January is notoriously a dumping ground for movies that studios generally have no confidence in. Out of those we are all but guaranteed a handful of low budget horror films that are as forgettable as they are superfluous. Dropped into this year’s veritable dead zone is the surprisingly inspired “Gretel & Hansel”. It’s a high concept fantasy horror dive that exceeded my expectations at nearly every turn.
“Gretel & Hansel” comes from director Osgood Perkins, son the late Anthony Perkins. It’s from a script Perkins co-wrote with Rob Hayes and is based on the classic German folktale from the Brothers Grimm. Here the bigger focus is on creating atmosphere and building tension visually more so than narratively. It’s something the movie leans heavily on and for the most part nails.
You’ll quickly notice that Gretel is the film’s centerpiece hence the name switcheroo in the title. In the fairy tale the two kids are around the same age. Here Gretel (played by Sophia Lillis) is both narrator and older sister taking care of her precocious younger brother (Sam Leakey) after the two are cast into the dark woods by their destitute and unstable mother. They travel across the hellish, famine-stricken land, helped by a mysterious hunter (Charles Babalola), haunted by eerie apparitions appearing in the distance, and growing hungrier with every passing day.
The story settles in when starving Gretel and Hansel come across a remote A-frame house deep in the forest. A peep through a window reveals a table full of fruits, meats, breads, and sweets. Hansel sneaks inside but is snagged by the owner, a creepy old crone named Holda. She’s played by a terrifically menacing Alice Krige who exudes dread from her eerie glances to her fingertips black with rot. Thanks to the source material we know she’s actually a witch and her motivations going forward are unquestionably sinister.
She invites Gretel inside to join her brother at the table where the two stuff their empty stomachs. The witch convinces the children to stay and soon is teaching Gretel small spells and female empowerment while steadily pushing second helpings in front of Hansel. As the witch inspires Gretel’s desire for agency and independence she soon begins to manipulate it. The question becomes will Gretel see through the witch’s radicalization and become her own woman? If not the consequences could be horrific.
When all is said and done the story itself (though interesting) is pretty light. Perkins and Hayes stretch their tale about as far as they can just to fill the small 88 minute runtime. At first it was something that set the movie back for me, but since then I’ve seen it as less of an issue because I’m convinced there are more thematic layers ￼than I gave it credit for. It’s￼ a case where I’m anxious to give the movie a second look hopefully with a more attentive eye.
But I have to get back to the visuals and the way they develop and maintain mood and atmosphere. There are countless haunting images, meticulously framed and resembling something plucked out of a Robert Eggers picture. In fact there is a genuine arthouse quality to the presentation and I could imagine seeing an A24 stamp in front of the title. Much of the credit goes to cinematographer Galo Olivares who was a ￼ collaborator on Alfonso Cuarón’s exquisite Oscar winner “Roma”￼. His use of lighting, shadows, camera angles, and simple still shots to brilliantly capture Perkins’ vision and verve.
Better yet, the movie truly believes in its visuals which convey the bulk of the horror. It’s refreshing to see a reliance on something other than cheap, overused jump scares. And there is rarely a shot where something ￼doesn’t catch your eye. It’s all done with a minuscule $5 million budget. Further proof that you don’t need tons of money and big digital effects￼ to make a movie look incredible.￼
So you could say “Gretel & Hansel” is a macabre coming-of-age story about individuality and￼ burgeoning womanhood. You could embrace it as a grim slice of medieval period ￼horror. There are several things you could call it including an ‘unexpected surprise’. Unfortunately I can see it struggling to find an audience. It’s leisurely paced and requires audiences to do a little more work than in traditional horror pictures. But I found it to be visually arresting, light on story but big on ideas, and a welcomed break from what January usually has to offer.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS
Wow this actually looks pretty well-shot and dark. By the sounds of it, a more haunting and serious version of the children’s classic. I think I will watch this one when it comes out here! Nice review!
It was such a nice surprise. The cinematography and the way it conveys atmosphere was at times astonishing. Definitely give it a look when you get a chance. I’m glad I did.
Nice to hear of a horror movie outside the usual parameters for that genre.
Very much so. And no jump scares! That was something I REALLY appreciated!
I hate jump scares!
Me too. Lazy, predictable, and annoying!
It’s why I never do horror movies anymore.
I completely understand. My wife is the same way.
Well said, Keith. Visually arresting is a good way to describe what I’ve seen of the trailer.
It really surprised me Cindy. Talk about low expectations. But it more than exceeded them. Not sure if it’s on your radar but you should give it a look.
At least it looks interesting and at least tries to do something different. If it’s on TV, I’ll check it out.
It really does and I would recommend it just for the fantastic visuals. There is some incredibly inspired work here that unfortunately is destined to go unnoticed. This thing isn’t doing anything at the box office.
“January is notoriously a dumping ground for movies that studios generally have no confidence in.” Hahahaha! True story – such a great way to word the January movie slump. I admit this film isn’t on my list of movies to see, as horror isn’t really my genre, but I really enjoyed reading your review of it!
Thanks so much. I gotta say I really hope more people will give it a look. It’s far from a traditional modern day horror movie. It surprised the heck out of me. The visual artistry is really impressive. Then again, if horror isn’t your thing I still don’t know if you would care for it.
I’m very glad to hear it’s better than the expectations! That’s always nice when that happens.
For sure. And that’s not always the case, especially in the horror genre.
Nice review Keith and enjoyed your details of the plot. Coincidentally this was the movie i chose to see for this week. Same as your opinion, i really appreciated the visuals and atmosphere. Decided to give it 3.5 / 4 because of that. The atmosphere was consistently effective. just a scary and accomplished movie.
Yes! I teetered back-and-forth between 3.5 and 4/5. I was really impressed. And for a movie that I literally had no expectations for. It’s just unfortunate that it isn’t finding an audience.