Osgood Perkins’ horror films don’t exactly fit in with the rest of the genre, which is part of the reason why critics and audiences alike seem consistently disappointed by them. The Blackcoat’s Daughter unfolds not quite like a nightmare but rather like a terrible dream; I am the Pretty Thing That Lives In The House seems boring on purpose until, suddenly, it isn’t. (That phone cord!). The third film by Perkins, Gretel and Hansel, operates in much the same way – more dreamlike than frightening, deliberately slow and at times obscure, and satisfying only to a patient and very niche audience.
Gretel and Hansel very lightly twists the classic Grimm’s fairy tale to center on Gretel (Sophia Lillis), a 16-year-old girl who abruptly finds herself the sole caregiver of her younger brother, Hansel (Samuel Leakey), after their father dies and their mother, in her grief and desperation, threatens to hack them to pieces if they do not leave and figure out some way to keep themselves alive.
Gretel shields her little brother from their mother’s eviction and takes him into a dark forest, hoping to find work among a group of foresters there. While traveling, Gretel sees visions of the Beautiful Child in the Little Pink Cap, a girl from a dark bedtime story that has haunted Gretel all her life. Before long, they stumble upon a severe cottage that smells like cake, where Holda (Alice Krige), an old woman with darkened fingers and mysteriously bountiful feasts, happily takes them in.
While Hansel is willing to trust this kindly (if creepy) old woman to keep his belly full, Gretel is wisely more suspicious. Still, even as her dreams blur more and more with reality, Holda starts to win Gretel over by sharing knowledge with her — knowledge that will give Gretel the ability to control the witchy powers both she and Holda possess.
The plot proceeds in a familiar fashion from there as Gretel discovers the awful truth about Holda and must make the decision to save her brother from the cannibalistic witch or to join her in the darkness. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Gretel and Hansel is that Gretel’s choice isn’t quite as black-and-white as that. There’s a path in the middle that doesn’t require such a terrible sacrifice — just a lesser one. The siblings have to separate in the end to become their own people, something Gretel knows is necessary even though it hurts.
Gretel and Hansel presents a narrative where Gretel and the Witch are more alike than they are different. A kind of dark femininity connects them and, in an oblique way, makes the argument that there’s no other kind in a fairy tale, not even in a heroine. Sadly, Rob Hayes’s screenplay doesn’t do much more than tease this compelling idea. As much as I admire Perkins as a director of films about dark women, it’s still more than a little frustrating that this story in particular wasn’t helmed with female creatives. A woman’s vision might have made the themes more solid instead of a wispy fog meandering in and out of the film’s events.
But I can’t really complain too much. Perkins is primarily a visual filmmaker, not a thematic one, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard here. With the stellar team of Galo Olivares (cinematography), Jeremy Reed (production design), Christine McDonagh (art direction) and Leonie Prendergast (costume design) behind him, Perkins creates a visceral fairy-tale world full of sharp, slanted lines and deeply foreboding shadows. In many ways, Gretel and Hansel looks and feels like the goth, minimalist cousin of Tarsem Singh’s The Fall – nowhere near as spectacular, of course, but evocative of the similar otherworldly aesthetics that will stay with you long after you finish the movie.
Gretel and Hansel is strongest when it lets itself rely on mood rather than plot. It’s likely this is a film that will only please people who used to be children who fixated on the darkest fairy tales like The Juniper Tree or Donkey Skin and were never quite sure why. This is a film made for us in mind.
Gretel and Hansel is now available on Blu-ray, digital and DVD.