In our most recent resurgence of experimental horror, genre auteurs with distinct styles have broken big, from Jordan Peele’s terror-tinged social commentary to Ari Aster’s psychological brutality to the heartbreaking turn of Issa Lopez’s dark fantasies. Another name you could add to that list of horror auteurs with extremely specific visions is filmmaker Oz Perkins. His most recent film, Gretel & Hansel, sinks or swims depending on how much you vibe with his style.
Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her brother, Hansel (Samuel Leakey) go off into the woods in order to find food and work. They soon stumble across the cottage of the seemingly harmless old herbalist, Holda (Alice Krige). But as Gretel’s powers of second sight start to awaken, she realizes not is all as it seems and there is a great evil that lurks in the woods…or in the very house in which they’ve found shelter.
The old tale retold for a new generation as a story of a girl coming into her own power. Does its high concept match its traditional roots? Does Perkins’ style lend itself well to a horror film for the ages? Read on for three key elements of Gretel & Hansel.
1. A Fairy Tale That Gets Back To The Roots Of Fairy Tales
Those who were raised solely on the Disney-fied versions of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales might be forgiven for thinking fairy tales are full of beautiful princesses and happy endings. In reality, fairy tales – the original versions – were stories of dark things and horrors that usually ended grimly or heartbreakingly. Even the “happy” endings came after exceptional violence or sacrifice. Fairy tales weren’t meant to entertain but to be cautionary tales and morality plays thinly disguised by fantastical elements in order to make them more palatable for children. Stray from the literal forest path and figurative one of morality and the big, bad wolf or wicked old witch get you.
To that end, Gretel & Hansel is a lot more Brothers Grimm and a lot less Walt Disney. Perkins’ version is rooted firmly in the era from which the original tale was born, a time of plague and poverty, when poor parents barely surviving would send their children off into the world rather than see them slowly starve to death. Gretel and Hansel are viewed by their abusive mother as two more mouths to feed, two burdens she doesn’t need. It’s not a sweet tale of lost children stumbling across a whimsical house made of candy, but a grim survival tale of two children slowly starving to death in the woods before finding questionable salvation that slowly turns to terror. As Stephen King once wrote, “The world has teeth and it can bite you with them any time it wants.” It’s a lesson that Gretel learns early and it’s a theme that carries throughout the movie. Safety is an illusion. Trust costs dearly. Danger is everywhere.
2. Some Truly Beautiful Visual Shots
If there’s one thing that Oz Perkins does well, it’s establishing some genuinely gorgeous visual shots. The entire film was filmed just outside Dublin, Ireland (reshoots were in British Columbia, Canada) and the lush beauty of the Irish forest in autumn created a naturally lush palette of butter yellows and flaming oranges, burnished golds and dripping crimsons. Credit here goes to art director Christine McDonagh and production design head Jeremy Reed, who created a darkly fantastic world. Holda’s cabin isn’t a sugary construction of pastels and magic candy but a sturdy wooden cottage that borrows design elements from rustic cabins, Hobbit homes, and Bavarian architecture that switches (rather inexplicably) to a mid-century modern area hidden under the witch’s cottage.
Perkins does an excellent job of working with the natural gifts of the Irish forest and fields and cinematographer Galo Olivares in his direction. Outside, shadowed bodies are framed against white skies under triangle portals, sharp silhouettes of witches in the woods glide silently between the trees. Inside, the pinpoint of a warm candle flame creates chiaroscuro shadowplay as Gretel descends into the forbidden subterranean room, sumptuous feasts and dirty offal coalesce into spreads both mouthwatering and nauseating. Almost every shot might be pulled from the screen and framed as a work of deliberate art. If there’s one thing this movie has going for it, it’s that it’s absolutely dripping with visually arresting moments.
3. For Better Or Worse, Oz Perkins Leans Into His Distinct Style
That being said, for all the beauty of his established shots and set design, Oz Perkins is a director that deals more in abstract moods than in concrete emotions. His shots are gorgeous, yes, but they’re pearls without a connective string to hold them together. His deeply impressionistic style relies on tone and mood rather than narrative, moving from one perfect shot to the next without staying long to delve deeply into the story. Perkins isn’t a filmmaker overly-interested in anchoring an audience’s reaction in emotional connection and resonance. Personally, I need more than pretty shots. I wanted to feel something; instead, I felt nothing. This lack of connection was exacerbated by the two young actors being utterly handcuffed by the overwrought dialogue. The baroque language of the script would have been a difficult mouthful for veteran actors to pull off and sound natural. Coming from the young Lillis, the lines stumbled and staggered and often landed like lead. Leakey’s delivery takes you out of the movie completely. It’s not his fault, but the theatrical debut of an extremely young child actor is not the place for them to take a stab at twisting language.
This lack of connection to the characters undermines any real sense of concern for them, horror detached and secondhand rather than visceral and immersive. For some people, those who are fine with abstraction and ephemeral storytelling, the gorgeous tapestry might be enough. For me, it was not. As I mentioned above, Gretel is a film more closely tied to its director’s extremely distinct style of filmmaking than most. If you like Perkins’ previous work, you’ll absolutely love Gretel & Hansel. If you don’t, you likely won’t. In any case, if you’re a fan of auteur horror or for filmmakers trying something new with something old, it’s very much worth your time to check it out in theaters this weekend.
Gretel & Hansel is in theaters this weekend. Get tickets here.