Of all fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel is arguably the most horrific. The German folktale, famously captured by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s, touches on such disturbing subject matter as filicide through abandonment, starvation, child abuse and cannibalism. There’s a happy ending for our heroic young siblings (and title characters), but they’re put through hell before they get there.
Hansel and Gretel seems like a natural fit for a horror movie or pitch-black fantasy adaptation, which is exactly what genre filmmaker Oz Perkins has done with Gretel & Hansel: A Grim Fairy Tale.
Why the name inversion? Well, this take on the famous fairy tale is definitely Gretel’s story. The siblings aren’t similar-age equals. Gretel (Sophia Illis, from It and I Am Not Okay With This) is a teenager protective of her upbeat but perpetually hungry eight-year-old brother Hansel (Sam Leakey). In fact, since their insane mother chased the children out of their home, Gretel has essentially been a step-in mom for Hansel, shouldering the massive responsibility and making tough decisions to keep the pair alive. Her greatest life lesson in the film’s world of despair, famine and exploitative human monsters: Gifts are not free; they always have a price.
Which makes Gretel naturally distrustful when they stumble onto a mysterious feast-filled house in the woods, and its elderly inhabitant (South African actress, and Borg queen, Alice Krige) welcomes the children in and offers them a home.
Now Gretel & Hansel is one of the most visually striking horror films you will ever see. The trailer sadly gives away many of the eyeball-searing delights, but the film is stuffed with imagery straight out of a bad trip. It is meticulously staged and shot, with a production design that is consistently, and bewilderingly timeless: Simultaneously medieval and contemporary.
Gretel & Hansel also contains possibly one of the most stomach-churning scenes captured on film in recent years. If you’re currently sitting on the fence about becoming vegetarian or vegan, this movie will tip you straight into a meat-free life.
It’s disappointing then that with so much effort put into its aesthetic that Gretel & Hansel is so inconsistent in other departments. Leisurely scenes soaked in dread are usually capped by an out-of-place jump scare. And when not incomprehensible, accents and dialogue jar, jumping from colloquial American English – particularly from Illis – to stiff Britishness and dated turns of phrase used as aural shorthand for onscreen fantasy.
Speaking of leisurely scenes, Gretel & Hansel rarely seems in a hurry to go anywhere. The film is only 87 minutes long, yet often feels like 2 hours-plus as it lounges in lengthy detours to nightmare landscapes. Was Gretel dreaming? Was what she saw real or a vision? This particular trope is cycled through several times, and the repetitiveness and overall languid pacing is likely to alienate a lot of viewers who will view Gretel & Hansel as arty and/or insufferably pretentious.
This approach is frustrating as there is a lot of meat on the narrative bones of Gretel & Hansel. Like the witch in the fairy tale prodding and pinching Hansel to see how he’s fattening up, the audience receives glimpses of something more. It’s just never capitalised on. The breadcrumbs are haphazardly scattered.
For example, Gretel’s temptation isn’t a table of food. It’s liberation from the stifling maternal responsibilities forced on her. Nothing is really done with this feminist theme, just as nothing is done with a lot of the potential-loaded aspects of the source material. In some versions of the Hansel and Gretel story, the witch has poor eyesight and Gretel exploits the weakness to buy time and ultimately save herself and her brother. In a horror movie context, where children are contending with a flesh-eating monster in a house that is all browns and a sickening burnt yellow colour palette, such a concept could have been exploited for maximum chilling intensity – as it was in Don’t Breathe. It just isn’t.
All this said, there’s a very good chance that Gretel & Hansel will go on to develop a cult following. The film’s flaws are many, but for ultra-crafted visual style and atmosphere, it’s hard to top. Gretel & Hansel simmers away, most effective at seeping under your skin when it focuses on its silences and understated performances. But its filmmakers, in their ambition, may have added too many ingredients to the pot, and ultimately there’s no ignoring how the flavours clash.
Last Updated: March 4, 2020