Orion Picture’s Gretel and Hansel portrays fairy tales as they should be — not far from a nightmare. Since this is a tale about kids, every adult terrifies via grotesqueness, or just by their willingness to separate from their own kin. Osgood Perkins’s (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) newest film is about consuming bad habits, and how being solitary is sometimes necessary, especially if you’re feeling witchy (and who isn’t these days).
This cautionary tale shares DNA with The VVitch — it’s often a moody, dark film, lit only by lanterns in the triangle house where the leads ultimately find themselves for a spell. Despite this bleakness, Gretel & Hansel is a beautiful film to look at. The camera work alternates between static shots of odd, fall landscapes, or shakey too-close-for-comfort individual shots of the actors. Sophia Lillis (It) plays the big sister, and Samuel Leakey is the boy Hansel. Lillis has an occasional voice-over, but it’s never intrusive.
I neglected to check the rating initially, which is PG-13. This does not feel like a PG-13 film. The threatening, but never over the top performance by Alice Krige (Silent Hill) as the witch isn’t kids stuff, nor are the images of various ghosts that haunt the characters (are they real or imagined?). Same goes for the abusive adults, one who asks Gretel if “her maidenhood” is still intact during a job interview.
The siblings, having been booted from their home, wander the forest seeking shelter and looking for work. One disappointment after another leads them deeper into the woods where dark figures with crescent bonnets view them from afar but never approach. There are jump scares, but these are justified by all the still moments. There are no sped-up spookies, just lingering shots and wide-shot movements. One character resembles the Alchemist from Holy Mountain, but without a face. Discarded children’s dolls are found in small places, stuffed away with the leaves and mud. One scene reveals numerous shoes hanging from treetops. It’s all perfectly unsettling.
The first half of the film covers the journey, which includes a trip mushroom (really!). The remaining minutes — once they reach the house of foodly delights — tests the sibling’s loyalty to one another, as the promise of food and unknown powers yank them in different directions. The witch wants Gretel. Hansel, however, is just a burden. The food itself raises contention, as the kids can’t figure out how it never spoils. Unfortunately, there’s a good reason for that, as we come to learn.
Go see this film, especially if you’re tired of cookie cutter schlock, or garbage like the recent Grudge reboot. As of this writing, Gretel and Hansel has a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, with “top critics” throwing such stones as, “tedious,” and “like a Marilyn Manson video.” Nice late Nineties reference, Top Critics.
Immerse yourself in this film. If proper pacing is tedious, then give me more. Good atmosphere is hard to come by, as is a film without breakneck speed editing. With its compelling imagery and foreboding hidden doors, this is dark fantasy done right, without completely relying on cliches or talking down to its viewers. Perkins’s film deserves an audience, and I hope it’s able to find one.