What’s the best way to revive a classic horror story in 2020? We’re only at the end of January, and we’ve already seen a fair few attempts this year. Netflix/BBC had their DRACULA revival via miniseries. THE GRUDGE maybe isn’t quite old enough to be called a classic, but there was an attempt made at bringing that particular ghost back to life. UNDERWATER also tackled a new Cthulhu story head-on and knocked it out of the park. (If you want to hear our takes on these three new stories, check out our podcast!) So it doesn’t feel that out of place for us to see a new stab at a Grimm’s fairy tale. This time around, it’s the German story “Hansel and Gretel”, brought to life with Orion Pictures’ new flick GRETEL AND HANSEL — though I argue this one is less horror movie and more dark fantasy, it still counts.
Director and co-writer Oz Perkins has chosen to revive this two-century-old story with a heaping amount of visual style. It’s sort of like if you took the bleak atmosphere of THE WITCH and inserted eerie red lights in the forest, cloaked black silhouettes, and lots and lots of triangles. Frankly, it does look really cool. I love the idea of telling a fairy tale in this manner: it’s not a played-out modern retelling of a classic story, but it borrows modern aesthetics to contrast them sharply with the twisted forest nearly the entire movie is set in. The world of GRETEL AND HANSEL feels rich and uncanny, and I would like to see more of it — not in some convoluted Grimm Extended Universe or anything, but I could see the look lending itself well to an anthology of short films.
Unfortunately, the visual slickness is pretty much all this movie commits to. It doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to telling its story — everyone already knows the old woman our two protagonists meet in the forest is an evil witch intending to eat them — but the attempts it makes at expanding on it don’t really go anywhere. There’s a subplot introduced where the witch teaches Gretel how to use magic and become a witch herself, but it mostly remains a vaguely interesting idea that sort of helps in the final confrontation — if you can even call it a confrontation. The movie was less than an hour and a half long, and I wish they’d taken some more time to expand on some of their new ideas. When every plot point from the original story takes just a conversation or two to cover, though, nothing gets developed, and it leaves the whole movie feeling boring and shallow.
In a very weird way, it almost seems like GRETEL AND HANSEL is making some kind of social commentary, at times. It starts off with Gretel — who is 16 years old in this movie — being asked by an old rich man if she’s still a virgin while she’s inquiring about doing housekeeping work. She reacts with anger and disgust, leaves, and is then berated by her brother and mother for not sucking it up and taking the job. Hansel is only 8 years old and doesn’t really understand the situation, and her mother is shown to be cruel in general, so it’s not like the narrative is trying to paint them as correct — but the only person to ever directly point out the barbarity of Gretel’s situation (aside from Gretel herself) is… the witch. In fact, the only person to address the injustices that Gretel faces, both from the imbalanced class system the film alludes to and the fact that she (despite being a child herself) is forced to care for Hansel, is the woman who is trying to convince her to cannibalize her brother. As with most of its narrative, the script is too brief and shallow to draw conclusions one way or the other, but the unfairness of “the system” is brought up enough to make me wonder — what is this movie actually trying to say? The witch is unequivocally evil, but she’s the only one encouraging Gretel to stand up for herself and lead her own life. Perhaps it’s a lackluster attempt at giving these characters “depth” — not all evil people are evil in everything they do, after all — but it comes across as hollow.
Overall, it feels like the film rushes through the actual plot and tries to make up for it with filming through wide angle lenses, a commitment to dead center shots on characters (in what I initially thought was commentary on how framing plays into fairy tales) that never goes anywhere, a metric ton of lighting gels, and set pieces that look like they were created by going through “dark aesthetic” blogs from 2010. If the film took the time or care to develop the story and characters past “sometimes we have to let the things we love go to allow ourselves to grow” — which, in this setting, is pretty ridiculous considering the thing Gretel has to let go is her brother who is only EIGHT YEARS OLD and can barely swing an axe, let alone fend for himself — it might be passably cool.
Still, for all its flaws, I can’t bring myself to hate this movie. I like what the filmmakers were attempting, at least. Inserting the film’s own in-story fairy tale of an enchantress — fully shrouded in featureless black save her long claws — curing and then cursing a girl in a pink cap is a great idea. Giving Gretel a predisposition to using the same magic the witch uses is super interesting. Concepts like these are worthwhile and I would have liked to see them extended past mere ideas. And I’m always relieved to see a horror (or at least horror-adjacent) piece that doesn’t rely on jump scares. If you’re going to make a film that rests on a visual concept, you really have to commit to it, and this one does. But clever set pieces can’t carry a movie by themselves. The characters and plot have to stand on their own. Atmosphere should enhance a story, not make it look weak in comparison.
Overall I give GRETEL AND HANSEL a 5/10, but two of the points are because I’m a sucker for this particular goth aesthetic, even though it’s probably better utilized in music videos or artbooks than a feature film. It’s a lot of style WAY over substance, and I don’t expect a lot of horror fans to come away feeling particularly satisfied. I’d personally like to see it again, but I know I’ll never convince my husband to put up with a repeat viewing.
My favorite part of the theater experience was actually the two women to our right. It seemed as though one of them had slept through the entire movie, and when she asked her friend to clarify what happened, she immediately said, “I was waiting for her to eat the kid. Just roast him!” and, “The witch made some points. About everything.” Shoutout to these two — I desperately want to be their friend.