This is the first review I’m writing, based on a suggestion from another horror fan whose only preface was that he had “thoughts” about it. Quite vague, but having watched it myself, I agree. Many thoughts. So here we start.
Gretel & Hansel (2020) had a major theatrical release last year in January but somehow I missed it. (I only managed to sneak in two trips to the theater last year: The Lodge pre-pandemic and Peninsula in a very eerie, empty theater wearing a mask.) You can find this particular reimagining of the German fairytale streaming on Hulu as of January 2021.
The film opens with a meta fairytale of its own: a pretty little baby girl is born but develops an illness, so her desperate father enlists a witch to heal her, imbuing her with a psychic gift. The thing about most magical “gifts” is that they tend to be curses, right? The child possesses the ability to not only predict people’s deaths but to cause them as well. Her mother sends her off alone into the woods after she enchants her father to swallow a fire poker, but from her sociopathic stare, it’s clear that she’s not done killing and we’ll probably meet her again . . . or rather, Hansel and Gretel will.
Once we’re brought to the perspective of the titular children, it’s clear almost immediately why director Oz Perkins has chosen to reorder the names. This is Gretel’s movie. Most versions of the story give the impression the kids are closely related, if not twins, but Perkins’s adaption presents a teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis) forced to look after her much younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey). What a drag.
And rather than the usual narrative of Hansel and Gretel against the witch, it’s more about Gretel against the world. Her own mother throws a violent tantrum and kicks her and Hansel out after Gretel passes up a housekeeping gig for an old man (that would come at the cost of her virginity). After narrowly escaping a bizarre attack from an emaciated humanoid creature, the kids ingest some psilocybin mushrooms they discover in the forest for breakfast, which goes exactly how you’d expect. They giggle, panic, and ultimately end up with the munchies. “Luckily” they stumble across a goth Scandinavian cottage that I could envision on the cover of AD Magazine, complete with an unlocked door and a dining table full of cake. Hansel helps himself while Gretel frets, until the enchanted crone makes her entrance and surprises them both with an invitation to stay.
Hansel is happy to take her up on the offer but Gretel remains suspicious of their well-catered albeit slightly sinister Airbnb.
Watching this teenage girl with far too much cynicism for her age, it’s tough not to notice the striking resemblance Gretel bears to Lillis’s most prominent role of Beverly Marsh in It: Chapters 1 and 2. Both girls are forced to protect themselves from vulgar, adult evils as they navigate adolescence. They even have the same short haircut that suggests a rejection of the hyper-sexualization forced onto them by predatory older men. (To be fair, though, it might just be a style preference.)
Coming-of-age horror movies aren’t a unique genre (it’s how Lillis made a name for herself in the first place), but Gretel & Hansel is beautifully shot with some genuinely chilling sights and sounds. But I found myself confused at what Perkins really had in mind for the tone. Between playful, silly scenes (Gretel making polite conversation with plants) and much heavier, darker scenes (a table covered in children’s guts and limbs), the movie seemed unable to choose what it wanted to be. Much like the plight of any teenager, right?
The film’s most obvious intention was to give Gretel the spotlight so she could claim her independence—not just from Hansel, who was regularly described as a burden, despite being just an eight-year-old orphan—but from the whole world, wherever or whenever it takes place. This is never clearly expressed. Both Lillis and Leakey sport inconsistent accents and all the characters dabble in vernacular that transcends centuries. “Fall quiet, boy, for I shall write my own story,” Gretel seethes at Hansel in one scene, while in another, the witch shatters a piece of pottery and sighs, “Another one bites the dust!”
Despite the confusing dialogue, it was interesting to see the witch (Alice Krige) given an extra dimension beyond the hag with an appetite for children. In this version, she takes on a mentorship role toward Gretel, smirking at society’s plans for the girl to join a convent then coaxing her toward a craft of her own.
The witch is fond of making remarks with feminist overtones about women knowing more than they are supposed to (👀), but it struck me as strange considering the director, writer, and lead producers are all male. I’m not condemning a movie that subverts gender norms and tries to empower women—the name of this blog will tell you that—but it felt like an odd concept for them to pursue without anyone but men on the core team. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)
I’m probably a little jaded by the growing Hollywood trend of using feminism as the big reveal and overall lacking subtlety with anything deemed “woke,” especially when the idea of girls kicking ass isn’t a new concept.
Still, Gretel & Hansel had a lot of opportunity. I was admittedly disappointed by its logical—and therefore predictable—climax, as well as its hollow ending, but I respect the movie’s decision to finally sever the bond between the siblings and give Gretel a story of her own. Lillis has already demonstrated that she can do better, when she took down an immortal clown, stealing hearts both on and offscreen. Now it’s Laskey’s turn, as this was his debut. I look forward to seeing where he appears next—hopefully in a movie where he has a chance for the spotlight, not on a silver platter.
Trigger Warnings: Non-graphic animal death, opening scene
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