We all know the story. A pair of siblings—a boy and a girl—get lost in the woods and are taken in by a cannibalistic old witch. They outwit her with their smarts, barely escaping from her house of confections and charms. The German fairy tale, made famous by the Brothers Grimm, has seen many adaptations. But the latest, from horror filmmaker Osgood Perkins, offers a unique spin. It centers the story on Gretel, her adolescent awakening, and the wicked things little girls dream of.
Gretel & Hansel begins as the folk tale does, with the sibling duo setting off into the woods. As in the original story, it’s money that sees them abandoned; their destitute mother—clearly ailed by mental illness—sends her children off, suggesting Gretel (Sophia Lillis) head to a convent for safety. But the convent won’t take little Hansel (Sam Leakey), so Gretel refuses. Instead, they take off into the woods, hoping they might stumble on some better alternative, with no way of knowing what truly awaits them.
In the woods, the dark fairy tale aspects of the story really come to life. The children encounter a hunter (Charles Babalola) who guides their journey, and they witness specters in the distance; feminine figures in all black, their faces obscured by sheaths, their heads adorned in pointy hats. Through the eyes of Gretel, we slip into this inky, sticky world of magic, like a spell slowly taking hold. At one point, Gretel and Hansel eat magic mushrooms and the world around them quite literally distorts, bending logic and warping their sense of reality, and ours along with them.
It’s not long before the two stumble on an angular house in the middle of nowhere. Starving, Hansel wanders inside and finds a feast: cakes and pies and meats and fruits. He attempts to shovel the food into his parcel, but is captured by the house’s inhabitant, a woman named Holda (Alice Krige). She’s an odd woman, with a delicate voice and a striking face and fingertips dipped in black soot. Gretel is drawn to her intrinsically, and when Holda invites the siblings into her home, they relent. There is a sense of unease and peculiarity, but Gretel brushes it aside, content to languish in this newfound luxury than question it too much.
Holda’s home, it turns out, is a little too good to be true. While Hansel does labor outdoors—and as the whispers in the woods start to seep into his head—Holda and Gretel grow close in the kitchen. The elder woman imparts wisdom onto the young girl, imbuing her with a sense of autonomy and feminism ideals. She warns Gretel that her fervent protection of Hansel will grow wearisome eventually; that she’ll come to resent his masculinity and power in this wicked world. The mother-daughter dynamic is clearly intentional, but it’s more than just maternal edifice. Holda is radicalizing Gretel, who senses the woman’s duplicitousness, and is tempted by it all the same.
Director Oz Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have a lot of fun stretching and molding this familiar tale into something sinister and powerfully feminine. There are traces of Robert Eggers’ The Witch in the story and aesthetics; the safety of isolation from encroaching social burdens on women is a theme in both. Gretel’s sexual awakening is aided by stark visuals; of nature, of nightmares, of sharp architecture—like the witch’s triangular home—of sumptuous food and sticky substances. Her love for Hansel is complicated by her growing agency. Her desire for freedom is his greatest threat.
The story is strong, but the visuals are what elevate Gretel & Hansel to something potent and memorable. Perkins and cinematographer Galo Olivares make brilliant use of the Irish setting, illuminating the sharp colors of forestry and open skies. The film is sparse—the villages and woods mostly barren—so that each human presence feels imposing and important. Perkins clearly drew from paintings and photography, making strong use of symbols like triangles—which, in magic, represent strength and motherhood—and capturing intense moods. Slow zooms and faraway fog and red light lend the film a nightmarish quality.
Speaking of nightmares, Gretel’s dreams are where the most frightening stuff comes to fruition. Beneath Holda’s home is a large basement, and like all basements in horror stories, nothing good happens there. The mounting tension eventually lets loose down there, in a sequence so odd and visually fascinating that it lingers in your thoughts long after the credits roll. Perkins, whose previous horror films include The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In the House, has a way with slow-burn dread. If that’s not your vibe, Gretel & Hansel may frustrate. But if you subscribe to its strange alchemy, you’re in for a delightfully wicked, fantastical treat.
Featured Image: Orion Pictures