As much as we love them, horror films can follow a very predictable formula. As such, the average horror viewer has certain expectations or gore to jump scare ratios that they want met in their films. When considering GRETEL & HANSEL, I invite you to go back to a simpler kind of fear. Remember the shadow on your bedroom wall that frightened you? Or the spooky story your older brother told you that left you sleeping with a flashlight under your pillow?
Good horror isn’t solely built on jump scares or a manic panic, mad dash through the action. The roots of fear that we knew as children exist in subtle shadows and those fears are what really create the cold ball deep in our gut. GRETEL & HANSEL understands this sort of terror and taps into it so beautifully that it leaves the viewer spellbound, in the best possible way.
GRETEL & HANSEL is directed by Osgood Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and stars IT’s Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, and Sammy Leakey. In GRETEL & HANSEL, a young girl and her little brother are turned out of their home during a time of hardship and must survive in the dark forest. In a moment of desperation, they wander off the path into the home of a kindly old woman… that is not what she seems.
We are all familiar with the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel, by further extension we all have a default image that likely pops into our head when we hear the word “fairytale.” A magical land, far far away populated by dragons and castles and magical woods. In his Q&A, director Osgood Perkins stated specifically that he didn’t envision this fairytale in the traditional sense, though he does consider it a very true adaptation of the fairytale. He didn’t want to see any thatched cottage roofs or any of the expected village scenes, nothing that would place the story within a particular period. The result of that decision is a fairytale that feels both ancient and contemporary.
Beyond this mastery of a story suspended in time and space is one of the most gorgeous production designs I’ve seen in a film, let alone a horror film, in years. The architecture of the witch’s house is stunning and the brilliant use of color and stained glass in several of the film’s sets are evocative of that all too familiar candy cottage. Each shot is eerily symmetrical and perfectly put together. Another area where the film’s contemporary quality is best showcased is within the film’s score. Music is a brilliantly executed element in GRETEL & HANSEL, playing within a vaguely 70s vibe that (are you noticing a theme here?) feels both timeless and incredibly timely.
As mentioned at the outset, GRETEL & HANSEL is not doing horror in the expected sense. The film is a slow burn of misery. It’s damn bleak and pessimistic, which only makes the creepy elements of the film stand out. The horror is in the very small details and exposes the viewer to the danger much in the same way that it is experienced by the characters. The entirety of the film is built on a tension as delicious as the witch’s sweets.
Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige are incredible to watch in their respective roles of Gretel and the Witch. As individual characters and a pair with an electric dynamic, the two women are the heart and soul of GRETEL & HANSEL. Hidden within the fairytale’s moral of, “all gifts come at a price, beware” is an additional lesson: the film is Gretel’s coming of age story. She’s becoming a woman and learning the mysteries of a woman’s world, as taught to her by the Witch.
Horror fans will either appreciate GRETEL & HANSEL for the deviation from the norm that it is or they will pine for a more “on its face” scary film. This critic is certain that the film will be divisive, but all will agree on its beauty and remarkable attention to detail. The film is a refreshing entry in what has been a very strong couple of years of horror.
GRETEL & HANSEL opens in theaters everywhere on January 31. Don’t sleep on this one!