As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. Consider yourself warned.
I know it’s only February, but so far 2020 is striking out big time in the horror genre. I went to see both Underwater and The Turning with the intention of reviewing them, only to find that both of them were so lame that they weren’t even worth the time and effort it would’ve taken to write them up. So it was with more trepidation than excitement that I went into the theater to sit down and watch Gretel and Hansel. Thankfully, it wasn’t the complete waste of time that the others had been. That’s the good news. The bad news is that unfortunately, it’s not that great, either.
Everyone knows the original Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale – or at least, everyone should. Suffering during a famine and trying to rid themselves of the responsibility of caring for their children, Hansel and Gretel’s parents take them into the woods and ditch them. But a clever Hansel makes sure they can find their way back by leaving a trail of pebbles the first day. Then the next day, their parents take them deeper into the woods and Hansel uses breadcrumbs to mark the path – but the kids end up lost when birds eat all the bread. Then they happen across the house made out of sweets, and the old woman who lives there invites them to eat their fill and rest. Of course she’s a witch, and the kids become her prisoners. She makes Gretel work while she keeps Hansel in a cage, fattening him up to eat him. But Gretel saves the day by tricking the witch and pushing her into her own oven.
So in this new version, the not-terribly-originally titled Gretel and Hansel takes the old tale, tosses it in a blender with Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) – not to mention director Osgood Perkins’ own I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016). The result is an artsy, creepy and feminist story – but sadly, it never lives up to its potential, ending up much more like a sketch of a bigger, grander piece.
The character of Gretel is the focus of this version, and Sophia Lillis is an excellent choice to play her – she brings a subtle strength and undeniable presence to the big screen that you can’t keep your eyes off of. So after an unsuccessful job interview with a potential employer who’s nothing but a pervy old geezer who wants to make sure she’s still a virgin, Gretel returns home only to have her deliriously depressed mother tell her and Hansel (Samuel Leakey) that they have to leave and find their own way to survive – a point which Mom drives home by slamming an axe into the kitchen table. So off the kids go into the woods, wandering and starving – and when they find some shelter, then comes this random attack by some kind of crazy, zombie-like dude. And as quickly as he’s introduced, he’s dispatched by a huntsman (Charles Babalola) who lets the kids hang out at his place long enough to get a meal. He gives them directions to the nearby convent and sends them on their way.
So it’s back into the woods they go, wandering and starving again. Then they happen upon some mushrooms, which Gretel “talks to” to find out if they’re edible. It’s not clear at this point if Gretel’s just kidding around or if she really can talk to mushrooms – but she does keep having visions of the young girl in a pink cap from a story she was told, a young girl who turned out to be a witch. And she keeps seeing ominous dark figures lurking in the distance. So they eat the ‘shrooms and end up tripping out big time in a funny little montage of the kids giggling like crazy and zoning out to the sky. Then the high wears off and it’s back to wandering and starving until they finally come across the witch’s cottage. It’s not made of sweets, but it’s awfully modern-looking given the time period. The kids look through the window, see a huge feast laid out on a banquet table and waste no time breaking in.
The awesome Alice Krige makes her appearance then, as the sorta-kindly but mostly creepy old lady who welcomes them, telling them to make themselves at home, eat up and rest – even as she’s plucking hair out of Hansel’s head. Gretel’s understandably suspicious and tries to resist the temptation at first – but of course, starvation wins out and she dives into the food too. She tells Hansel they won’t be staying long, that they’ll help the old woman out for a while as payment for her “hospitality,” but that they’ll be on their way again. Of course, the old woman insists they stay longer – and as the days go by (getting closer to the full moon), Gretel’s visions become stronger and scarier, warning her that other children have passed through the house – children who are now dead. The old woman also teaches Gretel about the ways of rootwork, how to use plants to make potions and salves. She shows Gretel how, as she’s coming into womanhood, she’s connected to and has power over nature – something which Gretel can’t deny. And as much as she knows she should leave, she wants to learn more.
But of course, there’s that pesky problem of the old woman being a witch (the same witch who took care of the little girl with the pink cap from the story, by the way) who wants to cook and eat Hansel, who she’s put under a spell. So just like in the original tale, it’s Gretel who saves the day by using her newfound powers to kill the witch and save her brother – but instead of the kids returning home, Gretel has a friendly horse take Hansel away to the convent – and Gretel remains in the woods, taking over residence of the cottage and vowing in the narration that she’ll use her powers to bring light instead of darkness as the trapped spirits of all the dead kids who came before her are finally set free.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. If you’re looking for a straightforward horror flick, Gretel and Hansel is definitely not what you want. It’s an art-house flick, contemplative and poetic – and far more bizarre than scary. And while those things are more pros than cons, unfortunately in the end it doesn’t add up to much.
Directed by: Osgood Perkins
Written by: Rob Hayes
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 27 min
Distributor: Orion Pictures