As we continue to grow more sensitive of the world around us and the horrors of the adult world, we continue to censor and change the stories of the past to reflect what we believe today. This is most prevalent in fairy tales, which have been mostly changed into kid-friendly tales with lessons people don’t really listen to. What many don’t know is that these tales started as really dark, sinister stories involving subjects like kidnapping, cannibalism, and even underage sexual abuse (I’m not kidding).
Throughout the centuries of their existence, fairy tales have had many interpretations. As cinema came into play, they became the subjects of numerous film adaptations. Some recent ones have embraced the dark origins of the stories, but never in a way that captures the true horror that lies beneath the surface. Now one director, Osgood Perkins, is attempting to unearth the truth of the classic tale Hansel & Gretel, embracing the truly twisted story that it used to be.
In the depths of an ancient fairy tale forest, siblings Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sam Leakey) are trying to make it through their miserable existence living with their poor mother. One night, their mother throws them out and they are forced to fend for themselves. After days of wandering the woods without food or water, they believe that they may have found a home when they stumble upon a dark cottage that seems to warmly invite them in.
The home’s owner (Alice Krige), while certainly strange in behavior, is more than welcoming of the two children. She gives them food, work, and a place to sleep for the night; everything that they had been looking for. It seems like the perfect place to stay to Hansel. But Gretel suspects otherwise, as she begins to unravel the truth behind their mysterious host and discovers something sinister hiding just beneath the surface.
From the very opening of the film, which spins an original fairy tale like a horror story, you can tell that Osgood Perkins isn’t playing around. He isn’t going to tell you the classic tale like how your parents told you when they were putting you to bed. The opening is design to get you pleasantly unsettled, setting you up to witness something that resembles more of a nightmare than a kid-friendly bedtime story.
Gretel & Hansel stands on its own in the crowded library of studio horror offerings. It looks and acts like an arthouse horror flick; one released by A24 like Hereditary or The Witch (the latter of which clearly inspiring some of the film’s shots). It relies heavily on surreal imagery and creepy symbolism, something that will definitely off-put audiences looking for a more straightforward film.
But for those of you looking for something more unique in the genre, this is the breath of fresh air you’ve been looking for. From Perkins’s skillful direction, to the haunting production and costume design, to the total embrace of the fairy tale’s terrifying origins, this film does everything it can to stand apart from other modern horror films and fairy tale adaptations, and largely succeeds.
Much of the success comes from Perkins’s direction. The way he stages the shots is very simplistic and dark, relying mostly on natural lighting and tight spaces to create a tense atmosphere. Many of the scary elements are kept in the background, and the camera angles never focus directly on them. That’s what makes them so much more scary. They feel like more of a threat when they’re lurking in the background, obscured from view but you know they’re there. And that’s how most of the scares land hard.
That and the production and costume design. The world that Perkins has created oozes dread on every surface of its buildings and characters. There are scenes involving a sort-of dark sorcerer who’s face is covered and wears a black colonial hat. Just the look of this character creates a nightmarish image that is genuinely haunting. The witch’s home is also an unsettling design. The darkened rooms and small spaces make you feel genuinely trapped like the characters, and makes the atmosphere so much more tense.
All of this is held afloat by the performances of its cast. After making a splash with her performance in It, Sophia Lillis bring all the emotion she gave as Beverly to the character of Gretel, and more than manages to carry the majority of the film on her own. Alice Krige also plays a very menacing villain with her portrayal of the witch. She comes off as a genuine threat that will probably kill you if you cross her path.
Gretel & Hansel is the perfect cure for fatigue towards the abundance of horror films made by studios. It relies far more on dread and atmosphere than cheap jump scares, and creates a completely menacing world that will haunt your dreams. Everything feels like a threat, and will make you root for our title characters to survive until the end. Though its more cerebral elements won’t be what most horror fans are looking for, the film’s arthouse sensibilities make it the first great horror movie of 2020.