January is finally over, everyone! Hollywood did what it always does, we survived it, and most of the public has already forgotten about The Turning (I will likely never forget).We have so many great horror films to look forward to in February, like… Fantasy Island! There’s also Brahms: The Boy II! Anyhow, there’s one more January horror movie I need to talk about, one that came out of the gate right before it closed over the weekend. Luckily for me, this one is nowhere near the disaster that The Turning was.
A reimagining of the classic Grimm tale, Gretel & Hansel is the latest work from director Osgood Perkins. Some might recognize him as the son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins, but Osgood has made a name for himself in the indie horror scene. He has a unique directorial style that’s captivating to watch, and even though his two previous features (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) didn’t impress me from a narrative perspective, I highly appreciated the filmmaking that Perkins utilized. His films are often quiet, with sparse yet explosive sound design and tight cinematography creating haunting portraits, but neither of his bare-bones screenplays have managed to move me. With a different screenwriter and cinematographer at the helm, however, Gretel & Hansel is a massive improvement for Perkins in almost every sense.
This is arguably Perkins’s most commercial effort to date. Grimm fairy tales might as well be their own individual franchises, considering how many adaptations we get of them. It has a marketable star for genre buffs in It’s Sophia Lillis, and had an incredible first trailer to get the ball rolling. This is no studio compromise for Perkins however, despite an increase in first act jumpscares. Shot in a 1.55 aspect ratio and roaming at a snail’s pace despite the 90 minute runtime, this doesn’t feel very different from Perkins’s earlier works. It separates itself from his previous features in other technical elements, with a heavy focus on cinematography and score driving the movie forward. Even carefully placed droughts of the score and flashy colors work to make Gretel and Hansel feel more isolated in the witch’s disproportionate house. Lillis works wonderfully as the vulnerable protagonist, radiating empathy and a caring energy that makes you want to see her and Hansel escape the clutches of the witch. Speaking of that darn witch, Alice Krige turns in an intimidating and captivating performance as the film’s antagonist. She finds a way to be captivating, convincing, and sinister all in equal measure, and the film simply wouldn’t work if her character was anything less than stellar.
The film has an odd energy to it that goes beyond the technical elements and period dialogue. In fact, it has an odd theme of feminism buried within it. Nothing like last year’s Black Christmas, which I feel like a crazy person for enjoying after reading other people’s thoughts on it, but a message more subtle and buried within the text instead of informing it. An early scene finds Gretel having to choose between joining a convent for protection or leaving her insane mother’s home with her brother. This decision comes quickly when she speaks to an older man asking her all sorts of uncomfortable questions. The witch also has quite a bit of dialogue relaying to this theme, most notably (I’m paraphrasing) “the king is afraid, because the queen can do whatever she wants.” Sure, this is delivered in relation to chess, but lines like these inform an interesting narrative. Without having the characters question the societal boundaries around them, the viewer is left to ponder how the outside world impacts the situation that the witch, and ultimately Gretel, find themselves in as women. They both exist in a patriarchal society, one where women either learn to be quiet and stand behind the line, or become monsters (or simply seen as such) when they decide to seek the full extent of their powers of being.
This is a huge improvement for Perkins, one that takes the best parts of his directorial skills and blends them with a narrative that feels more extensive. The cinematography creates beautifully terrifying images, and the score from French artist Rob holds you down for the ride. At a tight 87 minutes, it’s a crime to overlook Gretel & Hansel, especially if it makes its way to streaming in the near future.
B+ Review 2020 alice krige anthony perkins B+ black christmas brahms: the boy ii fantasy island gretel & hansel i am the pretty thing that lives in the house osgood perkins psycho rob sophia lillis the turning