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It’s Time We Give “Gretel & Hansel” the Respect It Deserves

I’m still wrapping my mind around the beginning of this year producing such awesome genre goodies like “The Invisible Man,” “Color Out of Space” and “Underwater” before everything just went to hell. As much as I sorely miss nestling in a comfy theater recliner — that almost definitely has leftover butter stains on it — it’s been a nice change of pace to see indie filmmakers in the horrorsphere such as Natalie Erika James (“Relic”), Amy Seimetz (“She Dies Tomorrow”) and Remi Weekes (“His House”) getting their moment to shine while we all try to stay safe. Amid these releases, however, one little horror gem seems to have dissipated from the conversation. I wouldn’t say it’s slipped entirely through the cracks, but the lack of appreciation for “Gretel & Hansel” among this year’s best — I believe — calls for a much needed reappraisal of sorts. I’ll let you in on a secret: It kinda rules. 

Feature adaptations of the wandering children have seen them tempted by the devil’s lettuce (“Hansel & Gretel Get Baked”) and develop excellent marksmanship skills (“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), but “Gretel & Hansel” is the interpretation that I feel best represents the simplistic tension of the 1812 Brothers Grimm source material while embodying its own brand of unique chills. 

As it stands, “Gretel & Hansel” has garnered a mixed critical reception (64 on Metacritic), with most praising its gothic visuals while finding little enjoyment beyond its stylish window dressing. In addition to being one of my favorites of the year, “Gretel & Hansel” has quickly become one of my go-to comfort horror films alongside “Ready or Not.” At a brisk 87 minutes, this thing proves that short runtimes can do wonders. 

It appears, however, that there’s a large dissonance between my admiration and the audience consensus. I expected the deliberate pacing to alienate some casual moviegoers, but I never expected just how abysmally this film would be received by the general public, with many citing it as slow, boring and not scary in the least. “Gretel & Hansel” at the very least earned a small profit back, raking in $22 million worldwide against a well-spent $5 million budget. That’s not too bad, all things considered. And while I can understand “Gretel & Hansel” not appealing to everyone’s taste, there’s more to unravel here than most would give it credit for. This seems to be a common thread with the films of Osgood Perkins.

Even I’ll admit that it took me another viewing to fully appreciate the horror of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter;” that ending hits me like a ton of bricks now having grasped the emotional weight of that final scene. And while I’m not completely aboard the “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” train, it’s a quietly audacious example of moody storytelling that at least demonstrates Perkins’s flair for mood pieces. His films share this commonality of curious women converging with dark forces to obtain a sense of belonging. “Gretel & Hansel” is no different.

(L-R) Alice Krige and Sophia Lillis in “Gretel & Hansel” I Orion Pictures

Consider this a minor *spoiler warning* here for courtesy’s sake from here on out. Perkins’s vision obviously flips the classic Grimm fairy tale on its head, pushing Gretel (Sophia Lillis) to the forefront. When she and her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are thrust from their home, they naturally traverse the unpredictable woods in search of their next meal. Just like in the story, they come across a beautiful woodland home where a kind, old Witch (Alice Krige) greets them with open arms and a buffet of foods they only dreamt of. It’s from this point that “Gretel & Hansel” doesn’t deviate so much as slightly tweak and expand upon the straightforward “be wary of strangers” messaging of the original text.

When Gretel speaks of fairy tales, she expresses that in order to have one told in your name, “you have to go through a lot of terrible trouble.” She speaks of the fabled legend of the girl in her little pink cap whom was gifted malevolent powers at birth by an Enchantress, and how she was sent away after her wicked deeds. Learning lessons is in the very nature of fairy tales. And Gretel is about to learn a very important one.

“Would it have killed you to smile at the man?” says Gretel’s weary mother (Fiona O’ Shaughnessy) after her daughter refuses the advances of a potential employer. She violently slams an axe into the table, banishing Gretel and Hansel from their home with nowhere to go. Perkins has iterated that he intended this fantasy world to feel like a place out of time. With that comes the substantial burden placed on children to fend for themselves as the world seems to be actively against them. Here they navigate unpredictable, hostile landscapes where danger is all but ready to rear its ugly head at any second with no future in sight.

Sophia Lillis and Fiona O’Shaughnessy in “Gretel & Hansel” I Orion Pictures

With their options being work or death, it’s no wonder why they gravitate toward the Witch’s suspiciously implanted abode. The parental abandonment in particular drives young Gretel into the arms of an adult who poses a threat while also providing an avenue to a promising future of power and temptation. 

I find Krige so entrancing in the role of the Witch. Within her performance, I can’t help but think of “Nosferatu,” with her menacing gaze and prolonged black fingers. “Gretel & Hansel” — from top to bottom — fits the unapologetically witchy demeanor of her performance. We’re conscious of her underlying malevolent presence. Behind her tender hospitality lies the sinister patience of a predator playing with her food. At some point, the Witch must turn on the children. But to what extent? 

Having her form a bond with Gretel is a subversive turn that makes the character more interesting. Now the big bad witch is seen as a maternal figure of sorts that recognizes her potential as Gretel enters into womanhood. I appreciate how Gretel is seen possessing the great power of the Witch at her fingertips, a reminder that she too is capable of falling down the same dark pit of temptation. Gretel is as easily corruptible as the Witch, just as she was corrupted by a mystifying force long ago. It’s a time-honored lesson that none of us are as completely innocent as we like to think we are. 

“Gretel & Hansel” I Orion Pictures

Courtesy of cinematographer Galo Olivares (“El Vigilante”), the magical realism of “Gretel & Hansel” is a sight to behold. It is rarely shy about embracing its mythical wonders within a practical environment all its own. I love how this is a movie out of time whose lessons and wonder will remain just as effective decades down the line as it does today. “Gretel & Hansel” is like flipping through an adapted fairy tale with an array of eye-catching illustrations that feature so much vibrancy and, yet, restraint. The decision to shoot most of the movie in 1.55:1 modifies the frame to look even more like the rectangular page of a children’s book. 

I seriously can’t stress enough just how gorgeous “Gretel & Hansel” is. I mentioned the influence of “Nosferatu” earlier, which makes sense considering Jeremy Reed’s production design at times seems to have been inspired by the exaggerated aesthetic of German Expressionism. The Witch’s home is not a confectionary wonder but an imposing black home, unusually angled and lit by the orange hue of dim candlelight. Even her gate, crooked and strewn with vines, fits the mold. Nighttime is flooded with deep reds as a sinister presence looms outside. And to say nothing of the Witch’s imposing white brick layered cellar – which feels like it stretches for miles – would be just irresponsible of me. It is infectiously moody and a very different kind of delectable treat. 

Sophia Lillis in “Gretel & Hansel” I Orion Pictures

I did an experiment where I muted the film and let it play out while ROB’s synthy composition played in the background and you can’t tell me that this inherently visual marvel wouldn’t fit alongside the films of the silent era. Most of this movie is seared into my head, and I’m okay with that. I’d say that’s a testament to the richness of Olivares’s aesthetic, which is as stunning as the Witch’s palatable table spread. 

Embodying the best traits of gateway horror, “Gretel & Hansel” invites younger children — much like those who grew up hearing the Grimm stories late at night — to experience some truly grotesque imagery and ideas. Perkins lays the groundwork, waiting for the Witch to reveal what she’s done with the children. Some of the film’s most memorable impressions are when Perkins decides that it’s time to let the kids know that they’re in for something to remember. 

And when the Witch, appearing in her true form (Jessica De Gouw), pours that silver tub lined with the slimy meat of slaughtered children onto the white tablecloth, it’s a sickening image that sticks with you. The subtle brutality of this important moment makes for a harrowing reveal as she wills the limbs and organs into the most scrumptious display of food. It’s a step above trapping the kids in a large oven and calling it a day, that’s for sure. 

Jessica De Gouw in “Gretel & Hansel” I Orion Pictures

I have faith that “Gretel & Hansel” will find an audience in time as people start to reappraise its methodical paving and striking visuals. Fairy tales have been rewritten and retold in countless new and exciting ways, but the core of these stories remain the same. As cautionary tales go, Perkins has rightfully earned his place alongside the Grimm story whose potency continues to endure. I’ll be returning to this one every now and then.

Featured Image: Sophia Lillis in “Gretel & Hansel” I Orion Pictures

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