Like many stories, the tale of “Hansel and Gretel” has been adapted several times for cinema including the most recent mainstream effort, a guilty pleasure of mine, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”. But anyone familiar with the Grimm Fairytale, which should be pretty much everybody by now, knows there is so much more potential for this horror story and that it feels tailor made for interpretation as a gritty horror flick. That was the mentality for horror director Oz Perkins who brought the story to life again for 2020 with “Gretel & Hansel”. Focusing more on Gretel, a 15-year-old played by Sophia Lillis, than her younger brother Hansel, played by Sam Leakey in his debut feature, the film finds the two coming into contact with a witch, played by Alice Krige, only to learn that this may be a more fateful encounter than one of unfortunate chance. With this iconic story having been told so many times and horror getting off to a rough start in the new decade, does “Gretel & Hansel” offer anything new or interesting for either the property or the genre? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Gretel & Hansel”.
“Gretel & Hansel” a breath of fresh air for horror in 2020 where horrendous pictures like “The Turning” and “The Grudge” and the merely enjoyable but still very imperfect “Underwater” have been all we’ve had to embrace so far. “Gretel & Hansel”, while also imperfect, is a reminder of the gritty, slow burn and atmospheric horror that made the 2010s such a great decade for the genre. “Gretel & Hansel” oozes atmosphere with spooky and unsettling set pieces, spectacularly chosen shooting locations in the heart of Ireland, and more focus on developing the natural fear associated with its narrative than relying on jump scares and more simplified clichés. Honestly, it’s a lot better than I expected. “Gretel & Hansel” draws you in right away with its visual aesthetic and patience turning a short 1.5 hour run time into an experience that feels much more drawn out for better or worse. If you have no patience for slow burn horror the experience will leave you restless, but if you are willing to enjoy the scenery and detail put into the visuals as well as the way the story attempts to scare you with more visceral frights than anything else “Gretel & Hansel” can easily be appreciated as a delightful experience that gives you a lot to take in while taking up very little of your time.
There are two major issues with “Gretel & Hansel”, its story and script, although one is admittedly worse than the other. The script is definitely the most unbearable part of the film although it’s far from the worst writing I’ve ever seen for a horror movie. At times the dialogue feels so wooden and generic, other times it comes off as mildly pretentious and sometimes it does provide a neat line or two that actually pays off the attempts at sophisticated dialogue. It doesn’t help that the performances, while good, fail to feel cohesive. Alice Krige as the Witch feels like she in a much more straight forward horror movie, Sophia Lillis as Gretel has a completely different accent from her brother and sounds like she’s in a coming-of-age drama and newcomer Sam Leakey is unbearably annoying at certain parts of the film. None of these performances are necessarily bad but they all feel like they’re in very different films often clashing rather than complimenting each other.
The story itself has some great ideas expanding on the lore of these siblings’ story and even implying a deeper connection between Gretel and the witch that, while explored in past iterations, feels much more appropriate here. With that said, it’s also predictable especially considering the direction the movie looks like its heading, which honestly could have made for a more intriguing twist, until it decides to take the more obvious route. But the way it’s handled I still enjoyed its own unique take on the ideas and concepts. Even having seen a lot of these things before it felt fresh and unique to see them done the way Perkins portrays them here. To me it was a fine example of how previously explored ideas could be, and are, improved on. The fact that the story is complimented by appropriate visuals, style and a genuinely unsettling narrative tone only helps bring out the best in what this movie does offer even if it clearly had the potential to bring so much more to the table.
Best of all though even as a slow burn film “Gretel & Hansel” is actually scary. It’s easy to put yourself in these kids’ shoes and consider what it would be like to experience this story from your own perspective. The immersion is great and while many versions of this famed story have either watered things down or taken things to corny levels of attempted entertainment this version feels more controlled and inspired even in spite of any derivative or cliche ideas that help drive it forward. It really feels like Oz Perkins looked at past adaptations and dared to say “anything you can do I can do better” and he pulls it off even if he could have used a more creative and inspired writing team to fully realize his vision.
“Gretel and Hansel” is a solid horror fantasy and one of the better interpretations of the Brothers Grimm’s famous fairytale for the big screen. If you’re familiar with the story of these siblings you’ll know where its headed, but it’s how it gets from point A to point B that makes it interesting utilizing some neat camera work, creative a spooky set pieces and environments and a reliance on more patient horror to get the job done. While its script doesn’t do the actors or the slightly derivative and predictable story any favors and the performances themselves can feel disjointed the overall tone of the product does enough to create the same kind of visceral scares that some of the best genre films of the 2010s managed to accomplish making “Gretel & Hansel” an imperfect but fine addition to the slow-burn horror craze. It’s not for everyone, but this is the kind of horror movie we’ve come to expect from the genre in recent years and I hope this is what we get to see more and more of as 2020 rolls on. With better writing this could have been the first great horror film of the decade, but as it stands it’s the first truly GOOD horror movie of 2020 that sets the bar for what’s yet to come.