Gretel Hansel review Sophia Lillis

Year: 2020
Director(s): Osgood Perkins
Writer(s): Rob Hayes
Region of Origin: USA
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: PG-13
Color, 87 mins

Synopsis: Siblings desperate for shelter encounter evil. (Source)

Real horror lies beneath the surface. It thrives in the deepest recesses of our subconscious and festers. Director Osgood Perkins fully understands this, and that’s what makes Gretel & Hansel such a stunning effort. Here, the timeless fairy tale is updated, but it’s still what goes unsaid that resonates the loudest. With this penchant for nuance and an ability to manifest unsaid fears into moments of spectacular terror, Perkins finds substance within his vivid style. This isn’t a film that prizes fleeting jump scares or overt monsters. It’s patient and takes its time to dig deeper. It has a pace that not everyone will be on board with, but is also meticulously playing the long game. At any rate, our patience is rewarded with a richly drawn fantasy overflowing with intimacy, witty subversion and emotional heft. 

16-year-old Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and 8-year-old Hansel (Sam Leakey) have no one but each other. Their mother has just kicked them out of their home, leaving Gretel to worry about how to support and protect her younger brother. She attempts to find work, but the world has its own ideas of how a young woman should be used. A stranger eventually takes them in and points them toward refuge. As they begin on their journey, their path leads them through a dark forest. Strange sights and visions draw them to a small, but striking home. While attempting to steal food, its owner, a mysterious but inviting older woman named Holda (Alice Krige) offers to give them safety. She gives them work to do in exchange for shelter, but the longer they stay, the more unsettling things begin to happen. Gretel soon finds that Holda and her have a lot in common. She also learns that when something is given, something else is taken away.

Gretel Hansel review 2 Sophia Lillis

The key to the film is how closely Perkins has hewed to his source material. Rather than reinventing for the sake of it, he’s built upon an already strong foundation, supplementing it and make it mean something. The film’s structure easily earns its extended plotting. It now fleshes out both Gretel and the mysterious Holda as two women who represent opposite sides of the same coin. As the film centers around a delicate dance between the two, Perkins maintains an increasing dread. He contrasts their place within society and the ways they’ve forged their own paths for survival. This poignant view of femininity, drawing upon trauma, strength and even motherhood is what drives the film’s Lynchian myth. Ultimately, Perkins’ evocative effort pulls as much from deep social ideas and perception as much is it does from fantasy, blending the two into an inescapable vision that is timelessly urgent. This is now a story that’s liberating and empowering, confronting the confusion of finding our place in the world. 

Just in the way that his characters subvert archetypal displays, so too does Perkins’ world building. Holda’s home is an anachronistic marvel that’s understated and defies both classic and modern sensibilities. It’s sharp and minimal, with its geometry creating hard lines that frame a growing sense of unease. The cinematography from Galo Olivares drenches entire scenes and characters in primary hues while cold greys create an atmosphere of oppression. Even before you take a look at the film beyond its surface, every scene looks as if it’s been stripped from an elegant but creepy art book. This isn’t even counting the strange, alluring images that line the film’s hallucinatory and grotesque horrors.

Gretel Hansel review Alice Krige

Despite the story’s dreamlike and abstract execution, the performances manage to give everything a humanity. True to form, the film almost exclusively is tethered to Hansel, Gretel and Holda’s witch, with the latter two taking center stage. As Greta, Lillis embodies ideas that transcend her character’s young age. As this is about her awakening, Lillis is able to make the ideas that relate to her feel tangible and sincere. Almost stealing the show, however, Krige is mesmerizing as the unsettling woman toying with her prey. The film gives her a satisfying backstory that allows her weight and an empathetic POV. Though we’re scared of her, we’re also drawn to her and what has lead her to her current position. Lillis and Krige are amazing together, weaving the film’s disparate opposing ends into an inextricable whole. 

Seeing how this film is already a miss at the box office, I can’t help but cling to the hope that it’ll slowly find the audience it deserves. Perkins has pinpointed why fairy tales like this have stood the test of time. He hasn’t alienated the source material, instead creating something that can speak to all ages without watering things down for younger viewers. In fact, the film feels like it’s from a parent who loves his child, but has lived through and seen some horrible stuff. The film is giving things to us straight despite the eerie symbolism. On top of it all, the film is as personal as it is universal. Perkins proves himself an important voice for discerning horror fans. Every step of the way, he resists trends, finding ways to confront ideas and feelings that only cinema can manifest.