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