You can come at the idea of a horror film from so many angles, but the way it boils down for a lot of people can be surmised as “does it creep or does it pounce?” Are we slowly submitted to a dreadful atmosphere, haunted from the corners of the frame until the scares come from our own jumpiness? Or is the horror an assault of abrupt noises and flashes of terror; sensory overload by way of gruesome imagery and danger. Neither is the “right” answer, and there’s infinite nuance to the approach.
Gretel & Hansel, a new spin on… Hansel and Gretel, plays to both expectations, submitting its audience to a fair share of horror tropes and slow burns while maintaining a trueness to Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s seminal fable of temptation and the wicked world. Gretel & Hansel isn’t an excellent film, but it sure is better than it had any right to be.
Gretel & Hansel
Director: Osgood Perkins
Release Date: January 31, 2019
Our premise is one you no doubt know. Siblings Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and Gretel (Sophia Lillis) set out from their home, fleeing a murderous and insane mother and hoping to find a way to fill their growling stomachs. Gretel’s narrative takes the lead (hence our new title), with frequent narration granting insight to her oppressive world. Early on the narration worried me, Gretel’s running monologue more than a tad on the nose and devoid of any real insight. Would this plague the film, robbing it of the atmosphere the excellent production design conjures? Though the narration doesn’t cease, it at least ends up being consistent. And a voice to comfort might be welcome once we advance into the woods.
Coming across a decidedly creepy old woman (Alice Krige) in an architecturally-intriguing cabin in the woods, the siblings fall into a life of gluttonous comfort, treated to feast after feast while Holda, as she’s called, clearly has some ulterior motives for keeping the children nice and full.
Gretel & Hansel introduces some adjustments and spins on the Grimms’ story, but largely you get what you expect here. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the turns the story takes, but for its 87 minutes the film is brisk and well-paced. And though it’s a story we’ve heard before, director Osgood Perkins does a remarkable job adding new layers and visual trappings to something so familiar.
Going in, I described Gretel & Hansel as a movie that desperately wants to be The Witch, Robert Eggers’ hit 2015 film whose bleak period horror has had a lasting impact on the industry, I would say ushering in its fair share of imposters and reinforcing studio confidence in “slow horror.” Clearly Gretel & Hansel‘s rustic and dire atmosphere was pulling from something, and while it might not match The Witch‘s suffocatingly-authentic production, it’s certainly an admirable job. And not content to simply ape another film’s style entirely, Gretel & Hansel marries the historic authenticity to the visually-lush colors of ’80s horror. Abstract, colorful lighting floods the foggy woods of our action, casting an uneasy and odd aura over the proceedings. What really impressed me most about Gretel & Hansel is that despite my expectation of a factory line horror film, much of it all feels highly intentional.
Cinematographer Galo Olivares has a credit on Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and while one should not inform the other, that perhaps gives you an idea of what to expect from Gretel & Hansel‘s visuals. Characters are often center-framed, giving us the sides of the frame to expect danger from; off-center framing is used intentionally, like in a dream sequence where we’re subjected to Gretel’s night terrors… Gretel & Hansel is a damn good looking film, outside of some overly-showy CG effects.
Sonically the film goes for something between the abstract twangs and echoes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the unsettling synth of Mandy, the latter of which you might recall given the dense woods and at times blinding, colorful lighting. With the score unsettling and the attention to minor noises--the creaking of a ghastly old hand or the sharpening of an axe--Gretel & Hansel compliments its visuals with a soundscape of purpose.
Certainly an impressive aesthetic, Gretel & Hansel does falter with some of its storytelling. The aforementioned narration does feel intrusive at times, and the dialogue over-explanatory. Much of the terror fades as we get a little too comfortable with our surroundings, never jolted too far out of our expectations despite the consistent atmosphere. Not dwelling too much on the feats of another film, but The Witch managed to be consistently terrifying thanks to its excellent actors and a script seeped in a dialect long since faded. There was an aura of the unknown inherent to that film’s drama, while some of Hansel’s naive musings sound more like the whines of a child you’d pass in public today, nagging his mother for a bite to eat.
To expect a terrifying time with Gretel & Hansel might set a viewer up for disappointment, with the film functioning more as a creepy fairytale. Which it is, given the source material. Nonetheless I’d advise an open mind and a strong stomach for this trek into the woods. You might not want to know what’s in the sausage…
Horror is a genre accustomed to ridicule. Critics might praise the occasional fare when an auteur turns their gaze to the genre, either introducing something fresh or commanding a production of such quality there’s just no denying its merits. But generally there has to be some sort of outside qualification that would make a horror film “good.” And how would Gretel & Hansel perform under scrutiny? As a detailed and aesthetically-absorbing production, Perkins and his crew have made a surprisingly memorable entry, spinning an old yarn with a new thread. It might stumble over the occasional rock in the road, but follow this trail of mushrooms into the depths and you might just have a good time.
If nothing else, there’s at least a good wallpaper or two to pull here.