“A sometimes messy but beautifully shot retelling of a classic story”
In a sea of reboots, sequels, and reiterations, Gretel & Hansel (2020) is a refreshingly dark film that feels new and exciting despite the centuries-old story. The German fairy-tale was originally recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Since then, the story has been adapted and retold numerous times. Typically, the story is meant to be a warning tale for children to not trust strangers like the old woman who lures in Hansel and Gretel. Oz Perkins’ 2020 take on the story shifts the narrative’s focus. Rather than a tale of warning, Gretel & Hansel is a story about female power and witchcraft. The title alone captures Perkins’ changes: Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is the hero of this story.
The film begins with a folk tale about a young girl with dark gifts who lived in a heavily wooded area. When Gretel and Hansel (Samuel Leakey) are sent into the woods by their parents who can no longer feed them, Gretel thinks of the myth of the young girl. On their journey to find work and housing, they come upon a bleak but oddly inviting home. Amidst the silhouettes of dead trees and mysterious woods sits a triangular black house. The windows glow orange and smells of baked goods waft toward the children. Holda (Alice Krige), an elderly woman with blackened fingers, invites Gretel and Hansel to stay.
Gretel, the older child, is suspicious, but stays so they have a place to sleep and food to eat. Each day, her brother goes out to chop wood and Gretel spends time with Helda. Helda slowly introduces Gretel to the practices of witchcraft, easing her in with potions and spells. Gretel listens, but her suspicions remain and manifest in chilling nightmares and fear for her brother’s life. The last thirty minutes, as with many horror movies, is the scariest and highest stakes sequence. Gretel & Hansel does not reach the level of horrifying implied by its trailer, but even so, it is spooky and atmospheric throughout.
The best and most memorable part of Gretel & Hansel is Gretel herself. Sofia Lillis’ performance is the heart of the film. As sixteen-year-old Gretel, Lillis captures the fear, strength, and drive Gretel must possess to keep her brother and herself safe. At seventeen years old herself, Lillis shows wisdom and confidence beyond her years. Gretel is measured and clever, using her wit to survive Helda’s antics. Amidst a film with some pacing problems, Lillis carries the plot. After starring in this film and the new It duology, she is set to become a big name in the horror genre.
Outside of Lillis’ acting and a creative re-work of a classic story, Gretel & Hansel leaves something to be desired. The scares do not linger after the credits roll. What sticks with viewers will be Sofia Lillis’ talent rather than attributes of the film itself. Many of the shots are visually enticing, but that cannot save the movie from itself. In changing major plot points from the original tale, Gretel & Hansel becomes a sometimes messy, but beautifully shot retelling of a classic story.
Dir.: Oz Perkins
Prod.: Fred Berger
Cast: Sophia Lillis, Alice Kige, Samuel Leakey
Release date: 31 January 2020
Available in theaters
Featured image Courtesy of Orion Pictures