This fairy tale horror film’s style becomes overshadowed by odd missteps.
Despite some early negative buzz, I eagerly anticipated Gretel & Hansel. I enjoy atmospheric, visual-driven horror films, of the ilk that A24 has made their reputation on. I also think Sophia Lillis made a phenomenal impact with her work in IT Chapter 1 and 2. Alice Krige has also turned out some fantastic villainous roles in films such as Star Trek: First Contact and Silent Hill. It all looked good on paper.
Having watched the final product, I have to say that it mostly worked in practice. It just never quite made the jump from reliable to remarkable, and several directing decisions kept distracting me from the overall experience.
Gretel & Hansel (2020).
After the death of their father and the mental break-down of their mother, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her younger brother Hansel find themselves lost and alone. As they wander, a virtuous huntsman directs them to a woodsman’s family that will care for them, if they can safely traverse the foreboding forest – which is the abode of a mysterious witch (Alice Krige).
Gretel & Hansel tells its tale decently. On the surface, we get a solid deconstruction of the fairy tale into both a horror story and an examination of female empowerment. The visuals are suitably baroque and sinister, with a unifying aesthetic. Quite a few scares pop up, both from unexpected jump-scares and from a constantly building, pervasive sense of dread. The acting is memorable, though some stilted delivery seems to be baked into the direction of the scenes, a la Yorgos Lanthimos’ films.
The further I traveled into the dense thickets of this film, the more stylistic similarities to other recent films began to chip away at my enjoyment of Gretel & Hansel.
A Familiar Tale.
On a general level, Gretel & Hansel feels too similar in style to many of contemporary horror films. The slow, creeping dread and social dislocation reminded me of It Comes at Night. The mimicking of 70’s aesthetics has come back into vogue with titles like Mandy, Midsommar, and High Life. Period horror flicks are also in vogue, especially thematically similar film The Witch. Finally, the use of flat affect and stilted dialogue made indelible by Lanthimos has bled into many other recent horror films.
Had Gretel & Hansel arrived earlier in the cycle, these elements would have stood out as innovative. They’re mostly deployed well, and the film does have a wonderful visual aesthetic. It just happens to have a now common aesthetic that has to fight to distinguish itself from the pack.
If Gretel & Hansel had just suffered from the unfortunate fact of being the latest person to the party wearing the same dress, I wouldn’t have been too disappointed. It is an aesthetic I enjoy, and it’s currently popular in indie horror for a reason. The film possesses other flaws that really dragged me out of the experience, however.
From the first scenes, I was never sure when this film was supposed to be taking place. The introduction shows a little girl being run out of town for being touched by evil. Some of the costuming felt puritanical, but others felt if not modern, then of another period. The architecture, for as beautiful as it can be, feels wildly out of place in both material construction and style. I know she’s a witch, but I really couldn’t help but notice the poured concrete and wood paneling in her forest cottage. Plus, those gorgeous windows would have needed magic indeed if they appeared in the medieval German countryside of the original story.
Lost in the Forest.
I didn’t dislike Gretel & Hansel, but I did feel disappointed that it rarely excelled. The metaphor of witches as female empowerment/ feminist rebellion, while ably broached, is certainly not new. While lovely, the visual aesthetic feels so out of place that it distracts instead of inspires. All sorts of anachronisms and the stilted speech prevent two very compelling actresses to really sink into their roles. Every time I found myself engrossed in the film’s journey, it hit a bump in the road and threw me off.
For fans looking purely for atmosphere, Gretel & Hansel may have enough visual appeal and Gothic dread to keep you enchanted. For those looking for this re imaging to really sink its teeth into the material, you’re going to find yourself going hungry much of the time.