By Scott Dorward
Gretel & Hansel (USA, 2020)
“I know that’s your favourite story but you’ve been telling it wrong.”
While Osgood Perkins isn’t exactly a prolific director, his few feature films have made me a fan. February (AKA The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House both exemplify a thoughtful, deliberate strand of modern horror that I adore. So when I saw that he had directed a new fairytale-themed film, I knew I had to include Gretel & Hansel in this month’s reviews.
We open with Gretel telling us her favourite story, about a young girl cured from a serious illness by a sorceress and who became filled with darkness as a result. From there, we move into more familiar fairy tale territory, with teenage Gretel and her younger brother Hansel forced to leave home when their single mother can no longer feed them.
The children embark upon a journey to look for work and shelter. After a variety of encounters on the road, including an accidental psychedelic trip after eating the wrong mushrooms, the now starving pair come across a strange house in the woods. Looking through the window, they see a table spread with an impossible feast of pies, meats and pastries. When Hansel sneaks in through the window, he is immediately caught by the old woman who lives there.
The old woman, Holda, proves friendly and invites the children to stay as long as they would like. While she lets Hansel indulge his interest in learning to be a woodcutter, Holda’s real focus is Gretel. As well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of herbalism, the old woman turns out to have more uncanny abilities and wants to teach them to her new ward. But is her interest in Gretel as maternal as it seems? What price is Gretel expected to pay for this new power? And where is all this food coming from anyway?
I am a sucker for fairy tales. My two favourite films of this month so far are Tigers Are Not Afraid and Evolution, both of which play with fairytale tropes in clever ways. While Gretel & Hansel has similar influences, it cleaves closer to them both in structure and setting. Many of the elements and story beats are lifted directly from the original Brothers Grimm tale. Ultimately, however, it becomes its own thing, while still keeping the basic theme of temptation. There probably won’t be many surprises for anyone familiar with the story, but Perkins is creative enough in rearranging the elements to his own purposes, making it feel like something new.
In the early stages of the film, I kept wondering where the story was meant to be set. Gretel and Hansel are Americans with German names, surrounded by people with Irish and English accents. While I’m sure this was a deliberate choice, suggesting that everything all takes place in a realm of the imagination, it took at least half an hour for it to stop distracting me. I kept waiting for there to be some narrative explanation. There wasn’t.
Gretel & Hansel is a beautiful film to look at. Even when it struggles to find its way as much as its two young protagonists do, it never fails to engage. You can simply lose yourself in the beautiful nightmare unfolding on the screen. This is essential, as the first act meanders way too much. Almost everything that happens before Gretel and Hansel arrive at the witch’s house feels superfluous.
While maybe not that frightening, this is a visceral film in places, sometimes quite literally. Once we get into the hidden truths of the witch’s house, we encounter plenty of horrors. This is a much darker and less gentle tale than it seems at first, oozing with blood and guts.
But, ultimately, Gretel & Hansel is a story about the shifting relationships and power dynamics between Gretel and the witch, as well as Gretel and her brother. It plays with our sympathies much as the witch plays with Gretel’s. And in that respect, it is wholly successful.
As much as I love folk horror, twisted fairy tales and this kind of languid, dreamy storytelling, Gretel & Hansel fell a little short for me. Maybe watching it so soon after Tigers Are Not Afraid and Evolution set an impossibly high bar. It’s certainly not a bad film in any respect, just one that never quite engages as much as it could.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – The Mortuary Collection (2019)
- 24 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 25 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 26 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
- 29 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!