Gretel & Hansel

Gretel & Hansel (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that takes the Brothers Grimm fairytale as inspiration and forges an identity of its own. Unlike modern, lazy, and generic horror movies, Oz Perkins’ “Gretel & Hansel” is not interested in delivering the usual jump scares. Instead, the horror lies in its thick and portentous atmosphere. It takes its time to present beautiful and creepy details of being lost in the woods while starving, desperate, without parental supervision. There are figures in black watching from a distance. Wolves can be heard howling in the night. When siblings Hansel and Gretel (Samuel Leakey, Sophia Lillis) inevitably cross paths with the witch (Alice Krige), their interactions feel like icing on the cake already. The plot has not even taken off yet.

This is a movie with potential to earn a cult following five to ten years from now. The reason is because of its careful attention on how images are showcased. The horror is not always overt, but take any random scene and notice there is almost always something worthy of pause and admiration. A shot of a pointy roof—which likens a witch’s hat—with the moon hanging sadly in the background, how branches of trees appear look like old hands in the darkness, a delectable feast sitting on the table waiting to be ravished by unsuspecting victims. It is an inviting movie—even though the plot involves child kidnappings, human sacrifices, parental neglect and abandonment, witchcraft.

Lillis shines in this bleak, unforgiving movie about self-discovery. As Gretel, Lillis is convincing as a big sister who loves her little brother more than herself and must serve as his protector. Father is dead and mother seems to be driven to insanity; life is so tough for them that at one point mother knowingly sends her young daughter to a whorehouse—Gretel under the assumption that the place is simply hiring for a housekeeper of some sort.

Lillis evokes a relatable toughness, a warmth, resourcefulness, and intelligence and so her Gretel is interesting to watch when attempting to outsmart Holda the witch. (By the same token, I was mesmerized by Krige’s interpretation of the witch—her evil is multidimensional; this is not a stereotypical witch full of warts who cackles while making concoctions in her cauldron. This witch is like a snake waiting in the bush for prey to pass by. She has her own story.) Lillis’ Gretel is not the kind of girl who runs away while screaming for help. (Or worse, tripping on a branch and getting caught.) Life thus far has forced her to look at problems in the face and try to overcome them with the limited tools she does have.

I wished the picture had spent about fifteen to twenty minutes to expand the final act. It goes into an interesting direction regarding the fates of the siblings, but instead of exploring these curious ideas, the movie, in a way, promises a sort of sequel. That gave a slightly bitter impression. An argument can be made—not a strong one—that the story is incomplete. I think the story is complete—but it is just short of becoming fully satisfying.

I wondered if the filmmakers felt some pressure to stay within the ninety-minute mark in order for the work to be more digestible. It didn’t need to be precisely because it is not a commercial horror film. It is for those who value good storytelling regardless of duration. While stunningly beautiful throughout, I wanted more substance.

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