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DIRECTED BY: Osgood Perkins
FEATURING: Sophia Lillis,
, Samuel Leakey
PLOT: Cast out by their poor mother, Gretel takes her brother Hansel into the woods, where they come upon a house inhabited by a witch.
COMMENTS: There’s no gingerbread house in Gretel & Hansel, but there is an unnatural abundance of food that appears on the old woman’s table day after day, despite the absence of livestock or a garden. Near starvation, Gretel and her younger brother Hansel aren’t picky about where this abundance is coming from—at first.
Oz Perkins’ spin on the ancient fairy tale focuses on the relationship between Gretel and the witch, who is both an antagonist and a perverse sort of mentor for a girl without a female role model. To expand the slim folklore to feature length, the screenplay provides a rich backstory for the witch. Wickedly played by a creaky Alice Krieg, she’s not just a boogey-woman, but a full-fledged herbalist and pagan practitioner. After a prologue describing her origins—a fairy tale inside the fairy tale—the story begins in earnest with Gretel discovering her prospects are limited in a famine-plagued village. With mom providing no help, she takes Hansel as a ward and sets off in search of a better life. An out-of-place episode involving what appears to be a mutant zombie, and a bout with hallucinogenic toadstools, provide a couple of bumps in the road before the pair arrive at the mysterious cottage. Once there, the eldritch atmosphere takes over as Gretel settles into a routine: days sparring with the witch, nights filled with nightmares. All the while, Hansel is getting fatter, and sees no reason to flee a good thing…
This gently spooky middle part of the film is the strongest. Gretel ends on a too-short climax that, while true to both the folklore and to the narrative the script builds, disappoints a bit in its obviousness. There’s not much budget for elaborate effects, but the dark cinematography is dreamy and intoxicating. Shots are filled with occult symbolism: the pentagram Hansel finds scratched on a tree, Gretel’s eye caught in a triangle like an Eye of Providence, and the pointy roof of the witch’s house framed alongside an eternally crescent moon.
Thematically, Gretel is a bit muddled. It’s a coming-of-age story, sure. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to menstruation. Gretel herself changes during the course of the story, growing from an unsure virginal girl to a confident virginal young woman; Sophia Lillis captures the transformation capably. More interesting, though, is the focus on fairy tales as warnings, and particularly a bit of play on the ideas of poison and gifts. The witch explains to Gretel that, although poison tastes bitter, imbibing a bit is salutary because it builds immunity. By contrast, the pastries on the witch’s table taste sweet, but hide bitter realities.
Gretel & Hansel is relatively slow paced, with art house aspirations that will please critics more than its PG-horror audience. It’s no wonder that it was dumped in theaters in February with little promotion; the bigger mystery is how this mid-budget horror got a relatively large scale release. Even though the movie’s not quite as filling as it might have been, we should be grateful for its relative abundance in a time of cinematic famine.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s got ‘cult movie’ written all over it in strawberry jam, which probably isn’t actually strawberry jam, and audiences who tune into its unusual wavelength will no doubt be grateful for such a beautiful, frightening, intelligent new venture into an age-old nightmare.”–William Bibbiani, The Wrap (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Sebastian Murrilo, who thought it was “Panos Comsatos-esque” and was “shocked to see this in a multiplex theater.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)