Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures
Most horror fans know Oz Perkins by this point. As a director, the son of Anthony Perkins made a name for himself in 2015 with The Blackcoat’s Daughter, a bleak take on the typical exorcism story, complete with moody visuals that often surpassed narrative and story. The same is true of his follow-up, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a brooding ghost story. Perkins’ latest feature, Gretel and Hansel, retells the classic Grimm’s Fairy Tale, and like his previous features, it’s more concerned with establishing a haunting world and showcasing the visual over the narrative. The result is a film that feels like something A24 would have released, an art house horror flick that may not find a broad audience because of its emphasis on imagery and a slow burn. That said, there are enough horror fans tired of the formulaic jump scares that may find something to like in Perkins’ dark fairy tale.
Generally, Gretel and Hansel is the story we all know. It features three main characters, Gretel (Sophia Lillis), Hansel (Samuel Leakey), and the witch/Holda (Alice Krige). Yet, it’s clear from the outset that Perkins and writer Rob Hayes chose to emphasize Gretel’s story above all else. In this retelling, she’s older than her brother, and in the opening minutes, we see her attend a job interview for a man who insists that she call him “my lord” and then implies that she could be of use to him only in a sexual context. She refuses, and soon enough, Gretel and Hansel’s mom toss them out when they don’t bring home income. The siblings are then left to find their way in the meandering, dark woods and ultimately stumble upon the witch’s house. Instead of a gingerbread house, Perkins created a triangle-shaped dwelling that has a peephole near the front door, where the siblings see a scrumptious feast that’s more than enough to satiate their grumbling tummies.
Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures
From there, the story takes a slightly different turn. The witch is interested in mentoring Gretel and unleashing her feminine power. However, one main plot hole involves the witch’s intentions. It’s rather unclear if she truly wants to guide the young woman or has more nefarious plans in mind, like shoving her into an oven. The plot is not meaty enough to really offer an answer, and due to the narrative ambiguity, it’s left for the viewer to decide. Regardless, witches have often been associated with feminine power throughout folklore and horror history, so it’s nice to see Perkins align his film with said history.
The rest of the film is a visual feast. Inside the house, there are shots of gleaming serving trays that hold plump turkey legs and fat pastries, while the exterior shots feature shadowy, leaf-strewn paths and gnarled tree branches that go a long way in establishing both the mood and the world. The imagery of red smoke billowing from the chimney is also quite effective. Additionally, the hellish dreams that Gretel has once she accepts the witch’s lodging add to the grim tale. However, the most arresting visuals occur whenever the younger version of Holda (Jessica De Gouw) appears. The raven-haired, pale-skinned character is simply spellbinding, especially during the climax.
Perkins succeeded in creating a captivating world in Gretel and Hansel, and the fact he emphasized Gretel’s story offers a new take on a well-known fairy tale. It’s hard to say, however, if this film will find a large audience, despite its wide release. It’s very much an art house horror film that isn’t for everyone, but if you like slow burn horror that’s emphasizes the visual, sometimes more than than the narrative, then Gretel and Hansel is worth the price of admission.