Horror can sometimes be a gift to cinema because the genre can be more free with visuals. Fantastical bizarre imagery from horror has helped to create some of the most incredible screenshots in film history. Films like Suspiria, The Shining, The Lighthouse, anything Guillermo del Toro has ever put together: these are movies you have to see on the big screen even if you don’t like horror because they are films that use visual mediums expertly, vividly, and memorably. Horror is a genre that freely permits that kind of innovation and creativity.
Gretel & Hansel is a great example of this. I had seen the Rotten Tomatoes numbers, and knew that if I was going to pony-up ticket money for something with a less than 60% rating, it had to be for a damn good reason other than blog fodder. I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen—I saw use of color, lighting, and costuming that I have never seen before.
As far as plot, not much to say because we are working off of a story you know: girl (older sister) and boy (younger brother) are cast out into the woods when a famine hits their village. They stumble upon a house in the woods that is filled with yummy food and an old lady who seems real nice. The lady is not nice but actually an evil witch that eats kids. Le gasp! Blah blah, kids escape, good triumphs over evil, etc.
Seems pretty straightforward, but the film goes out of its way to be kinda trippy in its presentation with scenes that may or may not be nightmares or visions or actually occurring.
But here’s where you’ll get real confused:
Where the F are we? WHEN are we?!
Okay one thing I know: no matter where or when we are, nothing justifies the Stranger Things level use of synthesizer in the soundtrack.
And NO ONE can agree on an accent.
That’s likely because an American kid, Sophie Lillis, stars as Gretel. Lillis is known to horror nerds as the child version of Beverly Marsh in the most recent IT movies. To be honest, I can never stay in the moment when I see Lillis in anything because she looks identical to Amy Adams. Like freakishly identical, so much so she played a child version of Amy Adams in HBO’s Sharp Objects. And in the era of CGI age voodoo, it’s easy to think that I am watching Amy Adams pretend to be 13 years old and get weirded out.
Meanwhile Alice Krige, a South African actress, does really well at being a witch but ALSO can’t seem to decide if she’s Irish or not. Note: I feel I have to give some sort of trophy to Ms. Krige for pulling off a great performance in spite of some real shit lines shoveled into her mouth.
Nonetheless, I can tell that the accent shuffling is a part of the cultivated Atmopshere-with-a-capital-A of the film. We are supposed to be in a place out of exact time, of exact geographic location. The fairytale unwinds everywhere and nowhere. The costume design greatly helps as well, giving flavor to the world and especially to the witch figures. The general cast (but not our 3 main characters) is pretty diverse, which is always nice to see when it could be easily excused to have the entire film be exclusively white.
The movie is directed by Oz Perkins (who goes by ‘Osgood ‘on this film). He’s somewhat Horror Genre royalty as a child of Anthony Perkins and a director of 2 other horror films: The Blackcoat’s Daughter (which I tried to watch and just couldn’t keep with the slow plodding pace) and I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (which I did watch and can’t believe I finished).
In terms of plot, Gretel & Hansel is Perkins’ most comprehensible yet. And if you’ve seen the other 2 films, you know that’s not exactly a high bar…
But I’ll give Perkins’ this: he can drag out dread once he’s settled. We spend a lot of time in the witch’s house, giving the film a lot of time to try to drag out the dread of how bad a situation the kids are in. Credit where credit is due, I wanted to keep watching to know what would happen next. What creepy wrong thing was around the next corner? To some viewers, this could seem to slow. But I was willing to go along with the pace Perkins set—something I haven’t been as generous about with his other horror films.
Also credit to Perkins: this film is a real feather in his cap in terms of visual achievement.
There are scenes art directed within an inch of their lives—not one thread escaped. I’m glad I got to witness that on the big screen.
But style means nothing without substance. And if your substance is clumsily applied, your actual story is easy to skip over no matter how pretty it is. The Cell (as excellently reviewed by The Nostalgia Critic several years ago) is a classic example of this.
Being served a pretty piece of cake is great, but who cares if it’s only half baked?
(See in the story the witch tries to bake Hansel in and oven and…look just let me have my pun fun.).
See the real disappointment here is that there are no real surprises. When retelling a fairy tale, you have to make that effort. And when you’re coming out several years after The VVitch by Robert Eggers, you have to step up your game. I knew there would be trouble as soon as I saw this movie had a PG-13 rating. I knew it was never going to really push the envelope in terms of gore, violence, or drama.
In The VVitch, many elements are predictable but there are also horrible moments that come out of nowhere. We know the family is isolated in the middle of the woods and a witch is out there. We know when the family’s baby goes missing, we’re never seeing that baby again. But when we see the grisly aftermath of the baby’s demise, when we see the little brother get possessed, when Black Phillip is revealed, we’re all caught off guard.
That means when, several years later, we’re going to the house of a centuries-established cannibal, kid-eating witch: you better up that ante. The truth is while Gretel & Hansel tries to be gory and in your face about ‘nomnom eating kid bits’, I’ve seen worse in a Queens of the Stone Age music video.
Here’s an example of this movie trying real HARD but with no real gusto:
At one point, Hansel finds a pentagram carved into a tree.
Look: little Hansel doesn’t know what a pentagram is, and it’s never obliquely explained what it is. That means the symbol is there just as a ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ to the audience—guys! Witchcraft is afoot!
…but this happens a full 45 minutes into the movie and 2-3 days spent with an old cat lady in the woods making mysterious tonics to the tune of the ghostly screaming of children.
And OH YEAH —the movie is titled GRETEL AND HANSEL.
Oh and by the way: why are the names reversed from the traditional title of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ you may ask?
Well Gretel is really our protagonist while Hansel is kinda just a prop for plot. And, oh yeah, it’s one of many eye-roll worthy gestures to show that NOW this is a feminist fairytale! Where an oppressed woman is tempted to become a witch in order to become empowered and cast of the shackles of a man’s world!
Where have I ever seen that before?
Seriously we had a pussyhat march just 2 years ago, do we need to spend so much time in a 90 min movie sloughing through “OMG you guys, did you know women have always had it really bad?”
The film creates this underlying environment of women feeling a deep rage about their position in life, their helplessness. And that rage winds up being focused on their children. Children represent how women wind up tethered and unable to find their own destiny. Gretel’s character turns, becoming tempted by witchery, when she starts menstruating. Hansel is painted as a target as the younger brother, a burden on Gretel.
And okay, I could go with that. There’s layers there about women and their role as caregivers, vessels for child birth, and how that helplessness can become poisonous transference on more helpless beings, etc.
But I’m gonna tell you guys: It stings a bit when a story written, produced, and directed by men decides to plant its flag in “and THIS is why women get angry! and THIS is why women are seduced by the dark side!”
I guess it begs the question can something be called feminist if it is not born of a woman’s perspective?
…well that’s a deep dark rabbit hole of conjecture that we just don’t have time for today, so feel free to argue on Tumblr about it at your leisure!
Granted, The VVitch totally does the same thing, and yet I find myself much more forgiving of it. Maybe because The VVitch doesn’t pull punches—in that story, our protagonist Tomlin is in every way deserted by her family and we watch that in real time. Therefore, we sympathize with her even though we know she’ll be churning baby butter soon enough. Tomlin shrieks with joy as she goes to the dark side, and it’s horrific and yet cathartic.
But in this movie, our hero Gretel doesn’t go evil. Instead she’s revealed to have witch power, defeats the bad witch, and gets to have the power with minimal loss. And that feels a bit like cheating. Maybe because I already saw that happen in The Craft 20 years ago…..
But there were more eyebrow raising problems in the film.
At one point, the witch shows her true form—and disappointingly looks like she just stepped off stage at LilithFair. Like in the middle of all this great costuming, we get just some basic Hot Topic bitch with pale skin, long black hair, a forgettable black robe and tattoos.
And like any ‘I’m into the occult’ chick you met in college, she has a mix of tattoos that do not belong together. She has tattoos of a pentacle(yawn), Icelandic sorcery runes, a Star of David, and probably the Chinese symbol for “edgy” somewhere.
And yeah, no, seriously: there’s a legit Star of David tattooed on this child murderer. And in fact the door of the witch’s house features a pattern spattered with the same shape.
…did it just get awkward in here? Like uncomfortably bigot-flavored awkward?
Here’s the thing: the movie came out 1/31 and at the time of writing it is 2/2 and NO ONE has mentioned the Star of David motif.
How in 2020 is nooooo one commenting on this?
It could be because no one’s really seen this film and/or reviewers were half asleep while watching. The box office numbers and the reviews hint to that.
I could go on a rant about blood libel, but in a nutshell: the Jewish people have been accused of stealing, murdering, and devouring children for centuries. To put that imagery in this context in this day and age is really concerning.
But here’s the thing: I am a true nerd. And that means I’ll google stuff for 20 minutes before going on an uninformed rant.
Interestingly, if you look for it, you find a lot of historic analysis tying Medieval oppression of Jews and of women into the figure now known as the fairytale witch, pointy hat and child eating and all.
“Jews and witches were subjected to similar court procedures and suffered comparable “cleansings”, tests, and tortures at the hands of the Inquisition. ..only Jews and witches were considered capable of the atrocities of cannibalistic infanticide.”
This article from Slate links the origin of the pointy witch’s hat—featured prominently in Gretel & Hansel—to hats that Jewish people were forced to wear in Europe in the Middle ages.
And yeah, that is super interesting!
…but when applying that to this movie, it gives me more questions than answers.
Did Perkins & Co. put the Stars of David into the motif with this deep understanding of how fairytale witches are born of the dual hatred and stereotypes of women and Jews?
Did they just slap on the Star of David as a symbol, like the pentacle, that’s deeply misunderstood and used by oppressors to target ‘deviants’?
What does any of that ACTUALLY matter if the story is taking place in a world where faith is never discussed and the existence of Judaism only manifests on the skin of a child murderer?
I DON’T KNOW GUYS.
Here’s what I do know: Art does not exist in a vacuum.
And it may be 2020, but in case you haven’t been watching the news, anti-Semitism is alive and well.
And if you’re going to try to make a statement about oppressed people, you have to spend actual time on it in your piece rather than hope people dig up obscure journal articles about the Inquisition and folklore of the Middle Ages to make a connection.
Otherwise? It just seems really irresponsible to slap a Star of David on a cannibal and hope people realize how clever you are.
This is why this movie doesn’t make it for me. It is trying so hard, but it isn’t investing enough in true substance to be totally worthwhile. Could the visuals make up for that? Depends on the viewer. For me, Gretel & Hansel was a one and done.