Gretel & Hansel (2020)
Written by Bob Hayes
Directed by Oz Perkins
We all know the impact of the Brothers Grimm and their collected and retold fairy tales. The tropes in these narratives have permeated not just popular culture but the human psyche as well. The stories speak to something very primal in us all, our first exposure to horror when we are children veiled by the sweetness and light of cherubic illustrations. But we all know when you look at the core of these tales, they are dark and twisted, warnings from ancient times to kids about what they should be scared of. Hansel & Gretel is one of the primary stories that have manifested itself again and again. Here, director Oz Perkins reimagines the story with Gretel as the elder sibling whose journey into the woods parallels her own frightening path into adulthood.
Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is left to care for her little brother Hansel as a terrible pestilence sweeps the land. She pacifies him with stories, in particular the story of the pretty girl in the pink cap. Gretel can’t pinpoint when she heard these tales for the first time, they have just always been there. After the children’s mother makes it clear she has nothing left to give them the duo set off into the woods. They are guided to some foresters but told to stay on the path because dangers lurk among the trees. Inevitably they stray and cross paths with a mysterious old crone living all alone in a strange black cabin. She plies them with the most delicious food but never goes out for supplies. This raises many questions, and the old woman takes an interest in Gretel, hinting that the girl has a more in-depth sight of the world.
I have been a fan of Oz Perkins since the double whammy of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Both films were a breath of fresh air in the current Blumhouse dominated horror sphere. Perkins movies don’t rely on jump scares; instead, they focus on building bleak & tense atmospheres of fear. Gretel & Hansel is a whole new type of world for Perkins to explore, a place of dream logic and not centered in our present day. It’s not even clear if this world is our own’s past but an alien reality. I was reminded of Panos Cosmatsos’ work (Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy) that revels in the exploration of occult planes.
All of Perkins’s films thus far have centered on female protagonists, and his “monsters” are deeply human. Holda, the witchy woman that takes in the children, is not a cackling caricature. There is a tragic history to her and reasons why she has become the predatory creature in the woods. Alice Krige places Holda and gives her a grounded creepiness. Her body is unnatural in its wiry, branchlike shape, and she moves with an icy gait, always over the children, sizing them up.
Perkins’s use of the importance of fairy tales within this reimagining of a fairy tale is a wonderful touch. The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly, and the costume design reminds us this is not the past we might be familiar with, but something out of another realm. The production design serves the same purpose with an intriguing triangle shape that appears throughout, the architecture taking on an eerie quality with its sharp angles. Perkins’s use of almost fisheye lens cinematography further heightens the otherwordly, dreamlike nature.
Gretel & Hansel is not a film that will appeal to a mass audience. It’s definitely going to be a cult picture, appealing to a niche audience who enjoys a particular type of aesthetic. For me, it was right in my wheelhouse, hitting all those atmospheric buttons I love in a stylistic movie.