so much as it suffocates its audience with a palpable dread. Like the original tale, it’s paradoxical, albeit in its own way: it’s both revolting and spellbinding all at once in its attempt to reconfigure “Hansel & Gretel” into a sinister bildungsroman tale about a young girl trying to escape the shadows of fairy tales so that she can forge her own story.
It opens with a different tale altogether, one that describes the horrific fate of a young girl born long ago to a pair of loving parents who would do anything to save her life when she fell ill—including taking her to a woman who practiced mysterious, mystical arts. The girl survived and then some, as those dark forces welled up inside her, intoning her to kill those around her until the village exiled her to the woods, where her presence supposedly lingers. By the time Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is a 16-year-old, this is story is now the stuff of folklore that she once passed down to her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey) during happier times. Now, the siblings have no time for such childish trifles because their family has fallen into ruin, forcing a desperate Gretel to apply for a position as a maid for an aristocratic family. When it becomes clear that the lecherous patriarch has more nefarious plans for her stay, she refuses to take the job, prompting her mother to kick her and Hansel out of the house.
They’re thrown into a mostly unforgiving world, where demonic creatures prowl and only a kind huntsman (Charles Babalola) can offer any semblance of protection. Even this is fleeting, though, as he ultimately can only point them into the direction of salvation that awaits if they can trek through the perilous woods. They’re sidetracked, of course, by the appearance of a house that seems a little too inviting: it smells of cakes and boasts a plethora of food, the likes of which the siblings have never seen. An old woman (Alice Krige) offers both the food and a warm bed to the children; for Gretel, she holds something even more potent in the insulation that the young girl is at the threshold of wielding a great power that has been passed down to women throughout the ages. Gretel has always felt a strange presence lurking within her, a sort of sixth sense that allows her to dream when she’s awake and peer into otherworldly, spiritual planes. It’s an ability that especially serves her well here, as she begins to sense this old woman is not what she seems and that her cozy abode is build atop the flesh and bones of dead children.
There’s a natural anxiety whenever someone with a singular vision like Perkins makes the leap from the indies to studio fare. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and The Blackcoat’s Daughter are two of the most idiosyncratic efforts imaginable, so it’s easy to be skeptical that a major studio might want something a little bit more conventional than those films. Hats off, then, to the folks at Orion for accepting exactly what they signed on for when they brought in Oz Perkins to do a fucked-up riff on “Hansel & Gretel.” It’s perhaps a touch more mainstream than his first two movies, but not by much: it’s still a meticulously crafted mood piece that thrives on deliberate pacing and a menacing atmosphere to create the impression of something horrific unfolding in plain sight.
It’s somewhat laconic in its storytelling, as even the persistent voiceover narration doesn’t necessarily spell out everything. Characters often speak florid, stylized dialogue; the plot often advances in abstract fashion whenever Gretel stumbles upon the house’s hidden horrors; the film’s biggest menace seems to lurk in the margins, appearing fleetingly in the distance but looming large over every frame. Robin Coudert’s evocative synth score blankets it all in a hypnotic ambiance, further creating the sensation of a hazy, half-remembered dream. Like I said: anyone who wanted a weird, fucked-up riff on “Hansel & Gretel” from Oz Perkins definitely gets this and more as they spiral deeper into this gorgeously fashioned, droning nightmare.
Like Perkins’s earlier efforts, Gretel & Hansel is the type of movie that’s easy to get lost in. His vision is transcendent in the manner it transmits on an almost subconscious wavelength, almost as if it’s been conjured from the subliminal depths of the universal unconscious. “Slow burn” doesn’t quite capture the way this film deliberately lulls its audience into an entrancing rhythm, transforming this old fairy tale into a sinister, humming lullaby. Gretel & Hansel feels like the ideal midnight movie precisely because it seems best suited for that phantom zone where you’re drifting off but still just slightly lucid enough to register sensation. Once it’s burrowed into your brain with its impeccably crafted, otherworldly imagery, it lingers on the brain like a bad dream.
Gretel & Hansel also continues Perkins’s preoccupation with exploring specifically feminine horrors. In this case, he’s especially circling the notion that femininity can be burdensome: women are so often asked to bear the weight of their respective worlds on their shoulders, yet they’re never entrusted to wield true power. As the title suggests, this retelling foregrounds Gretel, particularly her experience in navigating the passage from adolescence to adulthood. Effectively forced into a maternal role that leaves her responsible for raising her brother, Gretel is understandably resentful about her lot in life. Lillis delicately conveys this resentment: she’s careful not to let it slip into off-putting petulance, so Gretel remains a fierce but vulnerable presence in her own tale. This version of the story finds her at both a literal and metaphorical crossroads that finds her exploring—and possibly claiming—her destiny as she grapples with the latent, lurking feminine power that’s bubbling to the surface.
In this respect, the Witch represents a different type of temptress in this tale. Holda (Alice Krige) has lured this children with her house of sweets, albeit for different reasons this time. Her designs on Hansel are exactly what you think they are; indeed, his bones seemed destined to lay alongside the remains of Holda’s previous victims in the filthy, gore-soaked bowels of her home. For Greta, however, she offers something different: a chance to embrace the dark feminine urges and become her best—and perhaps most vicious—self. Krige is shifty here, even beneath the incredible make-up work. She seems at once genuinely haunted and haunting, almost as if she is at the mercy of dark forces herself. Her performance brings an unexpected depth to this fairy tale archetype: Holda isn’t just an insidious siren but a possible savior of sorts for this wayward young woman.
Like in the original tale, Gretel’s encounter with this witch is a harrowing ordeal of the flesh that forces her to confront a horrific, grisly end for both her brother and herself. However, it’s also a spiritual ordeal, one where her possible escape from the witch’s clutches is also a threshold into womanhood. The film admittedly grows thematically hazy here, as the climax hinges on some clumsy narration to make a somewhat odd reveal. It doesn’t completely upend the narrative, but it does knock it a bit off-kilter before the script lands on a paradoxical ending that’s both ambiguous and resolute all at once. One part of my brain nags at me and insists that Gretel & Hansel doesn’t come completely together like it should; another part of my brain knows that you don’t exactly look for total coherence in a nightmare.
Something about this uncertainty feels fitting, at any rate. In their purest forms, even the most horrific fairy tales moralize and point children in the right direction. “Hansel & Gretel” warns against the danger of trusting strangers and further insists that some things are too good to be true. Some kernels of this lurk within Perkins’s take, but it ultimately exploits a more existential horror: what if you are the stranger? By the end of the film, Gretel must confront her own place in this story, and the film doesn’t provide a clear answer for this. Instead, there are both supernatural insinuations and Gretel’s insistence that she’ll be able to reckon with whatever comes next. In looking for her own story, she may have discovered that we all live in the shadow of those that came before. Forging a new path requires bravery and strength, but Gretel & Hansel refuses to guarantee that it’ll be enough. There are no tidy morals here, only the suggestion that we must endure to continue the tale.
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