Over the last few years there’s been a real resurgence in a very specific type of horror movie. More arty movies, full of impeccable set-design and cinematography, which largely attempt to generate horror more from mood and tension than out-right scares. These films have been largely associated with the production company A24, who has had quite a bit of success with these horror films, even though they occasionally get a bit of ridicule, especially among people more interested in traditional horror movies. But, for someone like me who has never really connected with the vast majority of horror films, especially the dominant subgenres of the last few decades, I’ve been really enjoying this revival of art-influenced horror flicks. Yeah, they can occasionally get a little too far up their own ass, leaning too heavily into the fixation with aesthetics at the expense of making an actually exciting film, but it’s clearly been a popular and profitable style, because now other companies are following suite. And yet, you could imagine my surprise when I found that United Artists and Orion Pictures, two companies I frankly didn’t realize had come back from the ashheap of Hollywood’s history, were making a dark retelling of the classic Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. It looked strange, maybe a tad pretentious, and it’s January release-date felt a bit like a dumping ground. And yet, I found myself enjoying this weird little movie.
The film tells the story of a young woman named Gretel, and her dopey little brother named Hansel. They are living in a vaguely defined countryside in an equally undefined time-period, where they have fallen on hard times. Their father is gone, and their mother is having a mental breakdown, pushing the siblings out into the world, on their own. Gretel is forced to find something to provide for her brother, but all she seems to come across are ways for a young woman to be exploited by a world that doesn’t care about her. The two end up wandering the woods, trying to find some way to survive, which primarily takes the form of them accidentally eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and tripping out for a while. But, after coming down from their high hey end up finding a mysterious home, tucked away in the middle of the woods. The two begin snooping, and end up finding that the home is full of a fully prepared feast, just sitting there. So, Hans sneaks into the home to steal some of the food, and in the process meets the old woman who lives there, seemingly alone. She invites Gretel in as well, and the children are treated to a delicious meal, and a bit of awkward conversation with the old woman. She makes it clear that she’s not used to company, but would be more than happy to let the kids stay with her until they figure out something more permanent.
Gretel is immediately wary of the old woman, especially because she starts having vivid nightmares from the first night that they stay there. But, there doesn’t seem to be anything else in the world for them, and Hans is quite happy staying here and eating his fill, so they remain. Gretel offers to begin doing household chores for the woman, and ends up befriending her. The old woman teaches Gretel about her knowledge of alchemy and medicine, showing her things to do with plants that she’d never known before. And, before too long, these lessons begin to get mystical, with the old woman showing her how to control a wooden staff with her mind. But, as this is all going on Hans has started to become worried. He doesn’t trust the old woman, and has found evidence of a whole lot of children that have stayed with her, and are now missing. But, Gretel has found a purpose in her life, and true acceptance, and doesn’t want to get rid of it. So, she sends Hans out into the forest one night, abandoning him. She feels terrible about this though, and immediately tries to convince the old woman to help her find him. But, the old woman refuses, and starts to tell Gretel about her past, revealing that she was the mother of a little girl cursed with magic, and she has spent her life learning more about the dark arts, at the expense of her own humanity. She then has Gretel witness a ritual where she will seemingly kill Hans, and use his lifeforce to sustain herself. But, Gretel ends up fighting back, using the things that the old woman taught her to control the wooden staff, using it to kill the old woman. She then sets Hans out onto his own once again to find his own place in this world while she stays behind in the woods, ready to take the old woman’s place as the Witch of the Woods.
Like I said earlier, I was a little hesitant going into this film. Fairy tale adaptations are typically pretty terrible, especially ones that decide to lean into the Grimm Brothers aesthetic, and actually adapt the creepy and horrifying stories for what they were. And, the January release didn’t instill me with much confidence either. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find a fairly solid little horror flick. It certainly pales in comparison to the more successful A24 films whose aesthetic it seem to be borrowing, but it’s still a good time at the movies. It’s perfectly serviceable, which probably makes it seem like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I feel these days people expect movies to all be masterpieces, and we’ve kind of lost appreciation for solid C+ movies. And, that’s kind of what we get here. The acting is generally terrific, even though it really only boils down to the three lead performances, which are really the majority of the movie. Sophia Lillis, who was quite excellent in the It films is equally great in this movie, actually given Gretel a character to play with. But, it’s Alice Krige who steals the show as the Witch, managing to portray a character who is at all times menacing, but also charming and even inviting at times. And it’s all bolstered with some really gorgeous cinematography, full of shots that don’t always mean a whole lot, but look pretty damn fantastic.
Fairy tales are often some of the first stories that we learn as kids. Here in Western society at least these stories are foundational, the kind that we almost all learn and know by heart, in some form or another. Often these tales are the more sanitized, Disney versions of the stories, and it’s not until later in life that you learn about the original, terrifying versions of the stories that were full of violence, gore, and often a whole lot of dead kids. They were short little parables intended to teach kids that the world was dark and full of horror, and that they could die at any moment if they didn’t follow the rules. And, weirdly, we as a culture don’t seem to know how to adapt these stories. They’re intended for kids, so they usually get cleaned up and made more palatable. Or, people lean into the dark nature, and try to take a tale mean for kids and update them to something an adult would like. Sometimes that leads to something completely insane like those weird action movies where Hansel and Gretel hunt witches or whatever, but sometimes people actually attempt to lean into the horror, and make movies like this. And, generally, I feel like movies like this don’t work. And, I find myself completely at a loss to explain why. There’s something to these old stories, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived literal centuries in our popular consciousness. And yet, these darker fairy tale adaptations just often land flat on their face. Perhaps it’s because they, by their nature, have to rely on a lot of child actors, which can often be a tricky proposition. Or maybe people just don’t actually want to experience the original versions of these tales, to wallow in the darkness that they originally represented. But, whatever the reason, I do hope that if people are going to take more stabs at telling these darker fairy tale stories that they take something from this film. Because, despite the fact that it doesn’t fully work, seeing a lavishly shot and impeccably designed piece of folk horror is kind of exactly what I think these sorts of stories need.
Gretel & Hansel was written by Rob Hayes, directed by Oz Perkins, and released by United Artists Releasing, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk