Gretel & Hansel starts off at a disadvantage — everyone knows the source material. The Brothers Grimm yarn was first spun in the early 19th century and has traumatized children ever since, whispered by adults who warn of shadows and strangers hiding behind sugar-sweet smiles. When the source material is part of the public consciousness, a storyteller is challenged to simultaneously exalt and ripen the narrative. With his third feature film, director Osgood Perkins has successfully added meaningful layers to an age-old fable, making for a poetic head trip into the dark beauty of growth.
A pitch-black fantasy that could easily sit aside Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Gretel & Hansel switches the original order of the titular names for good reason: the film’s sympathies are fully aligned with womanhood, warts and all. Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is the elder of two siblings living in abject poverty with their mother, who makes no effort to conceal her resentment for her daughter and the burden of having extra mouths to feed. Cast out of the safety of their home, it’s up to the adolescent Gretel to care for her little brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) in the big, cruel world that seems to be just as uncomfortably aware of her transition into womanhood as she is.
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With such universal themes, it’s no surprise that Perkins expanded Gretel & Hansel’s living space to a more ethereal dreamworld (something like “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) than the medieval German setting used in the original tale. The brother-sister pair don simplistic costumes that look more utiliarian than period. Production designer Jeremy Reed and art director Christine McDonagh work in tandem with cinematographer Galo Olivares to create a context-free fugue state realm, an autumn snowglobe wherein its inhabitants move in slow-motion throughout the set of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. From the uncanny German expressionist lighting to the striking central framing, Perkins’ stylization adds a texture of mourning onto a slow-burn narrative. We all know how the story ends, and the director utilizes that concept to make the route as grotesquely scenic as possible.
Alice Kriege (as the Witch) and Lillis’ tag team demand the audience’s attention and mesmerize with the slightest mouth twitch or extended hand. Kriege, as a previously one-note villainess, adds depth to her archetype. As with so many great baddies, she reveals herself to be the star of her own tragic tale — complete with an origin story. Kriege’s flawless performance (at once sinister and inviting) is only matched by that of Lillis, who displays onscreen grief for her character’s youth and innocence that extends beyond her 18 years. Perkins’ trust in every main player to hold the frame pays off in stellar head-to-head scenes throughout Gretel & Hansel’s 90-minute runtime.
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Perkins’ penchant for moody tales surrounding women is a fascinating thing to behold. From The Blackcoat’s Daughter to I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, he seems fascinated with the mystique of femininity, and without objectifying it. Gretel & Hansel is no different. In addition to honoring the original thread of caution about the unforgiving real world, the filmmaker locates his movie’s central drama in a young woman’s psychological development into grown femininity. From menstruation to the forced responsibility of becoming a caregiver, Perkins captures the beauty of metamorphosizing into the person we may or not be destined to become. In this sense, he seems to work from experience: using the components of the horror genre to explore what makes us who we are. Perkins just happens to lean into the innate, powerful mystery of the opposite sex to unpack that, and it just happens to work spectacularly every time he goes for it.
Great art has every piece in intimate communion with the art as a whole. Gretel & Hansel takes an elemental approach to the folklore, gasping with the fears of the original material while exhaling a new mystique of its own. With less focus on things that go bump in the night and more on a wide-eyed fascination with femininity, Perkins has firmly established himself as the modern king of the oblique monstrosity.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.