Gretel & Hansel, a beautiful fairy tale spirited inside a grim slice of arthouse horror, not only shares the patient pacing and cerebral tone of The Witch, it centers on a teenage girl, Gretel (Sophia Lillis), stripped of her humanity by her puritanical surroundings. Like Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) of The Witch, to have any sort of agency, she must betray her moral upbringings; in a world where god hates women, a deal with the devil doesn’t sound so bad.
This surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s strikingly dark story begins with teenage Gretel at an interview to become a servant, during which her lord-to-be excitedly asks her if she’s a virgin. She doesn’t take the job. Consequently, her mother encourages her to join a convent, no longer able to afford to take care of Gretel and her needy younger brother, Hansel (Samuel Leakey). Not happy with the binary decision between sex slave and nun, Gretel grabs her brother and sets out to the woods, looking for a free new life to sustain them.
On the verge of starving to death, the siblings find a shack that looks like the Addams Family’s idea of a forest cabin, where a benevolent old woman named Holda (Alice Krige) treats them to a feast. She even lets them stay with her as long as they want. At first, this feels like a dream come true for Gretel and Hansel, but nightmares about dead kids and disturbingly unanswered questions begin to bug them. What are the wailing sounds coming out of the ground? Where does the bountiful food keep coming from? We expect the more mature Gretel to eventually realize that there’s something fishy going on and try to leave, only for Hansel, who’s still under the spell of gluttony, to insist on staying. But then screenwriter Ron Hayes throws us a curveball as Holda tempts Gretel with the one thing she’s never had: power.
Director Oz Perkins’ first two features, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, are meticulously constructed examples of slow burn horror, favoring ever-building, chilling atmosphere over quick scares. He begins Gretel & Hansel with a traditional fairy tale structure, only to degenerate into an otherworldly, hopeless setting that liberally plays with space and time. Accordingly, production and costume designs borrow from multiple time periods—slightly resembling medieval Europe—while characters speak in Shakespearean prose, their body language still distinctly modern. Instead of the usual sea of white faces for such a tale, different races that seem to have equal social standing populate this world. Perkins purposefully juxtaposes Galo Olivares’s classically picturesque cinematography, imbued with the illusion of natural light, against Robin Coudert’s synth-heavy score that resembles Wendy Carlos’s work for Stanley Kubrick. The film thrives within a dream-logic vibe, especially in Olivares’ cinematography, with its heavy emphasis on symmetrical framing, stark contast and lush use of yellows and blues, evoking subliminal terror.
After playing Beverly in It, Lillis once again captures the arc of an innocent forced to mature. Krige, with her unsettling grin, creates a viscerally disturbing villain. But too often Gretel’s voice-over narration, often inserted into moments that could have otherwise created more dread through quiet, understated visuals, distracts from Perkins’ otherwise masterful visual storytelling. Still, Gretel & Hansel continues the director’s streak as a unique voice in modern horror filmmaking.
Director: Oz Perkins
Writer: Ron Hayes
Starring: Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Samuel Leakey, Jessica De Gouw
Release Date: January 31, 2020