Oz Perkins has become something of a divisive figure within the horror community since his debut The Blackcoat’s Daughter in 2015. The son of the late horror legend Anthony Perkins (Psycho, Crimes of Passion), the filmmaker is known for his slow burning atmospheric tales which many have gravitated towards while others have dismissed. Perkins’ latest effort Gretel & Hansel aims to twist the beloved German fairytale of Hansel and Gretel to its most sinister – adding his signature minimalist plotting and heavy emphasis on dread rather than conventional horror movie tropes.
Gretel & Hansel opens with a fascinating little origin story focusing on an ill child believed to be on the verge of death and the consequences of enlisting the aid of an enchantress in a poverty-stricken small village. Narrated by an unseen female presence, this opening origin story immediately sets the tone for the film to come. Morbid atmosphere permeates the opening minutes as Perkins delivers some of his most confident and striking visual cinematography to date. Reminiscent of recent folktale horror flicks like The Witch and Errementari: The Blacksmith and The Devil, Gretel & Hansel very quickly establishes that this will not be your standard fairytale horror affair.
After this interesting opening, Gretel & Hansel follows our protagonists, Gretel and Hansel (played by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey) as they journey throughout a grim fairytale land in search of salvation and more importantly food to fill their hungry stomachs. After being cast out by their mother to find work, a better life and a brighter future, the pair encounter numerous characters with frightening perspectives on life.
The most interesting of these, The Huntsman (Charles Babalola – The Legend of Tarzan, Mary Magdalene), offers up a profound perspective that represents Gretel & Hansel down to its very core. Upon meeting The Huntsman in terrifying circumstances, he bestows some words of wisdom upon these children, words that will define the outcomes of the central characters: “Keep to the path I’ve drawn for you and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Stray from it and you can expect to meet wolves. And if you do, don’t stop to talk to them. They’re very charming and handsome but make terrible conversation.”
These words question both Gretel and Hansel’s willpower early on and ultimately their insatiable lust, for food is their downfall. Much like the fairytale story that acts as its source material, the pair do meet a wolf in sheep’s clothing – Holda, played by the simply superb Alice Krige (Silent Hill, Star Trek: First Contact). The promise of bacon, cakes and delicious assortments of sweets is just too much for these children to deny and although Gretel is at first skeptical, both children are defeated and consumed by their desires. It’s a superb setup that showcases exactly why the fairytale source material is such a beloved story, asking the simple question of just how far you would go to fulfill your desires, even if it meant dancing with ravenous wolves.
The cast is superb all-round. It’s Sophia Lillis is the main focus as the older and somewhat wiser Gretel. Her performance carries all the weight it needs and deserves to make viewers sympathise with her and become worried for her safety during the film’s darker moments. She feels confident as Gretel, with the character acting as both the voice of reason and the catalyst at times during this progressive tale of human desire. Sam Leakey is also terrific as Hansel, the younger brother who acts almost entirely with his stomach before his mind. The young actor is lovable and sympathetic. But make no mistake, Perkins provides Leakey with the opportunity to showcase how detrimental some of Hansel’s decisions can be and it is fascinating to watch, if also highly frustrating. This frustration however is earned and justified because Leakey gives a performance that quickly consolidates just how conflicted Hansel is and his reliance on food to fight his ever-growing starvation is entirely relatable.
That said, Alice Krige steals the show here. Coupled with Perkins distinct visual flair and creepiness, Krige stalks and terrifies with every interaction and encounter while still remaining charming and welcoming – sporting an Irish accent – within the eyes of the untainted children. Many fairy-tale inspired movies like Snow White and The Huntsman or even the newest reincarnation of Hellboy have attempted to create truly menacing female antagonists and have failed. Yet, with Gretel & Hansel, both Krige and Perkins have nailed it perfectly.
In Gretel & Hansel, Perkins applies great care to the visual style and set designs. Filmed in Dublin, the movie embraces its fairy-tale setting to the fullest with haunting woodland locations that ooze uneasy atmosphere throughout the horror’s 87-minute runtime. Holda’s home, meanwhile, feels so haunting with matte black finishes preventing any form of light from entering its interior. At the same time, vibrant colours bring this horror setting to life instantly and provide some eschewed sense of security. Red and orange command almost every indoor scene. The end result is a visual style as immediately striking yet charming as the film’s infamous antagonist.
The editing is also strong with Josh Ethier, a regular compatriot to fellow cult horror director, Joe Begos, handling those duties terrifically. Along with the deceivingly bright but minimal synth soundscapes provided by Robin Coudert, Ethier ensures every scene feels sharp and delivers a quick response to proceedings in a way most slow burn horror movies rarely do.
The pacing of Gretel & Hansel could be the major issue for most horror fans, with the movie maybe Perkins’ slowest burn yet. It’s a film that demands patience and that just may be a step too far for most. That said, the filmmaker ensures his latest doesn’t reveal too much too early with every scene crafted to near perfection, a trait comparable to the likes of The Witch or Ari Aster’s Hereditary.
Oz Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel may just be one of the best horror movies 2020 has to offer and maybe one of the best of the last couple of years. The filmmaker’s newest creation is a shining example of an artist who isn’t afraid to take huge risks with his work. Gretel & Hansel definitely isn’t for everyone but if you can buy into its deliberately measured pace and the many questions it has to offer on the fragility of the human body and mind, particularly in children, then you are sure to find a highly rewarding macabre fairytale awaiting you.