Directed by Oz Perkins
Starring – Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Samuel Leakey
The Plot – A long time ago in a distant fairy tale countryside, a young girl (Lillis) leads her little brother (Leakey) into a dark wood in desperate search of food and work, only to stumble upon a nexus of terrifying evil.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material
– Lucid presentation. Many unique touches of production are instilled to make “Gretel and Hansel” one of the more visually alluring January horror films in recent memory, which in turn brings to life the more obvious horror elements of this familiar children’s tale. For one, the whole movie is shot gorgeously with this 1.55:1 ratio, similar to 2016’s “The Witch”, and what this does is not only transport us accordingly with a capture that was prominently seen during the silent picture era, but also illustrates the claustrophobia that exists internally for the film’s titular siblings against their captor. In addition to this, there’s a surreal absorbing quality to certain color deposits that stem from a window or a prop, but one whose immensity overtakes the color scheme of the room. This blast of technicolor feels all the more illuminous because everything else in frame is so bland and decaying because of its setting, and cements a presentation that has no difficulty bringing the style to clash with its narrative substance.
– Patient editing. One of my favorite aspects of the film is the sharp pasting in scene transfers that really helps draw out the unnerving circumstance of the things our protagonists are experiencing. I am of course talking about long take shots, which intentionally feel like they are left burning for a few seconds longer to let that uncertainty linger in spades. This film by no means is trying to be a technical achievement like “1917” or “Birdman” in the long take consistency, but it does take its decision with a commitment that essentially makes every situation inescapable, blurring the lines between dream and reality where the story sees fit.
– Trio of terror. This film does something that very few films, horror or not maintains, and that is succeed with two child performances that the script relies heavily on. We knew Lillis would be a star after her turns in the “IT” movies, but her dependency doubles here while being asked to exert through a performance that is mentally and physically bending in psychological duress. Sophia of course rises to the occasion, as the vulnerability that blankets her, and challenges her pre-conceived ideal that something given always requires something to be taken. Samuel Leakey is also buzzworthy, performing through no shortage of tears or personality that feels as natural as the character’s ignorance with strangers. Lillis and Leakey are every bit believable as siblings as they are diverse in personalities, and it proves that screenwriter Rob Hayes pushed the pen further in giving each of them their moments to shine. Alice Krige is also stirringly unnerving as Holda, taking something as conventional as a witch character, and fleshing her out with a level of empathy that most antagonists simply don’t receive in these films. Krige can do with a look what most actresses lack with a hundred words of dialogue, and her confidence burns a long way in getting under the skin of her adversaries.
– French flare. It was a bit of a surprise to find out that Robin Coudert, the same composer who helmed the musical scores in “Horns” and “Revenge” to name a couple, also scored this film, and while I’ve always been a big fan of his work, his lasting impression in the atmospheric tension of “Gretel and Hansel” is unquestionably his best work to date. Coudert experiments with enough volume mixing for his ominously synth compositions, which feel so fresh and innovative from anything this subgenre ever receives, but in addition it’s also the way he incorporates children’s voices in the distance that simultaneously tells a story the longer it plays. These instances not only echo wonderfully within the context of the scenes they accompany, but they also stand out in such an original manner that cements the film’s setting as this place that feels very far from the world these kids are accustomed to.
– A new direction. We’ve had tons of Hansel and Gretel movies, so what makes this one any different. Well, for one it’s the desire to craft a feminist narrative that feels earned without beating its intentions over the heads of its audience. In this respect, the switching of names in the title is something that transpires far beyond a title, it’s also a story where Gretel is the one that takes charge for once, etching out a journey of self-discovery that heads in some directions that are anything but predictable. Speaking of which, the layers given to the story, but in particular character powers is something that I felt energized the property without it ever losing its familiar identity. The book’s general outline is still very much there, but it’s the way the pieces inside of those directions move that justifies the film’s existence, and gives us an entirely fresh perspective that is far too good for its January release date.
– The scares. While not an overly scary film, “Gretel and Hansel” does make a few pivotal moves in reminding us what about horror works, and what should be left on the cutting room floor. To my pleasure, the film only has two jump scares, one of which is earned, and the other one is forgivable because it’s the lone instance of desperation. To counteract this, the script instead focuses more on the atmospheric elements and fantastical imagery that pushes the envelope for a PG-13 horror film. The use of productional aspects like dimmed lighting, low-hanging fog, and audible manipulations are just a few of the examples of the film’s desire to stir instead of scare, cementing the bravery of Perkins for not taking the low-hanging fruit that so many horror films are unfortunately taking in the 21st century.
– Fumbling dialogue. The sore thumb of this film’s forefront qualities is on-the-nose lines of dialogue that lack subtlety in its most basic form. This is mostly pertaining to Holda’s character, who should be evidently evil from the first second these children meet her because of how often she shows her hand. If she’s not making a wink-and-nod metaphor to the camera that the movie so obviously wants us to pick up on, she’s often repeating same aspects from a scene that we previously saw only seconds ago. It makes me wish that the film took more time to endure the silent aspects of its filmmaking, which in turn would’ve made more about Holda a cryptic mystery that we didn’t solve in the film’s opening five minutes.
– Unnecessary narration. This is yet another sting to the film’s final grade that deals with a speaking capacity, and it’s one whose intrusive qualities prove how little of faith this movie had with its mostly teenage audience. Good narration should be able to tell you something that the scene can’t with visuals or character interaction, and with this said roughly 90% of the narration in this film is either repeating something that should be obvious in the context of the character movements, or spoiling the movie when you really consider that most of this character’s narration is past-tense. Of course everyone knows what happens with Hansel and Gretel in the storybook, but if this is a fresh take at the centuries old story, some uncertainty would help keep me invested.
– Strained pacing. At 82 brief minutes, “Gretel and Hansel” certainly isn’t a difficult watch, but it is one that comes with no shortage of slow spots courtesy of the character’s complete lack of urgency. It’s strange because these kids should have a mother character who should be worried about their days long disappearance, but we never see or hear from her. Likewise, these kids forget their initial mission of this long distance journey, and decide to shack up with a complete stranger who doesn’t rattle their peaceful surroundings even through some alerting red flags that should start their engines of escape. Particularly during the second act, the film’s urgency stays so grounded that it doesn’t anticipate the film’s climatic final battle, which is articulated through a confrontation that lacks physicality or drawn out drama to send audiences home riveted.
– Contrasting accents. This is my only critique with the performances, as I felt this cast primarily nailed what was asked of them. Lillis and Krige mostly authenticate their English accents with a layer of believability that constantly reminds us where this film is taking place. That isn’t the case however with Leakey, who doesn’t sport even a terrible accent to try and maintain this consistency. Why this is a problem for me is because it takes me out of the immersive elements of the film that this talented cast and production worked so hard to maintain, and harvests a glaring inconsistency that constantly reminds me that these two aren’t siblings, nor are they geographically resonant of where they’re advertised of. Small things like these fall on the director, and at least give Perkins something to work towards with his next feature.
Side note – Oz Perkins is actually Anthony Perkins’ son. Norman Bates legend is still being felt even after being gone for nearly thirty years.
My Grade: 6/10 or C-