Though it’s a case of style over substance, this horror is still an incredibly stylish treat that should satiate your hunger.
If the prospect of sitting through another adaptation of the popular Brothers Grimm folktale makes you cringe, here’s the good news: Osgood “Oz” Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel is comfortably superior to recent takes like the 2013 triple-tap of the stoner horror-comedy Hansel & Gretel Get Baked, the godawfu, why-are-you-bringing-Famke-Janssen-into-this? Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Anthony C. Ferrante’s ambitionless horror-mockbuster Hansel & Gretel. Considering the lowered bar, to say that this year’s retelling stands out is damning with faint praise, but it does deliver some tasty treats.
Gretel & Hansel inverts a few details and takes several pages out of Robert Eggers’ The Witch playbook, but the barebones story remains roughly the same. When the siblings’ mother descends into madness, the two hungry and terrified scamps are sent off into the dark woods to fend for themselves. They fortuitously come across an isolated home full of food and are invited in by a mysterious stranger with ambiguous intentions. They’ll soon learn that there’s no such thing as a free lunch and that everything given requires something to be taken away…
As the name-switch in the title suggests, the perspective-emphasis here is on Gretel, played by Sophia Lillis (last seen playing Beverly Marsh in the 2017 IT remake). The themes of womanhood are emphasized not only by uncanonically making Gretel the older sibling, but also through an early interaction with a leering aristocrat who precipitates the siblings’ trip into the woods, as well as the developing bond between Gretel and the witch-figure Holda, played with delicious eeriness by Alice Krige. Frustratingly, the promising feminine subtext feels somewhat underdeveloped and the film ends up missing the mark as a creepily potent coming-of-age fable about transitioning into female adulthood and freeing yourself of the calcifying clasp of those who purposefully hold you back.
Where the film fully finds its stride is visually. Ultimately a case of style over substance, Gretel & Hansel is an incredibly stylish treat: Jeremy Reed’s foreboding production design and the cinematography – courtesy of Roma’s cinematography collaborator Galo Olivares – works wonders and creates a disquieting sense of dread. The evocative lighting, the recurring occultist symbols, on top of the decision to shoot the movie in claustrophobic 1:55:1 aspect ratio, make you forgive some frequently creaky dialogue and the nosebleedingly redundant voiceover. Even if this aesthetic flare can’t fully counterbalance some of the script’s weaker aspects, Gretel & Hansel remains an ominous visual banquet that should satiate your hunger.
Gretel & Hansel / Directed by Osgood Perkins (USA / Canada / Ireland, 2020), with Sophia Lillis, Samuel Leakey, Alice Krige. Starts July 09.