Whichever version of the story you read as a kid, it usually takes a few years for the inherent brutality of Hansel and Gretel to dawn. As far as Grimm fairy tales go, it’s one of the grimmest, and has been brought to startling life by Oz Perkins in Gretel & Hansel, a feminist reinterpretation led by IT’s Sophia Lillis.
In this adaptation the siblings’ woodcutter father is absent, their mother homicidal in her desperation, and thier fairy tale landscape stricken by a savage famine. It is a dark world full of haunted forests and destitute farms. Places the siblings must brave after being forced from their home in search of work.
The focus is on Gretel, as the title’s switcheroo hints, and the specific issues faced by a teen girl in feudal times. Further, it uses her experiences as a prism for viewing witchcraft just as Robert Eggar’s The Witch did in 2015. Perkins doesn’t quite invoke sympathy for the witch, but he does pose some often-overlooked questions and reinterpretations of classic tropes.
The witch lives in an odd triangular house, its windows coloured with sickly sweet primary colours, the food inside rich and steaming. It’s a sensory distraction which lures us, like the children, past an impeccable but flagrantly ominous villain. Breathing wretched life into the classic witch is Alice Krige, best known for terrifying a generation of Star Trek fans as the Borg Queen. Half mentor, half creepy curmudgeon, Krige is exquisitely menacing.
The relationship which grows between her and Lillis’s Gretel is the crux of this adaptation. It’s a mother daughter, mentor/student affair, always tinged with a dangerous edge. Gretel knows something is amiss, but her growing understanding of her own innate power makes her hungry for more. In Perkins’ story though, the witch doesn’t want to eat Gretel, she wants to bring out the witch in her.
I really cannot overstate how pretty a piece of filmmaking this is. Everything from the abstract use of geometric shapes to a near Giallo-esque appreciation for lurid colour make so many frames worth blowing up and putting on a wall. In ways it belongs to a collection of highly stylised solid Gothic fairy tales like Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
Osgood Perkins’ enchantingly beautiful Gretel & Hansel is a fresh look at an age-old well-worn story of innocence lost. For his adaptation, he takes the Grimm Brother’s version back to folk horror basics with a distinct, near expressionistic, sense of visual style, and an eye towards feminist theory. It’s a Gothic fairy tale for the folks who saw a folk rebirth in The Witch, and were left hungry for more visceral fairy tales. This will easily be one of the prettiest horror films of 2020, and one of the most succinct fairy tale adaptations I’ve ever had the pleasure to view.
Dir. Osgood Perkins
Stars. Sophia Lillis, Samuel Leakey, Alice Krige, Jessica De Gouw, Charles Babalola