January 31, 2020 Gretel & Hansel (Movie Review)
The new decade has already seen its fair share of January Horror offerings. Typically a release month where movies go to disappear, Director Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter 2015, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House 2016) and Orion Pictures intend to change that with a lush, feminist take on Grimm’s classic fairytale with Gretel & Hansel. But is this re-telling fresh enough to get audiences invested? Starring Sophia Lillis (It 2017, It Chapter Two 2019) and Samuel Leaky (MotherFatherSon mini-series) as the titular characters, Gretel & Hansel is set to release in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 31st.
You may be hard pressed to find someone who is not familiar with the fairy tale of Hansel & Gretel, the brother and sister lost in the woods who stumble upon a gingerbread house inhabited by a witch with a taste for children. In this take from Perkins and Writer Rob Hayes (Chewing Gum series), we find Gretel the narrator and heroine of her own story. A girl with a need for autonomy and “action in her bones,” Gretel quickly learns that her only options in the place she grew up are to suffer famine with her mother or be left to the whims of men. Left with no other option, she and younger brother Hansel set off into a dark wood in search of food and work.
With no home and no direction, the two find themselves saved from an unexplained attack from an undead zombie-like being by a friendly Huntsman (Charles Babalola: The Legend of Tarzan 2016, Bancroft series). After providing the siblings with a destination deep in the woods, neither the Huntsman nor his zombie victim are ever seen or heard from again for the rest of the film. Starved and exhausted, the siblings arrive at the threshold of a mysterious home with a single occupant and a feast prepared for no one. This occupant is Holda, played perfectly creepy by Alice Krige (Sleepwalkers 1992, Silent Hill 2006), a wise witch with mysterious intent who takes a particular liking to the wayward youths.
Like the Huntsman, Gretel & Hansel teases its audiences with tasty breadcrumbs that lead to nowhere. Small bites of other well-known fairy tales are mixed into this story, but the end result feels more misleading than comprehensive. In a film without a defined place or time, these mismatched threads draw too much attention away from the overarching story. Not to mention, every character, including Gretel and Hansel, has a completely different accent from one another. This may be a minor detail, but feels like yet another incongruous distraction from the whole.
Gretel & Hansel stays true enough to its source material, but it does take some new and enticing liberties that attempt to bring the story to a smarter, more-informed audience. A PG-13 rating can sometimes be a death sentence for Horror films, but Perkins is smart enough not to rely on gore or cheap jump scares, instead opting to illicit chills with dark, enchanting imagery. Indeed, the visuals are the true star of the film. From the cinematography, setting, and costume work, every single frame feels like its own work of art.
While the story itself may struggle in places, the film’s strength is in its characters. Gretel is not a child; instead a woman, a sister and a caretaker, powerful and weak, and she must grapple with these dualities to figure out the person she is and who she wants to be. Lillis beautifully portrays Gretel, and Horror veteran Krige is the perfect choice for the world-weary but powerful witch.
Gretel & Hansel is a very ambitious attempt at breaking loose from the sea of January Horror flops, and it succeeds in certain ways, but too many points are left under developed. Even so, the film takes enough new leaps to make it feel like anything but your typical first month fodder. There are likely to be many viewers experiencing this tale on the big screen for the first time, and overall it is refreshing, but its lack of true scares and leisurely pacing may not be enough to keep audiences engrossed throughout. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Gretel & Hansel 3 out of 5 stars.