There is a new master of horror on the scene, and his name is Oz Perkins…
…Actually, Perkins isn’t new. The director first smashed onto the horror scene with the highly underrated The Blackcoat’s Daughter in 2015, followed by I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House in 2016. But Perkins’ Gretel and Hansel marks the first time that the director is being exposed to a mass audience on the big screen, and in that sense, he makes one hell of a debut.
Written by Rob Hayes, Gretel and Hansel is an adaptation of the classic Grimm’s fairytale, in which sister and brother, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Samuel Leakey), are forced out of their home by their parents and left to fend for themselves. Starving and desperate for shelter, Gretel and Hansel stumble across a house in the middle of the woods occupied by a strange woman named Holda (Alice Krige), who has a few sinister, witchy secrets.
The story of Hansel and Gretel has always been a dark one no matter the interpretation, but Perkins’ Gretel and Hansel is quite easily the most sinister adaptation of the classic tale to date. Some have referred to the film as “kid’s horror”, and with all due respect to them, hell no it isn’t! Don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you. Gretel and Hansel may not be a gory film outside of one ultra-disturbing moment, but the subject matter is as grim as it gets.
After running through a prologue telling a bone-chilling tale of a girl in a pink hat that destroyed all whom she encountered, we find Gretel and Hansel heading into town, where Gretel is applying for maid work. Only the crusty old fart she’s interviewing with has other plans for her that go beyond simple maid duties, emphasized by the moaning of women from other rooms, and his questioning of her virginity. Like I said, this is no kid’s film.
Gretel and Hansel face more abuse once home with their mother, a woman who has clearly lost her mind, and who threatens to chop them into pieces unless they leave. In just the first few minutes, these kids go through more than any child should ever have to, and Lillis shines in portraying the deep heartache she feels as a woman in a cruel world, while still knowing she must protect Hansel and managing to find the strength which he needs to see from her. For his first feature, Leakey is also fantastic, a charming kid who wants to be as strong as his sister, without ever coming off as obnoxious the way some young siblings can.
Every performance in Gretel and Hansel is powerful and engaging, but none more so than Alice Krige as the evil witch. Once the children arrive at her eye-catching house smelling of cake, Krige consistently steals the show with an unnerving presence that recalls Gary Oldman in Coppola’s Dracula. Each and every word practically hisses from Krige’s lips, and the excellent makeup job and costume design give her an ancient, reptilian look that should have the kids running and screaming for their lives, if they weren’t so entranced by her and her endless supply of delicious food.
But Krige isn’t the only entrancing element of Gretel and Hansel. Perkins is a master at establishing atmosphere through visuals and music, and what he establishes here is a perfectly spooky, dark fairytale vibe. Each and every image from cinematographer Galo Olivares is utterly mystifying and would not be out of place framed in an art gallery. Production designer Jeremy Reed pairs well with Olivares’ colorful imagery and mixes it with sets that are strange and sometimes gothic in nature, offering a blend of storybook terror that occasionally invokes the feeling of Italian horror such as Fulci’s From Beyond.
Heightening the fear is composer Robin Coudert’s score, which is a feast for your ears and one that blew my mind. The creeping soundtrack elicits a crushing sense of dread, growing in horror throughout the film as Gretel becomes suspicious of Holda and begins to investigate the secrets of the house. Mixed with the sounds of ghostly children and other odd noises, Perkins’ film is haunted by a soundscape that reverberates throughout your bones and chills to the core.
I want to be clear though. Gretel and Hansel isn’t necessarily “scary”, and is almost devoid of cheap scares, so don’t go in expect to jump and scream. Rather, Perkins’ film is an unnerving tale of self-discovery, one which forces Gretel to question who she is, and what her brother truly means to her. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t nightmarish. In fact, the whole thing comes off like a bad dream, with a vicious, insatiable villain that shudders with glee at the thought of tearing the limbs from children.
There’s so much to love about Gretel and Hansel, that I hate to even mention any flaws, but if the film fails in anything, it’s in pieces of the script. At just under 90 minutes, Gretel and Hansel is a short and sweet terror, but perhaps could’ve used a little extra meat on its bones, as the reasoning for Holda’s interest in Gretel lacks the necessary motivation to have the impact the filmmakers are seeking. The ending is also a little too abrupt, leaving some questions unanswered, and voiceovers from Lillis litter the film, some of which are interesting, but all of which add little to the narrative.
Still, from top to bottom, Gretel and Hansel is a near–perfect, hypnotic, magical piece of filmmaking that will have viewers questioning why we don’t get more fairytale horror, and for some, they’ll leave wanting to immediately see Perkins’ past work. The director is a master filmmaker who has created an arthouse fairytale horror flick that delights with every frame. I left Gretel and Hansel feeling full and satisfied, and if it was all for a witch to eat my guts, so be it.
Gretel and Hansel is now in theaters from Orion Pictures.
By Matt Konopka