Before diving in, let us pause to momentarily remind ourselves that the last time the “Hansel & Gretel” fairy tale was given a modern cinematic update primed for a wide theatrical release – a dispassionate late January dump, at that – it was about a grown-up Hansel and Gretel played by Hawkeye and Quantum of Solace Bond Girl Strawberry Fields, respectively, as a tag-team pair of witch hunters aiming to bring down the tyrannical reign of the Original Dark Phoenix and her fantastical cronies with the powers of a Gatling gun. It was also directed by the guy who gave us Dead Snow, assuming you’ve still reserved memory space for a heartbreakingly mediocre Norwegian zombie comedy about ravenous, treasure-seeking Nazis. Let us also remember that in spite of its release date and drawn-out one-joke premise, it managed to more than quadruple its production budget in international returns, yet for potential reasons most merciful – i.e. recognition of some, needless to say, troubling historical subtext – it hasn’t been granted a sequel.
But while that film supposedly cost around $50 million to make, Orion Pictures could only possibly dream of their Gretel & Hansel ever sniffing around even that kind of global revenue. And though the film’s opening weekend may have performed about as well as anticipated given its distributor’s throwing in the towel for a Super Bowl weekend release (also, a week before Birds of Prey), the sad thing is most people will probably remember the film, if at all, later down the line for the tiring bounty of “let’s reverse the order of various names and titles” jokes, which currently occupy the YouTube comments sections of trailers that possibly more people have watched than will see the film proper. All of which, including some perplexing marketing strategies, contributes to an increasingly thorny question in one’s side the more its purposefully individual craft reveals itself; that of, “What is this doing in theaters at all, and not on Netflix as an ultra-niche VOD gem most users will reluctantly accept when they’re bored of everything else?”
Needlessly harsh as that may sound for a film I’d recommend, the truth is I’d forgotten Oz Perkins directed Gretel & Hansel until I’d spontaneously thought to myself midway through, “You know, this almost seems as though Oz Perkins decided to make a Grimm fairy tale movie,” remaining in suspicion for the duration until the end credits arrived to a resounding dearth of surprise. Such isn’t intended as a slight against his work here, but rather as a subtle indictment of a marketing team merely interested in advertising the cursory appeal of a gritty-realism-style visualization of a common morality tale akin to recent A24 genre fare, symptomatic of a larger producer crew that possibly gave up on identifying who this would appeal to. That number may well have reflected a select few, but 24 million views for a trailer posted less than a month before the film’s premiere indicates someone might’ve been interested enough to give it a shot opening weekend.
Quite perfectly, then, it may be reasonably argued that Gretel & Hansel is Perkins’s most accessible directorial feature thus far, assuming aesthetically and thematically modernizing a classically handed down example of Western storytelling would be enough for less open consumers to abide by his singular style of niche retro-horror eeriness. In fact, at times, particularly when considering previous ventures like I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and the phenomenally creepy and gut-punching The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Gretel & Hansel feels exactly like the kind of movie Perkins’s trajectory as a horror director had been heading towards, smuggling uniquely atmospheric dread and an unconventional narrative into not just an established property, but one where most of the potential audience will bring with them a collective foreknowledge of the story’s most commonly recognizable moments. Perkins would have the freedom to fill in the necessary blanks to his discretion, and to the benefit of any production company hesitant to allow any filmmaker this kind of unfettered vision, he’s well-accustomed to wrenching the lion’s share of mood out of breadcrumbs.
And just like his past two indie darlings, Gretel & Hansel magically divines a sumptuous feast out of stark, albeit this time around more colorful minimalism. Kubrickian visual cues of isolation pair with a confining 1.55:1 aspect ratio particularly aided by obfuscating chiaroscuro and the ironic coziness of the witch’s redesigned house, in particular. The narrative’s predominantly dirtied-up, often unseemly naturalism gradually degrades into an exponentially horrifying nightmare logic, strung together and partially veiled further along by the mere spirit of realism until it is required to drop the act for the sake of expectation. While also facilitated as a means of connecting familiar plot threads, it’s an overall spookiness evocative of ‘60s and ‘70s occult flicks, even responsibly borrowing pagan symbolism and iconography in such a way that heightens rather than hinders the tangibility of the setting’s alternating, even occasionally simultaneous wickedness and barrenness. It’s a typically late-autumn type of horror vibe best suited to Halloween viewings, partially due to the mise-en-scène’s dead and decaying feel, but also because that sort of feeling dictating the horror as opposed to cheap scares are the real meat and potatoes of genuine fright and religiously avoiding the dark.
The film itself often seems self-consciously aware that its success as a chamber piece rests upon these aforementioned stylistic facets sufficiently emphasizing relevant themes and linking the parts of the story most will already know. Thankfully, it’s through these intermediary passages between the familiar narrative beats that Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes better explore and incorporate themes distinct to the source material, like abandonment and desperation, additionally accentuating its terror with an equally vital, as well as refreshingly new undercurrent of personal acceptance. The latter plays into the story’s thought-provoking coming-of-age spin, not only granting its principal protagonist Gretel (Sophia Lillis) with an agency uncommon for folklore of this type, but also imbuing an integral sense of propulsive motion through an admittedly slight story that mostly hinges itself upon the mood it establishes when the expository setup is completed come the beginning of the second act.
If Perkins’s previous pictures are anything to go by, however, that relative lack of meatier substance may perhaps be intentional to a degree, allowing the direction and subsequent visuals to become the focal point, meticulously guiding the advancement and evolution a simpler, refined narrative with the odd shred of nuance and thus our engagement with it. And yet, it becomes a tad frustrating watching the film tediously intertwine the parts of the Hansel and Gretel myth we know with the few Gretel-centric thematic and tonal inflections we don’t, all the while superficially acknowledging where Hansel (Sam Leakey) and the witch, Holda (Alice Krige), intersect with the latter, somewhat neglecting to relay their significance to her beyond a mere modicum.
Maybe in most cases concerning a film this short, one would feel inclined to forgive these perceived shortcomings, but one also can’t shake the feeling that they represented ambitions Perkins and Co. were keen to flesh out. Ultimately, the second and final acts too often lose themselves in a too slow for their own good slow-burn holding pattern of the former two plot points, dominated by atmosphere occasionally reflexively arising for the sake of itself. Despite the exasperation, Hansel’s slim character is eventually cleared up by the denouement and was perhaps understandable amidst the greater stature and importance of the narrative’s female protagonist and antagonist, but Holda’s own skin-deep examination continues to softly madden, too often only hinting at her depth with regards to broader, implicit ideas on the specific nature of fairy tales, witches’ places in them, their osmosis into broader cultural consciousness and the perceptions bred of certain literary and historical individuals. Hardly does it expand upon the deceptively sincere hospitality – at least when it comes to Gretel – that makes her portrayal so conceptually compelling.
Then again, such a purposefully threadbare framework wouldn’t possess the structure to contain hefty revisionism or deconstruction without coming apart at the seams, taking away from this material’s strong singular character focus innately lacking in the source material. And though it’s fairly annoyingly dropped as a last-minute climactic exposition dump to speed along proceedings, what becomes of Holda – or rather, what became of Holda – may add to the generally unsettling nature that remains Perkins’s directorial calling card, yet doesn’t subtract from a narrative that, at least nominally, dutifully attempts to understand why she turned to the darkness, the conditions that aided said journey and why she believes it important that Gretel develop a power instrumental to her growth in relation to a cruel, uncaring world. It’s a smartly feminist reworking of character tropes vaguely reminiscent of last year’s German production Hagazussa, though infinitely more palatable story-wise, as it doesn’t simply drag its protagonist through a harrowing gauntlet of mistreatment and abuse with shallow creative and thematic purpose to ironically and insincerely demonstrate a progressive outlook and understanding of folklore.
Gretel & Hansel doesn’t require artificial genre film heartstring-tugging tactics to be an ounce unnerving, serving up enough delicious deviousness in aesthetic alone before it thinks of content. Thus, it builds a more wholly satisfying viewing experience compelling us to feel rather than forcing us to, additionally more highly indicative of the crew’s creativity and passion by the barrel as opposed to the spilled, once half-empty cup. Vintage frights of the kind Perkins endlessly conjures from one project to another never wear out their welcome, yet it’s retrospectively depressing that one must classify this kind of horror as seeming “vintage” instead of “the kind of horror that actually works and stays with you.” Regardless of how you receive it, Gretel & Hansel’s audacity and individuality alone will linger with you, even if it needs time to blossom – also assuming United Artists Releasing actually let it. And assuredly, it will for those either open-minded enough or with a predilection for a The VVitch-lite experience. As long as you don’t expect any cackling or “I’ll get you, my pretty,” your time with it will be sweet.