I’ll admit it right off the bat, I wasn’t expecting this one. Gretel and Hansel is a horror movie that was unleashed in the January/February studio clearinghouse season. Usually the only thing frightening about this time frame is that it happens to be when studios haunt movie theaters with all of the undead releases that they couldn’t fit elsewhere on the schedule. Schlocky horror movies are the stock-in-trade of this time, but occasionally other genre films, typically the puzzling or ill-conceived, rear their heads as studios essentially shrug them off, unaware of how to market them, and hoping that they somehow recoup some fraction of their budget. Wanting to see SOMETHING, anything, I walked in with the lowest of expectations and found solace in the advertised (short) hour and a half running time.
But then something unexpected happened. “That’s an interesting shot. Hmm, the lighting was surprisingly good there. The atmosphere actually feels really eerie. This music seems very effective. That’s an interesting directorial choice…” As my inner monologue continued to be surprised by more and more of what was transpiring on screen, I found that instead of liking this movie “in spite of itself”, Gretel and Hansel is actually a spectacular little horror movie that not only drew me in, but made me think of the impact that certain “art-school” horror flicks of recent vintage are starting to have on more mainstream product… something that actually makes me excited for the future of a genre that in recent years has had more than a few stakes in its heart.
The film is set in a plague-ridden, famine infested fairy tale land of indeterminate era and location, where the sun rarely shines and no dark forest is ever bereft of fog (I’m being flippant but the film’s cinematography, set design and costumes are all incredibly effective). Teenaged Gretel (an effective Sophie Lillis, who I know best from 2017’s It: Chapter One; how fun must it be for a teenage girl to specialize in horror movies?) provides for us a moody, slightly over-written inner monologue that sets the stage for the grim proceedings. Suffice it to say that in the murky past, the village had to cast out its most beautiful child. Lore seems to indicate that she dwells in the woods, luring the present children away. “Be careful about accepting gifts” or some iterations thereof, often slip out of Gretel’s mouth, providing not only foreshadowing but some idea of the inner angst of this teenager, plainly dressed in gray garb and delivering faux-archaic lines in an offbeat (and off-putting) demeanor. Gretel is very protective of her younger brother Hansel (Sam Leakey, doing fine in his acting debut), and tries to shield him from some of the cruelty of the world, such as when she declines to go into detail about her refusal of a job cleaning for a lecherous old townsman, who expects her to do more than cook and sew (the exploitation of women is an undercurrent in the proceedings, though handed rather unartfully throughout. The film’s biggest flaws are in its screenplay and themes). One thing however she cannot shield Hansel from is their lack of food. Cast out of the home for that reason by their shadow of a mother, the two siblings find themselves alone in the dark forest. Maybe they’ll find a convent to stay at, maybe they’ll find some woodsmen. Maybe they’ll dig their own graves and be done with it all.
It is hard to articulate the tone of the film. A creative use of light, darkness, framing and geometry makes every shot feel as if there is something unspeakably sinister just out of reach. Almost claustrophobic in its impact, the electronically based score (interestingly credited only to “Rob”) serves to contribute to the sensation of everything feeling evil, everything full of corrosion, everything closing in. In many ways, the closest corollaries are the works of someone like Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) or Robert Eggers (The Witch, an obvious influence) but in some ways I felt almost a Kubrickian Shining vibe in the way that everything taken as a whole really started to get under my skin, really made me unsettled. It’s not a vibe for everyone, but this reviewer was dazzled.
Suffice it to say that a house is found in the woods. No candy in this version, but an endless supply of warmly lit banquets lurk within, along with a hairless cat and the too-eager smile of Alice Krige’s witch… well, we at least know she’s a witch, even if the characters at present do not. In some intriguingly lit and designed set pieces, the witch uses their hunger to gain their trust. Hansel is sold on their new lodgings right out of the gate, though the careful Gretel is suspicious of gifts… but the witch slowly increases her grip on Gretel as well, telling her of secret knowledge the rest of the world wouldn’t want for her, how society will keep her (as a woman) on the margins. Of how she will need to set her true self free. As we have mentioned, the feminine subtext is awkwardly handled at times, and though we can mostly agree with what the old witch is saying, it is the undertone that makes us (and Gretel) pause.
As the witch tightens her grip on Gretel, events seem to push Hansel away, and through unsettling dream sequences we see the witch’s true (younger) form (played by Jessica De Gouw, looking for all the world like a goth girl you went to undergrad with). Things build to a climax, and if anything, they are wrapped up too quickly at the end while other pacing points occasionally drag. All of the proceedings are held together by director Oswald Perkins (son of Anthony, he of Psycho fame. Good gig for the son), and despite the flaws of narrative and pacing, the consistent aesthetic of unspeakable dread is plenty effective.
There’s no two ways about it: I loved this movie. Whatever it was going for worked for me, and then some. The sense of dread and unease it built was palpable. The look, the costumes the music all came together in a coherent and cogent aesthetic, with only a momentarily clunky screenplay getting in the way. There’s no way I should claim a late January PG-13 horror movie as one of most effective things I’ve seen recently, right? Well… why the heck can’t I?
Three and a half stars.
~Fr. Michael Carter